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The causes of housing cost growth and a blueprint for local government action

Although many observers associate affordable housing shortages with coastal cities like San Francisco and New York, housing cost burdens have risen in localities throughout the country. The share of renters paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent rose from less than a quarter in 1960 to nearly half in 2016. Even more striking, the share paying more than half of their income on rent rose from 13 to 26 percent during this same period. Incomes simply are not keeping pace with rising rents, and U.S. renter households are spending an ever-growing portion of their incomes on shelter.
These cost burdens matter. Studies show, for example, that federal housing choice vouchers significantly reduce the likelihood of homelessness and lead to improvements in children’s standardized test scores. Children living in public housing are more likely to be food secure and classified as “well” on a composite indicator of child health. Even small increases in household disposable income after paying housing costs can improve both educational and health outcomes.
These issues are addressed in a new report from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, “Through the Roof: What Communities Can Do about the High Cost of Rental Housing in America,”which I co-authored along with my Furman Center colleague Ingrid Gould Ellen and Jeff Lubell of Abt Associates. This report describes the extent of the affordability crisis, explores the forces that drive housing prices and explains the interaction among federal, state and local policy. Its recommendations focus where most decisions about land use and housing are made in the United States: local governments.
So why, despite clear evidence of its value, do we lack affordable housing that can meet everyone’s needs? One oft-cited reason is that we simply do not supply enough units to meet the rising demand in many cities where strict land-use regulations and growing local NIMBY opposition make building difficult and expensive. But this is not the whole story, and more permissive land-use policies alone will not solve the affordability crisis. Other contributors to our affordable housing crisis include stagnant incomes and rising income inequality, rising construction costs and limited innovation and global economic investment trends. Combatting these forces demands collaboration between the private sector and all levels of government to expand the stock of rental and for-sale housing with binding covenants that ensure long-term affordability and protect residents from displacement.
Drawing on the conclusions of the National Community of Practice on Local Housing Policy, the report shows that the most effective local housing strategies are comprehensive and balanced, with clearly articulated goals and metrics. Successful strategies involve coordination across government agencies and active engagement with the broader community. They also incorporate the full set of tools available to local governments, making use of a mix of policies that address all four of these mutually reinforcing objectives: (1) create and preserve dedicated affordable housing units; (2) reduce barriers to new supply; (3) help households access and afford private market homes; and (4) protect against displacement and poor housing conditions.
You can read more about the report at Lincoln Institute‘s website, download a free electronic copy, or purchase a print copy through Columbia University Press.
Mark Willis is a senior policy fellow at the NYU Furman Center.

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