Using Locally Available Data, Interviews, and Surveys to Supplement Nationally Available Data in a Housing Needs Assessment
Local Housing Solutions provides a Housing Needs Assessment Tool, which relies on nationally available data from the U.S. Census Bureau and other federal sources, to help localities understand local housing needs in seven key areas (click to jump to the topic):
- Adequacy of housing production
- Housing stock characteristics
- Dedicated affordable housing
- Rental costs and affordability
- Homeownership costs and affordability
- Neighborhood variations
- Housing stock for older adults
Local data, such as data generated by local government agencies or programs or through surveys or qualitative research, provide an important complement for nationally available data, allowing localities to paint a richer and more accurate picture of the locality’s housing needs. In this brief, we discuss the types of local data available to localities and the benefits of using local data to supplement nationally available data in an assessment of local housing needs. The seven topics match those in the Housing Needs Assessment Tool; readers are encouraged to use this brief as a companion piece to the needs assessment tool, which is based on national data, and identify opportunities to supplement the information provided in the tool with local data.
Why incorporate local data in your housing strategy?
There are several reasons to use local data to supplement nationally available data in assessing housing needs:
- Local data may be more current than nationally available data. Census data may not be able to capture recent market changes that affect housing costs and availability, so important housing issues such as gentrification and displacement may not be visible.
- Local data helps address gaps in national data – using local data can help develop a strategy based on more comprehensive information such as local real estate data or construction activity.
- Local data obtained through surveys, focus groups, interviews, or similar engagement strategies are critical to understanding the perspective of local residents, such as residents in neighborhoods experiencing cost pressures or declines, and housing stakeholders, such as nonprofit and market-rate housing developers, realtors, landlords, lenders, elected officials and homelessness service providers. These data can tell a richer and more compelling story about local housing needs than quantitative data alone can do and thus may be beneficial to building public support to address local housing challenges.
Using locally-available data to answer key questions about housing needs
In determining what types of local data to seek out and potentially incorporate into its housing strategy, a locality should consider what questions it has about its housing market and what key housing issues it is facing (or is concerned it may face in the near future) and wants to address through a housing strategy. Local data sources can be used to seek answers to these questions and examine these issues more closely. Interviews and other local data sources can also help localities identify the root causes of their housing challenges, which can help them identify appropriate solutions.
In this section, we discuss seven topics that localities should consider when assessing local housing needs, review why these topics are important to include in a housing needs assessment, and discuss what types of local data may be available to analyze each topic.
1. Adequacy of housing production
Insufficient housing production is a common cause of worsening housing affordability. To help understand whether housing production is keeping up with a locality’s needs, it can be useful to compare housing production with the growth rate of the locality’s population and job base. If the population or the number of jobs in a locality is rising and not matched by a similar increase in housing production, demand for existing housing will increase and rents and home prices will generally rise.
National data – Some national data can be used to inform localities on the adequacy of housing production. As shown in the Housing Needs Assessment Tool, these data sources may include data on population, employment, and housing stock, data on rental unit vacancy rates, and the number of severely crowded renter and owner households, which can all be used to help determine whether the supply of housing is keeping up with rising demand.
Local data – Housing production is greatly influenced by local market conditions and jurisdictions’ permitting processes for new construction. As a result, localities are likely to have more up-to-date and detailed data on housing production and the different types of housing being produced than are available from national sources. Building permit data is an important source of local data to understand the amount and type of housing being produced (or not). Permit data can indicate the number of housing units that are in the production pipeline and are in a locality permitted housing will be located. Additionally, if required by a locality, building permits may also include data on the size and number of bedrooms for housing units to be produced.
Not all housing that is permitted is ultimately produced, or production may be delayed for years. For large developments or multifamily buildings, it may be helpful to compare permit data with other data, such as certificates of occupancy, to identify the actual number of units that have come online in a locality.
In addition to looking at the raw numbers of units produced, it is important to examine whether there are shortages of certain types of units – such as rental units – or units with certain amenities or at certain price points, such as starter homes below $250,000. To answers these questions, it will likely be necessary to go beyond the available quantitative data to speak with individuals knowledgeable about the housing market, including local realtors and planners.
Other permitting data may also reveal when the number or type of housing units are decreasing in a locality and should be considered as part of an assessment of the adequacy of housing production. Permits for demolition will indicate housing units being removed from the overall supply – though demolition data should be compared to building permit and other data to determine if new housing will replace the removed units. Localities may also require permits for renovations to existing housing. Examining these data can be helpful in assessing whether, for example, lower-cost housing in an area at risk for gentrification is being replaced with higher-cost housing or, if the permitted renovations are extensive, low-cost rental units are being converted to higher-cost rental or for-sale units.
Another local data point that can be helpful for determining the adequacy of housing production is the amount of remaining land available for housing development in a jurisdiction, which may be available from the planning or zoning department. This information is especially important to understand the housing needs in localities that have little land remaining for new housing, or that have land-use restrictions that hinder the development of new housing where land is available. Additionally, localities may have information about prospective changes in local employment, such as firms that are expanding or relocating to the area, which may put unanticipated pressures on the local housing supply.
If the data suggest there is inadequate production of new units to keep up with housing demand, the next question to investigate is why. The best way to answer this question is to gather input from knowledgeable stakeholders, such as developers, builders, and local officials. This can be done through interviews, focus groups or a survey, or some combination. Issues to investigate include: (a) cost of materials; (b) labor availability and costs; (c) regulatory impediments; (d) land availability and cost and (e) whether there are enough or the right kind of builders or developers to produce the supply needed.
Some localities, such as legacy cities, may have an oversupply of housing relative to demand and a surplus of vacant land. In these locations, a needs assessment might incorporate local data on housing or land that is vacant or abandoned. Localities may have a vacant property registry that collects these data points; if not, data may be collected from several sources, such as permitting data on demolitions, utility shut-offs from public utilities, property tax delinquency or foreclosure status from revenue or finance departments, and court filings for mortgage foreclosures. Some municipalities also allow residents to report potentially vacant properties online or via a 3-1-1 system. Localities could also examine US Postal Service data on the number of properties in a Census tract that have not collected mail in the past 90 days. While the USPS data cannot be used to pinpoint specific vacant properties, they may reveal localized vacancy trends. Field observations, while resource intensive, can help identify vacant properties or confirm whether properties identified as potentially vacant by other data sources are actually vacant. For properties identified as vacant or abandoned, a locality may also want to collect information on the zoning of vacant properties, which can help determine potential barriers to their productive use or options for a revitalization strategy in a neighborhood with a concentration of vacant homes or land.
2. Housing stock characteristics
An examination of housing stock characteristics can help a locality understand the variation in the types of housing available, and what specific housing needs may remain in the locality.
National data – The Housing Needs Assessment Tool shows that national data can provide localities some information on housing stock characteristics, such as the age of housing stock, areas of high flood risk, and the number of small household units (studio and one-bedroom units).
Local data – Local sources of data can provide additional context by focusing on housing characteristics that are important within that specific locality – as determined, for example, by common housing needs among certain demographic groups – and providing more current information than national data on the housing stock. Localities may have quantitative data, such as from property tax records, on the average number of bedrooms and bathrooms in homes in different neighborhoods within the locality; comparing these data to Census data on average household sizes for different population groups can determine whether the locality’s housing stock has enough homes that are the right size for households of varying sizes. Large families with children in particular struggle to find affordable and suitable housing in many localities and, as a result, may live in overcrowded conditions.
Localities may also have code violation data that indicate neighborhoods with a higher-than-average number of violations, or localities could conduct a windshield survey to assess housing exterior conditions in different neighborhoods. Homes that are in a state of disrepair may indicate that an owner cannot afford or is otherwise unable to make repairs.
Additionally, to inform housing policy development efforts, localities may wish to collect information from residents via surveys or interviews about housing characteristics that affect the cost, safety, or livability of homes. For example, localities could collect information on the extent to which homes are accessible for older residents and people with disabilities; the prevalence of housing conditions that may adversely affect respiratory conditions like asthma, and the extent of the need for weatherization and energy-efficient improvements.
3. Dedicated affordable housing
It is important to ensure that a locality has adequate affordable housing available to address the needs of its population, including dedicated affordable housing, which comes with binding rent or income restrictions, or both, to ensure it is occupied by low-income households. Most dedicated affordable housing is federally-subsidized, but localities may have units whose affordability is protected in other ways, such as through a community land trust or restrictions placed on housing developed under an inclusionary zoning policy. Without sufficient, dedicated affordable housing, lower- and middle-income households in a locality may be unable to afford rent in the locality and homelessness may increase.
National data – The Housing Needs Assessment Tool includes data on the number and types of federally-subsidized housing units, the location of federally-subsidized properties, and when the affordability restrictions on federally-subsidized housing units will expire. These units are typically funded by HUD or the LIHTC program.
Local data – Localities can supplement the national data with information on affordable housing that is locally-subsidized or has local affordability protections in place, and any plans to increase or decrease that amount of dedicated affordable housing. As with federally-subsidized units, localities will want to understand the types and sizes of its dedicated local affordable housing, where the units are located, and for how long the affordability protections are in place.
Depending on the locality, data on dedicated local affordable housing may come from a number of sources, which may need to be combined to obtain a more comprehensive understanding of affordable units in an area. Sources may include:
- the locality itself, if it directly subsidizes units, such as through a housing or community development department
- other jurisdictions, such as a county or state that supports affordable units in a city or town
- land banks, community land trusts, and nonprofit housing developers that own or manage affordable units
- property records on deed-restricted affordable units, such as those made affordable through inclusionary zoning or financial incentives
Localities may also have up-to-date information on dedicated affordable units that are in the development pipeline that they want to include in the needs assessment, especially if the units are under construction or expected to be in the near term. This information may be obtained from a planning or permitting department or from developers.
4. Rental costs and affordability
As part of a needs assessment, localities will want to understand the extent to which renters have unsustainable rent burdens. A healthy housing market provides a diverse range of housing options, including rental units affordable to households of different incomes. Households facing burdensome rents may be at risk for displacement or homelessness or may forego necessities like food or healthcare to be able to pay rent.
National data – The Housing Needs Assessment Tool includes several key data points to assess a locality’s rental costs, including:
- share of households that rent
- share of renters by age
- moderately or severely cost burdened renter households
- share of renter households that are cost burdened across income ranges
- renter households and affordable rental units by income
- changes in rents relative to changes in household income
- changes in the share of lower-cost rental units
Local data – Localities may be able to access more recent or more detailed information about rental costs and affordability than the national data provides. Rental data, though, can be hard to obtain in a systematic fashion, or costly, if a locality relies on real estate market data from vendors. Sites that list available rentals, such as Zillow or Craigslist, can provide a rough sense of rental costs, but may not be accurate or comprehensive enough to rely on. Other options localities might consider include:
- estimating rents based on local property values, which may be obtained from sales data through the tax assessor
- working with housing authorities, which have to conduct rent reasonableness comparisons for the housing choice voucher program, to obtain their rent data
- surveying or talking with local stakeholders who are likely to have knowledge of current rents, such as realtors, landlords, nonprofit housing developers, and service providers that assist low-income households with housing needs
- using other data that may indicate when rental costs are becoming burdensome, such as spikes in evictions, or permitting data that suggest a low-income area is seeing increased private investment and may be transitioning to a higher-cost area
If a locality determines that rental costs are increasing at a faster rate than incomes (as determined from national data in the Housing Needs Assessment Tool, or other state or local sources), it will want to explore why that is the case. There are a number of different potential explanations that may require different policy responses. It may be, for example, that rental units are being converted to ownership units, not enough rental units are being built to keep up with population growth, or, rising housing costs in a neighboring locality are increasing demand and costs in the overall region. Reaching out to knowledgeable local stakeholders, like those mentioned above, can be helpful in understanding the root causes of the issue.
5. Homeownership costs and affordability
Owning a home creates opportunities to promote stability and build wealth for households, but also represents a significant and potentially risky investment for buyers, particularly for lower-income households. As part of a needs assessment, localities will want to examine how well households of varying incomes are able to access and maintain homeownership. If homeownership is unattainable or unaffordable, households may delay or give up on purchasing a home, move to a more affordable locality, or pay a burdensome share of their income to purchase and remain in a home.
National data – The Housing Needs Assessment Tool taps national sources to inform localities on homeownership costs and affordability with metrics like homeownership rate by race, ethnicity, and age; distribution of reported median home values, changes in home values and incomes over time, homeowners with mortgages by income, and the number of cost-burdened owner households.
Local data – Locally-available data will remedy important gaps in the nationally-available data on homeownership costs and affordability. The Census data on home values are based on what households report as the value of their homes. By contrast, local home sales data will provide data on the actual sales prices of homes, which may be quite different from what households understand their home values to be, and ultimately more useful for understanding how much a household needs to spend today to purchase a home. Comparing the prices at which homes sell to the incomes of households in the jurisdiction will help clarify the extent to which households of different income levels can afford to purchase homes in the jurisdiction, as well as whether the cost of purchasing a home is increasing faster than incomes.
As part of a needs assessment, localities might also consider collecting data to understand whether homeownership is attainable and affordable and, if so, what factors contribute to the issue. This might include:
- discussions with or surveys of potential homebuyers, or renters that have been unsuccessful at purchasing a home, to understand their knowledge of the home buying process or barriers encountered while attempting to buy a home; focus groups with lenders, realtors, and credit counselors, among other key stakeholders, can provide additional insights
- discussions with or surveys of existing low- and moderate-income homeowners, including those with and without mortgages, to obtain a deeper understanding of housing costs in an area, such as typical costs for utilities, maintenance, property taxes, or installing accessibility or safety upgrades
- examination of code violation data among single-family owner-occupied homes, including whether violations are concentrated in certain areas or among certain subpopulations, which could provide an indication that homeowners in some areas are struggling to afford housing maintenance costs
- mapping of the location of conventional mortgage lenders in a locality, including in neighborhoods predominated by renters, low-income households, or people of color, to determine if the location of conventional lenders is a barrier to accessing safe mortgage products
- discussions with stakeholders to better understand the extent to which existing or prospective homebuyers are being victimized by predatory lending practices
6. Neighborhood variations
Consideration of variations in income, housing, and other data across different neighborhoods within a locality can help identify what areas of the community may be facing segregation, gentrification, decline, destabilization, and other issues. This can help determine what areas may be most in need of housing-related assistance, funding, and programs.
National data – Many of the data points included in the Housing Needs Assessment Tool are available at the neighborhood level, including indicators like poverty rate, race and ethnicity, median rent, and changes in median rent by neighborhood. An analysis of trends within a particular neighborhood can be helpful for clarifying the housing issues and challenges faced by residents in each neighborhood. By comparing variation across neighborhoods, localities can better understand how poverty and housing needs vary across neighborhoods. Comparing each neighborhood to the average or median locality-wide value for an indicator can quickly identify areas in the locality that are faring better or worse than average.
Local data – Similarly, much of the local data sources discussed in this brief can be analyzed at the neighborhood level to identify trends within neighborhoods and variations across neighborhoods. Permitting and code enforcement data, for example, should include property addresses that can be mapped and analyzed to help identify areas where construction activity may indicate that a neighborhood may be experiencing growth that should be monitored to assess for the risk of future displacement or where homeowners or other property owners are struggling to afford the upkeep on their home. Other local data that can be mapped and analyzed to help assess housing challenges and opportunities include property sales, location of existing dedicated affordable units, proposed affordable and market-rate developments, vacant and developable land, tax foreclosures, and eviction filings and executions.
When collecting original data as part of a needs assessment, such as surveys, interviews, or focus groups, localities should consider taking steps before collecting these data to facilitate later analysis for neighborhood variation. In the case of surveys, considering targeting the survey to certain neighborhoods of interest, such as those with relatively low incomes or a high share of senior households or, for a survey distributed locality-wide, enable respondents to indicate their address or neighborhood. Similarly, when planning to conduct interviews or focus groups on a certain topic, consider in advance if you want to be able to analyze the data at the neighborhood level. If so, you might consider focusing interviews on a select number of neighborhoods that illustrate different conditions in the jurisdiction in order to have enough interviews within each neighborhood to generate statistically meaningful results at the neighborhood level. An alternative approach would be to sample broadly but plan to group results into predetermined neighborhood groups based on neighborhood characteristics.
7. Housing stock for older adults
Older adults are an important subgroup for localities to explore as part of a needs assessment due to their unique housing needs. Many older adults are on a low fixed-income and may have difficulty affording their rent or need assistance with routine maintenance or accessibility and safety improvements in order to remain in their homes. Due to the size of the Baby Boomer generation, older adults also represent a sizable and growing share of the population in many localities; understanding their housing challenges is thus important for clarifying the jurisdiction’s overall housing needs.
National data – The Housing Needs Assessment Tool uses nationally available data to help inform an analysis of housing issues facing older adults, including the share of households that are seniors, housing tenure by age, housing suitable for older adults living alone, older adults living in poverty, and cost-burdened senior households.
Local data – Local data can help supplement the picture painted by national data. For example, localities may have up-to-date information on affordable senior units that have recently been permitted for construction, or Low-Income Housing Tax Credit units for seniors whose affordability is set to expire soon. Localities can also collect original data on the housing challenges facing older adults in the jurisdiction and conduct more refined analyses of Census data.
Localities may want to consider collecting original data to better understand the needs of older adults. Discussions with older adults might focus on whether they want to remain in their current home as they age or whether they prefer other options, such as moving to a smaller unit in the same area. Additionally, localities might ask older adults about their housing-related needs, especially related to their ability to find or remain in an affordable unit. Questions could focus on what assistance older adults may need for home maintenance and repair or accessibility and safety improvements. Some older adults may have a home that seems affordable due to not having a mortgage, but the home may be too large for them to care for, or the utilities or property taxes may make the home unaffordable. In other cases, older homeowners may be interested in a house-sharing situation that brings in a little income in exchange for help with daily chores. Still, other seniors may have a safe and affordable home but have to move because a lack of public transportation or accessible sidewalks in the area prevents them from accessing essential services.
Localities may also want to delve more deeply into the Census data to examine trends for subgroups of older adults. For example, the Census data can be analyzed to consider the needs of households headed by someone 85 or older, a fast-growing group with significant housing needs, and in some cases preferences that are different from those of households headed by individuals aged 65-75. Interviews and surveys can also shed light on the housing challenges faced by subgroups of senior households.
Once a locality has examined the housing-related needs of older adults, it will want to consider how the needs align with available services for older adults, including those provided by the government and other service providers in the areas, and identify any gaps the locality may need to address.
Finally, localities may wish to use many of the same techniques to consider the housing challenges facing other household types, such as households headed by a single parent or households in which a member has a disability. While the Local Housing Solutions Housing Needs Assessment Tool focuses only on senior households, and not these other household types, the same type of analysis of nationally available data can be conducted for a number of other household types.
Common sources of local data
The availability of local quantitative data will depend on what the locality already captures. Most localities collect at least some data helpful to assessing housing needs, including building permits and code enforcement data. Departments within a locality that may have useful data for a housing needs assessment include planning, zoning, housing, buildings/permitting, tax revenue, code enforcement, and homelessness/social services. Other data, like tax revenue and foreclosure data, are usually collected by counties but may be available to localities in the county. Other local agencies – including Continuums of Care and Public Housing Authorities – may have other data relevant to a needs assessment, including data on shelter use and other services for people experiencing homelessness and data on rent levels by neighborhood.
Localities store and share data in different ways, even across different departments or agencies of a locality, which can mean data that a locality collects may not be readily available or easy to translate into meaningful data for analysis of housing needs. Some localities, like Austin, TX, have open data portals where data relevant to housing needs may already be aggregated and easily available for analysis. Depending on the location, identifying data may be as simple as finding and accessing existing data – or may require more work to extract, clean, and aggregate data from multiple sources.
When data are not readily available within a local government, consider looking to other jurisdictions, websites, local and regional stakeholders, and private sector firms to identify data to assist with a housing needs assessment. Potential sources of housing-related data include:
- Local realtors
- Regional planning authorities, including councils of government and metropolitan planning organizations
- Continuums of Care
- Public Housing Authorities
- State planning, community development or housing finance agencies Land banks
- Redevelopment authorities
- School districts
- Transit authorities
- Local stakeholders such as chambers of commerce, lenders, nonprofit developers, and universities
Finally, don’t forget to consider the collection of original data through surveys, interviews, and focus groups. There’s a natural tendency in a needs assessment to gravitate toward broadly available quantitative data like rent and home price levels. But qualitative data like interviews and focus groups are essential for adding color and nuance to a locality’s understanding of its housing challenges and identifying potential causes of the challenges that can facilitate the development of possible solutions.
Related resourcesThese resources provide helpful information on the topic and include sources relied upon in preparing this brief.
Allan Mallach’s Neighborhoods by Numbers: An Introduction to Finding and Using Small Area Data, provides information on finding and using neighborhood-level data, including national and local data.
The Urban Institute’s Catalog of Administrative Data Sources for Neighborhood Indicators details local administrative data from public and private sources that may be available to assist analysis in the areas of housing, social services, health, and environment, among others.
An article by HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research, Can Administrative Housing Data Replace Survey Data? compares the use of local administrative housing data to Census data in Arlington, VA. Information is included on several types of housing data: the number, age, and types of housing units, number of bedrooms, housing value, and property taxes.
Results 4 America’s Unleashing the Power of Administrative Data: A Guide for Federal, State, and Local Policymakers focuses on barriers, solutions, and best practices for working with administrative data, including how to integrate disparate data sources.