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Addressing housing challenges on a regional basis

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Overview

Cities, towns, and counties in many regions could benefit from tackling local housing challenges on a regional basis. While regional collaboration can often be challenging, a regional perspective can provide a more comprehensive understanding of the economic conditions that contribute to local housing needs. Additionally, regional approaches offer opportunities for localities within a region to align strategies and share resources, staff, and knowledge to more effectively address shared housing challenges; this is especially true for smaller localities that might benefit from pooling funding, expertise, and other resources on a regional level. Regional approaches can take many shapes, such as the implementation of a single policy or program by two or more jurisdictions, or a more comprehensive approach involving the development and implementation of a regional housing strategy. In this brief, we describe ways localities can use regional approaches to address housing challenges and profile specific examples of successful regional collaboration.

Benefits of taking a regional approach

Regional approaches allow localities to work together to address shared housing challenges and issues. A key benefit to examining and tackling housing challenges at a regional level is that housing-related strategies can be aligned to housing markets, which do not respect jurisdictional boundaries. Similarly, a regional approach to housing can help complement and support collaboration on other cross-jurisdictional issues that are closely linked to housing, such as transit planning, environmental protection, and workforce development.

Aligning strategies and resources across jurisdictions can help ensure localities are not working against one another but rather are tackling affordability and other housing issues together. Regional coordination can lead to the more strategic use of resources and know-how, especially for smaller localities that might benefit from pooling funding, expertise, and other resources on a regional level. Regional collaboration can also help ensure that housing opportunities are distributed equitably throughout the region. Fair housing advocates have long known that the practices of localities that institute and enforce zoning policies that exclude multi-family and affordable housing can reinforce racial and economic segregation patterns across a region. Working together to analyze potential barriers on a regional level can help address some of these exclusionary barriers.

Challenges of taking a regional approach

Regional collaboration can also be challenging and frustrating. Few regions have regional decision-making bodies that have primary responsibility for housing policy, so there is often no natural forum for this collaboration. With staff focused on the problems facing their specific jurisdiction, it can be difficult to find the time to engage in collaborative planning with other jurisdictions. It can also be difficult to get buy-in from all the localities whose cooperation is needed to effectively execute a regional strategy, particularly in situations where collaborating jurisdictions are asked to share resources or decision-making authority with other jurisdictions. Despite these challenges, a number of promising examples of regional collaboration have developed that illuminate circumstances in which a regional approach is both possible and helpful.

Approach

Ways to adopt regional approaches to address housing-related challenges

Regional collaboration on housing issues can take many forms, ranging from relatively informal cooperation that centers on data analysis and sharing, to more formal efforts to craft regional policies and housing plans, to the development of jointly administered housing programs and funding streams. Below, we describe a range of ways that localities have worked together to tackle shared housing challenges.

Incorporate regional data into housing needs assessments, or develop a regional needs assessment

Regional market conditions provide an important context for the development of local priorities and the identification of appropriate local policies. By analyzing data at the regional level, localities can better understand their own communities, including any housing pressures that may be influenced by different jurisdictions in the larger region. For example, rising prices in a neighboring jurisdiction might put pressure on rents and sales prices within a locality as people are priced out of the neighboring jurisdiction and seek housing in the locality. In another example, one jurisdiction may have zoning rules that greatly restrict the development of multifamily housing within that jurisdiction, preventing the increase in supply needed to stabilize rents throughout the region. Exploring topics like affordability, development pressures, and land-use regulations at both local and regional levels can help localities understand the regional drivers of housing challenges and determine how best to address those needs. 

As a more robust form of collaboration, localities and other partners in a region can work together on a regional needs assessment that supplements each locality’s own local assessment. There are several potential benefits to such an approach. For one, even if localities do not agree to collaborate on regional solutions, they can strengthen their individual approaches based on knowledge gained through a regional needs assessment. Additionally, by collaborating on a regional needs assessment, localities may gain access to useful data to inform their own assessments. For example, data on how neighboring jurisdictions’ inclusionary zoning or other housing programs are working can be analyzed to better understand housing challenges and opportunities in the region. Finally, a regional assessment can allow smaller localities, which often have limited staff capacity for research and analysis, to share the workload and benefit from the expertise of staff in other localities in the region.

Collaborate on regional housing strategies

A more intensive way localities can work together to address housing challenges is by developing a regional housing plan or strategy. A regional housing strategy provides a common framework that multiple municipalities within the region can adopt or adapt to address their housing challenges. A regional housing strategy can be an important resource for smaller jurisdictions that may lack the capacity to develop their own strategies. It can also be useful for facilitating collaboration in the development of programs and policies to execute the strategy and building political will for action in localities that might not otherwise have chosen to act on their own.

A regional housing strategy can take different forms and require different degrees of cooperation. For example, localities could work together with other partners in the region to develop a shared framework to guide local planning efforts. A framework could include broad regional goals or priorities and recommended policy approaches for achieving these aims. Under this approach, each locality could then develop its own local strategy that aligns with this shared framework. A more intensive model might involve setting regional targets for housing development or other goals and calling for each locality to meet specific local targets or contribute resources towards achieving these goals. Another way of working together more intensively would be to co-develop one or more policies or programs to share the workload and encourage some degree of uniformity in the region – for example, developing common a zoning approach or streamlined permitting processes for affordable homes.

Whether a regional housing strategy is designed as a broad framework or includes more specific targets and shared programming, it is important that it accommodate the distinct needs and resources of different localities. For example, a regional strategy could include a flexible suite of policy recommendations that can be implemented in localities with different populations, funding options, and staff capacity. In some regions, it may make sense to invest in training and technical assistance to build the capacity of local planners and policymakers to implement the strategy. This approach can ensure that all localities can meaningfully contribute to, and benefit from, a regional plan.

Pooling resources to support regional housing initiatives

One of the most intensive ways that localities can work together on housing initiatives is to create mechanisms for pooling housing-related funds and resources and distributing them on a regional basis. Localities could use this approach to implement strategies identified in a regional housing plan, to consolidate the administration of housing-related programs, or to invest in more resource-intensive projects than a single jurisdiction could support on its own. While this approach can sometimes be politically challenging, it can also lead to effective and efficient investments in housing. 

Localities can leverage regional collaboration to better match housing resources to opportunities. For example, if one locality has a site that is suitable for affordable development but no funds, and another locality has funding but no suitable sites, a regional approach can help bridge this divide and ensure that resources can be allocated where they are most effective. Similarly, if one jurisdiction has Housing Choice Vouchers but few resource-rich areas, and surrounding jurisdictions have resource-rich areas but few vouchers, a regional approach can help voucher-holders access neighborhoods that will help support economic mobility for their children. Finally, residents may benefit from regional cooperation when it results in more streamlined program administration or more diverse housing opportunities throughout the region. 

To share resources efficiently, it is important to develop clear mechanisms for determining how much each locality is expected to contribute and how decisions about allocating resources will be made. It is also important to consider whether these mechanisms are permissible under current statutory and regulatory requirements, or whether approval from state or federal agencies is required.

Conclusions

While regional collaboration can be challenging to implement, it has the potential to help jurisdictions across regional housing issues. By drawing on the expertise and experiences of diverse localities, and engaging a broader range of stakeholders, regional cooperation can lead to more effective housing policies and programs. Localities, especially smaller cities, can build their capacity for partnership over time. Localities can begin by convening a regional working group or sharing data to support local planning efforts and later engage in more resource-intensive activities such as developing a regional housing strategy or creating a mechanism for direct collaboration on or co-administration of policies or programs. 

Examples

Regional Housing Needs Assessment Example

Central Virginia Housing Partnership: The Central Virginia Regional Housing Partnership developed a regional housing needs assessment that has informed the housing plans of localities within the region.  . The partnership includes representatives from counties and cities from throughout Central Virginia, along with representatives from the for-profit and non-profit housing sector, advocacy organizations, and research and technical assistance organizations. The Partnership largely serves as an advisory body, conducting research on local housing needs and offering recommendations to localities to guide their own housing plans. 

In 2019, the Partnership led the development of a Regional Housing Needs Assessment that provides a comprehensive overview of the region’s affordable housing challenges and offers data and analysis specific to each locality. The Needs Assessment offers policy recommendations for both urban and rural localities and addresses cross-jurisdictional issues such as commute times and urban sprawl. In addition to this research effort, the Partnership also leads a number of learning events, including an annual Housing Summit and a biannual speaker series. In 2020, the Partnership also coordinated the development of an Affordable Housing Locator website where residents can access rental listings and other housing resources from throughout the region. 

Regional Housing Strategy Examples

Boulder County Regional Housing Partnership: The Boulder County Regional Housing Partnership was formed in 2016 to help address the area’s escalating housing affordability challenges. The Partnership is led by staff from Boulder County, the City of Boulder, and the City of Longmont. In consultation with other cities and towns within the county, the Partnership established a regional goal of tripling the number of affordable homes in the county by 2035. They also led the development of a Regional Housing Plan that lays out approaches for achieving the goal, including strategies for bolstering financial resources, securing land for development, and preserving affordable housing. The Regional Housing Plan includes a broad range of recommended strategies so that all participating jurisdictions can choose to implement strategies that are best suited to their local context while still contributing to the regional goal. Nearly all municipalities in the county have signed a resolution endorsing the goal and the plan. Since the plan was launched in 2017, the Partnership has supported implementation by providing technical assistance and expert guidance to participating localities. 

CONNECT Our Future – North Carolina & South Carolina: CONNECT Our Future is a consortium of 54 local governments, represented by two regional councils, and over 30 non-governmental entities in North and South Carolina. With support from a HUD Sustainable Communities Initiative grant, CONNECT Our Future engaged in a 3-year planning process in which they engaged policy-makers, planners, and residents to create a Regional Growth Framework. The Framework identifies 10 key priorities for growth, including preserving housing choices, creating local jobs, reducing commute times, and protecting natural environments and farmland. To support these priorities, CONNECT developed a library of policy and planning tools, including technical assistance resources and case studies, that localities can use to support implementation. A majority of localities within the region have endorsed the regional growth framework and are working to implement the recommended tools. CONNECT’s Housing Working Group also led the development of a Comprehensive Regional Housing Study, including a regional needs assessment and fair housing assessment. 

CONNECT Our Future is notable because the initiative crosses state lines. Localities in North Carolina and South Carolina are pursuing strategies that align with each state’s unique governance structure and statutory environment, working in parallel to further the goals identified through CONNECT Our Future. Participating localities from South Carolina are already represented by a single regional economic development authority, the Catawba Council of Governments. The Council of Governments administers state and federal funding programs on behalf of localities and plans to build on this existing program infrastructure to implement new region-wide housing finance programs. In contrast, participating localities from North Carolina administer their own economic development activities and funding streams for development. Rather than creating new programs together, these localities will focus on improving coordination and data-sharing. 

Pooling Resources Examples

San Gabriel Valley Regional Housing Trust: The San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments is a regional government planning agency that represents 31 jurisdictions in Los Angeles County. The Council has played a longstanding role in supporting the region’s efforts to reduce homelessness through research and data reporting, advocacy, and technical assistance for cities. In February 2020, the State of California passed a statute that allowed the Council to form a Regional Housing Trust. The Regional Housing Trust, governed by a board of directors, is authorized to receive public financing and private donations and has the authority to issue bonds to support the development of affordable housing throughout the region. 

The creation of the Regional Housing Trust made it possible for the collaborating localities to compete for the state’s Local Housing Trust Fund grants. Under this program, localities can receive a dollar-for-dollar match from the state, but applicants must meet minimum revenue requirements. By pooling their resources, the Regional Housing Trust was able to meet these requirements and ultimately secure $1 million in state match funds in 2020. These funds will support two projects with a total of 71 units of permanent supportive housing. The Regional Housing Trust also recently launched an Emergency Shelter Pilot Program to create “tiny homes” for people experiencing homelessness. 

In addition to facilitating an application for state funding, the Regional Housing Trust serves as a vehicle for aggregating resources to do larger projects that any locality could do on its own; these larger projects typically are easier to finance and able to take advantage of economies of scale.  . The Regional Housing Trust has identified 19 potential projects in 11 localities and is now seeking funding to support these projects. 

Chicago Regional Housing Choice Initiative: Like many US cities, Chicago has faced longstanding patterns of residential segregation that make it difficult for lower-income households to find affordable housing in resource-rich areas. The Chicago Regional Housing Initiative, first established in 2002, is a collaboration between ten Public Housing Authorities (PHAs) that work together to distribute federal housing subsidies more equitably throughout the region. Participating PHAs contribute a set portion of their allocated Housing Choice Vouchers (HCVs) to a regional pool. These vouchers are then used to provide long-term operating subsidies (i.e., project-based vouchers) to developments throughout the region, with a particular focus on suburban areas that have an extremely limited supply of affordable housing. Priority is given to developments that are in resource-rich areas they call “high-opportunity areas” as defined by a working group of PHAs and other stakeholders. Tenants are chosen through a single centralized waiting list. This approach ensures that affordable housing opportunities are more equitably distributed throughout the region so that low-income tenants have a broader range of housing options. The Regional Housing Choice Initiative has supported the creation of over 2,000 units of long-term affordable housing since 2002. 

Additional Examples

  • In November 2018, 21 North Texas localities and housing authorities conducted a regional Assessment of Fair Housing for the North Texas Region. By collaborating, the participating localities created a data-driven, shared knowledge of fair housing inequities, better positioning themselves to address local and regional housing challenges by creating a set of coordinated strategies to advance equity throughout the region. View the full Local Housing Solutions case study.
  • The Metro Mayors Coalition Housing Taskforce aims to address the housing affordability crisis in Metro Boston through regional collaboration and mutual support. The task force includes mayors, city managers, and municipal staff from 15 cities and towns in the Boston area. Taskforce members have collaborated to develop principles to guide future housing development, identify a regional housing production target, and conduct a regional analysis projecting housing demands and population growth.
  • The Dane County Housing Initiative is a public-private partnership of residents, elected officials, financial institutions, housing developers, and other stakeholders in Dane County, WI. The Initiative facilitates cross-jurisdictional information-sharing and education, and recently published a regional Housing Needs Assessment.
  • The Southwest LRT Corridor Housing Strategy is a transit-oriented development strategy developed by six Minnesota municipalities and Hennepin County, in collaboration with several non-profit partners. The strategy lays out key priorities for the area surrounding the newly built Southwest light rail, and is intended as a complement to existing local housing plans and strategies.
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