A holistic approach to build a healthy housing system

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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

What are some of the key characteristics of a healthy housing system? And how can the success of these features be measured?

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The Academy takes no positions but rather provides a non-partisan strategic view of urbanist policies. One of the operative words in this question is ‘system’, preceded by a forming adjective, ‘healthy (meaning functional)’ but a restrictive one, ‘housing’ (more like a sub-system). The first thing to note is that the current housing built environment is not a healthy sub-system. A healthy sub-system is holistic, manifested by more transparency, accountability, fairness; is strategic (ten year goals at least, as Germany has), interchangeable or fungible in its programs, and fits within the greater eco-systems of neighborhood and metropolitan/regional ‘health.’

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So:

  • It needs to continually evolve and adapt to changes in demographics and values (homeowners vs. renters – note the imbalance of $95B tax credits vs. $5B for latter;
  • While not constitutionally derivative, the ‘pursuit of happiness’ does include some ‘rights’ of universal shelter as a national policy (social equity) for homeless, elderly, vets, handicapped, and very low-income populations;
  • Look at the lessons learned elsewhere and before its time, not being afraid to experiment and cross-program, and cross-organize across geographic boundaries;
  • Housing policy cannot be HUD-centric, when compared to a combination of many other players: Congress, Treasury, Federal Reserve, FDIC, CFTC, SEC, FHLB board, FHFA, OMB, VA, CFPA, NHLBB, etc., with their State, regional, and local counterparts for linking housing needs/supply to locational efficiency and cross-cutting community sustainability (transportation, education, energy, environment, business development and jobs, health and human services, land use departments and agencies) bundled for neighborhoods, areas, etc. Every President has added his own innovations in this space.
  • ‘Sick patients’ in the system should be diagnosed and reforms made, gaps filled. The House Appropriations THUD was a start;
  • Examine the continuing dysfunction of federalism regulatory (quality control) roles - too much in some areas, not enough in others. How does a healthy system facilitate responsible development of land/people resources and still forestall corruption?
  • Also, is the IRS tax credit process a better administrative regulatory model that will produce more output?
  • With regard to federalism - what programs and in what format should housing programs be delivered through what distribution channels (States, CEOs of Metropolitan areas, PHAs, by housing block grants allowing local decisions and creative demonstrations, and what programs, should be incorporated – or does this invite too easy a cost-cutting target;
  • Has the U.S. Housing Act of 1937 bred excessive federal micromanagement of local administration and outlived its time? Shall we just start over? Again, one size fits all is not appropriate;
  • Is the homeownership=stable middle class trope the only way? Let’s re-examine neighborhood associations and new norms of rental/homeownership mixes;
  • Canada has no mortgage deduction and has a higher homeownership rate. Why? Are there other international models to look at, both to avoid or to replicate in times of austerity (e.g., the EU is thinking about a financial transactions fee to re-distribute to the poor in some form). Conversely, why is the new Paris Plan visioning tower blocks again;
  • What about the UD (urban development) side of HUD - revive it or replace it? How do we find an improved role for expanding federal inter-agency partnerships and improve the weak White House Office of Urban Affairs and Domestic Council situation?
  • Review key monitoring and performance measures to improve chances of more public acceptance and thereby Congressional adoption of policy/program initiatives - what really works or doesn't? Also, note the recent White House dashboard monitoring pilot rewards preference points for receiving other federal programs;
  • Technology allows us to transform the financial side of the industry into behemoths; yet the homebuilding and selling side is still essentially mom-and-pop. Why? Or is this still true? Through technology, remote monitoring can reduce staff reductions and labor-intensive sub-sectors can be replaced gradually, balancing it with job creation elsewhere;
  • How can the management of the entire nation’s urban research and demonstration process happen? Is there a need for a better A-95-like process? Where is the virtual one-stop center for compiling this data? The underlying assumption, of course, is that shared research depends on shared goals and the same data definition. NB: what if the data shows there wasn’t much positive result for the public investment, as in the report just released on Moving to Opportunity? No resounding meetings on that outcome...

Kent Watkins is Chairman of the National Academy of Housing and Sustainable Development.


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