Three Paradigm Shifts for the Future

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Saturday, March 31, 2012

How can housing policy be responsive to today’s urgent needs (e.g., foreclosures, a sluggish housing market, affordability, etc.) and simultaneously address long-term trends (e.g., an aging population, growth of younger households)?

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Like many other policy domains, housing policy focuses far too much on the past and far too little on the future. The federal housing programs now in place all play an essential role in helping low-income families afford the costs of housing. But that does not mean they are perfect in all respects and incapable of being improved. Here are three paradigm shifts we need to make to prepare for the future:

Evaluation. To better address both present and future needs, the field vitally needs stronger systems for building knowledge about what works and what doesn’t under different circumstances. We need to shift to a culture where we constantly evaluate the effectiveness of current practice, identify future needs more clearly and explicitly, and share information with one another about how to design and refine policies to meet both current and future needs. The results would be used both to inform local practice and to identify policy changes needed at the federal level to strengthen programs and allow us to serve more people at lower per-unit costs.

Devolution. Many of the most fundamentally important housing decisions are made at the local level, including decisions regarding residential density; the permissibility of lower-cost housing types, including multifamily housing, manufactured housing, granny flats, etc.; impact fees; the permitting process; affordability incentives and requirements; code enforcement; etc. Yet most housing policy discussions at the national level focus almost entirely on federal housing policy. We need an overall approach to housing policy that coherently links local, state, regional, and federal policy. A key component of this is for the federal government to take the lead in funding and sponsoring the evaluations, information-sharing, and knowledge-building needed to help inform and strengthen local housing policy decisions.

Human Capital. When we look back on the sharp cuts to the federal HOME Investment Partnerships program for FY 2012 and the elimination of redevelopment agencies in California, I think one of the longest-lasting consequences will be the devastating loss of talented housing department staff whose employment can no longer be supported. Ditto the ongoing uncertainty regarding the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which is leading to the loss of critical human capital. Just when we need talented housing staff the most to operate more effectively in a budget-constrained environment, we have less means of supporting them. To prepare for the future, we need to reverse this trend and focus on recruiting, training, and retaining top-quality staff to implement more effective housing policies.

Jeffrey Lubell is Executive Director of the Center for Housing Policy.


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