April 19, 2019

Putting an International Lens on Affordable Housing

For over a decade, Enterprise has convened the housing commissioners of 9 of the most expensive cities in the U.S. This unique cohort - the High-cost Cities Housing Forum (HCHF) - is both a peer network and an innovation hub that has been leading the way to identify new sources of revenue, significantly increase funding for preservation and construction, and carefully weigh the implications of equity and inclusion on residents. As the federal government continues its slow retreat from fully funding its programs, the HCHF understands that abating the affordability crisis – which was decades in the making – will take much time and unwavering commitment. That’s why last week, the HCHF shifted its focus to an international lens on housing solutions.

While no two cities face identical challenges, the increasingly interconnected global economy means that many metro areas face a common set of pressures. The goal of the HCHF is to bring together housing leaders to learn from one another, comparing notes on how each city has responded to its unique cocktail of economic pressures, geographic constraints, and regulatory challenges. Together, they can identify the emerging trends and international best practices to increase the supply of affordable housing and bring down the high-cost of rent in these dense, desirable and extremely expensive cities.

The housing commissioners met in Boston last week to participate in the Global Summit, a convening of housing practitioners from Austria, Canada, Colombia, Singapore, Denmark, Finland, Brazil, Mexico, China, and the United Kingdom. In partnership with Boston University, Citi Community Capital, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and the Rockefeller Foundation, the HCHF commissioners joined leading international experts and policy-makers for a two-day program highlighting best practices on topics ranging from land use to social housing.

In our time together, we learned a great deal about the similar challenges we face. The affordability crisis has clearly spread around the globe, and the residents of major cities are feeling the effects keenly. American housing commissioners heard from their counterparts from Singapore, Vancouver, London, and Vienna, and discovered a set of principles that will help guide them as they design and refine their responses to the high cost of housing.

First and foremost, a successful response must be bold and comprehensive, as big problems require big solutions. Second, the policies enacted must be tailored to the unique political, culture, and economic needs of each individual city. When it comes to housing, there is no silver bullet and no one size fits all solution. Rather, there is a set of policies that help abate certain cost drivers, and there is an international set of best practices when it comes to implementing those policies. Commissioners use these information-sharing exercises to identify the policies that are best suited for the needs of their own city and take home with them the lessons other cities have learned about the implementation process.

Third, and most importantly, commissioners found that addressing the housing crisis can be as much a resource problem as a policy challenge. Spending money wisely and effectively is always a priority, but there is a hard cap on how much impact that local housing officials can have while operating on a shoestring budget. No matter how innovative a pilot program may be, it will always require robust investment from the public sector in order to reach scalability and long-term viability. 

This final point is keenly felt in the United States, where many local housing departments have been working over-capacity for years. More and more, housing commissioners are being asked to expand their portfolio beyond the construction and preservation of affordable housing, as they now work to eliminate homelessness, address deteriorating public housing infrastructure, and collaborate with their health, transportation and other agency counterparts to develop holistic approaches to community development and revitalization. The commissioners have done an admirable job using their increasingly stretched resources to meet these expanding responsibilities, but to truly rise to these challenges local jurisdictions need access to consistent federal funding so they can fulfill their potential.

Often, as these conferences wind down, I am asked what we can do to completely transform our approach to housing and solve the crisis. While it’s nice to think that there is a single policy, a new approach, or a different paradigm that could bring that to bear, the truth is that we have best practices in place in many of our cities. We know how to solve the affordability crisis, and the evidence points to existing programs as best practices in getting people into housing, providing stability, and creating pathways to opportunity.

Indeed, if there is one simple answer to the housing crisis, it is that we must fully fund housing and community development programs so they can fulfill their potential. Adequately funded and taken together, the flexibility of HOME and CDBG, the stabilizing force of Section 8, the support services provided through Medicaid, and the local capacity created through Section 4 can solve our housing crisis. The real potential for innovation is not in our approach to housing, but in how we finance it.

I applaud the HCHF commissioners for their hard work, relentless dedication, and for paving the way on the long road to solving our affordability challenges. We have a long way to go, but we also have capable and motivated leadership in place.