05 June 2019

Affordable Housing Policy Principles

Affordable housing is a big, complex, multifaceted issue. Here are some of my observations and principles that go into addressing it.

Local Land Use Measures

The single most important factor is to remove impediments to market means of making affordable housing available

Do not let the best be the enemy of the good. Establish a baseline bare minimum that would work for people like soldiers or refugees or students or scouts at a jamboree or college, and allow anything that means those basic requirements even if it is cramped or not terribly nice on a permanent basis.

The single biggest impediment to that is local government land use regulation and urban planning. For example:

* Allow house owners to construct accessory dwellings and rent them to unrelated people (I use the term "house owner" to refer to people who own houses, as opposed to "home owners" who own houses in which they live).

* Allow house owners to rent rooms in houses to unrelated people.

* Allow multi-unit dwellings (e.g. duplexes, town houses and row houses, flats, condominiums, residential co-operatives, apartment buildings) to be constructed almost everywhere that is not open space, farm land, or in heavy industrial areas. Limit building height primarily based upon available residential fire response resources and structural limitations.

* Foster a healthy market in owned multifamily housing without succumbing to the woes to the time share markets. Make it easier to convert rented housing and single family homes to owned multi-family housing.

* Greatly reduce minimum square footage per occupant requirements in building codes to allow for tiny homes, micro-apartments, dormitory style housing, etc.

* Allow housing that does not have individual bathrooms and kitchens for every family so long as these resources are available collectively.

* Do not impose parking requirements in places where public transportation (in the public or private sector) is reasonably available, even if it currently isn't heavily used for both residential and commercial uses. If a commercial area is served by transit and has access to basic retail needs, don't require any parking and leave that to the marketplace. An apartment which is not within easy walking distance of a bus stop or intracity rail stop could have parking requirements waived if it has some retail options within walking distance and has a commitment to provide a shuttle to get residents to high frequency bus stops or intracity rail stops.

* Remove purely aesthetic building code requirements. In general, regulate building approaches and building form only when absolutely necessary for non-social, non-aesthetic reasons and allow variances where the concerns motivating requirements are mitigated in an alternative way. Allow prior variances to serve as precedents for future variances.

* Don't add unnecessary requirement that add long term costs without advancing health or safety.

* Remove building code prohibitions on manufactured housing (both fully manufactured and substantial component assembled) if safety and health concerns are addressed in an alternative manner.

* Do not unduly restrict short term rentals that do not include maid service (i.e. other than motel/hotel/air bnb situations). For example, have many and substantial areas where single occupancy hotels, weekly kitchenette suites, motels converted to residences are allowed, and Japanese style pod hotels).

* Allow public, non-profit, and private property owners (including churches, public buildings, schools, warehouses, theaters, retail establishments, etc.) to make their spaces available to shelter the homeless.

* Allow public, non-profit, and private property owners provide protection to housing arrangements that amount to camping (sleeping in tents for prolonged period of time, sleeping in a car, living in a cabin or storage unit or garage or shed without its own plumbing), if lenient requirements for water,  sewer and trash service needs are met at a collective level, and protect the security of those arrangements as much as possible from private and government intrusion.

* Do not adopt rent controls, or price controlled, means tested "affordable housing" designated units.

* Do not prohibit the construction of housing mixed with commercial uses.

* Disfavor private land use restrictions that emulate zoning laws but are even less flexible. In general, encourage HOA level activity that is as minimal as possible. Never require an HOA or special district where it isn't absolutely necessary. If a party wall or maintenance cost sharing agreement can do the job, do that instead. Small democracies function the most poorly.

* Reduce harm in evictions related to loss and destruction of personality, and by providing reasonable notice for longer term leases and in foreclosure on landlords.

* Use proportionate development impact fees and tap fees and utility set up fees to encourage infill development.

* Structure environmental laws to favor brown field development.

* Weaken the political NIMBY power of busy body residents and develop a sense of non-entitlement to regulate neighboring land uses.

* Provide means of insuring habitability that can benefit undocumented tenants.

* Create significant and multiple areas where sex offenders, people on probation and parole, half-way houses, group homes, foster homes and the like can be located without overwhelming any one area.

Community Level Measures 

Consider community level and tax based ways to promote affordable housing:

* Create a focal point for potentially homeless people to get information they need when they need it (e.g. in connection with evictions).

* Adopt tax and labor law rules that make including housing in a compensation package.

* Establish incentives in terms of how local governments collect revenue and how responsibility for financing government services is allocated between levels of government so that local governments do not have incentives to discourage the construction of housing or the construction of affordable housing. Colorado's Gallagher Amendment, sales tax financing of local government, and local property tax financing of public schools are all counter to these objectives.

* Maximize the amount of housing stock and especially affordable housing stock where it is feasible to live without owning a vehicle due to non-private automobile transportation offices and the nearby availability of retail and employment opportunities. This can be combination of bicycle and walking friendly landscapes, bus and intracity rail service, private shuttles and car pool arranging, taxis and Lyft and Uber, motor vehicle sharing (i.e. short term rental), scooter/bike rental, and delivery services.

* Establish prompt and affordable ways to landlords to repossess housing/camping leased to short term tenants when occupants/tenants default.

* Encourage mixed use development that reduces the amount of travel needed to obtain essentials.

* Make good educational options available without undue regard to residence location so that housing prices do not become gatekeepers for access to good schools.

* Address the serious problems of HOA managed communities by minimizing association level activity where possible.

* Encourage "outsourcing" and disaggregation of components of the package that comes in a house. For example, postal address drops, secure storage (like safe deposit boxes), storage units instead of a basement or garage, separately rented or owned parking or vehicle storage, rental spaces for group meals and cooking special meals and gatherings, low cost cafeteria stye and co-op style eating options, study spaces, micro-business office and workshop spaces, love hotels, bath houses, and neighborhood scale short term rental options when guests are in town in lieu of guest rooms.

* Welcome immigrants as a way of reinvigorating declining neighborhoods.

* Disfavor land use regulations that tend to discourage mixed income communities.

* Take advantage of municipal scale advantages for services like broadband internet access.

* Provide public spaces in addition to libraries and parks where people can just "be" without paying anyone any money during the day.

* Decriminalize private charity like offering food assistance.

* Facilitate access to financing for modest income home buyers.

* Reduce delays (and to a much lesser extent costs) associated with new housing construction.

* Improve the accuracy and detail of projections regarding market demand for housing, so developers build what is needed.

Individual Level Measures

* Make housing a right without regard to ability to pay. Make housing first the presumptive norm, and provide for other needs second.

* Eliminate waiting lists for housing assistance.

* Structure housing assistance programs and financing in a manner that encourages metropolitan area/regional cooperation, rather than competition and passing the buck.

* Provide much stronger support to foster kids aging out.

* Provide personalized, non-bureaucratic support for needs that lead to vagrancy like substance abuse issues, mental health issues, traumatic brain injury and developmental disability, medical problems, criminal records, lack of social skills, poor budgeting, and lack of employability. As much as possible this should be categorical rather than means tested. Much of this can be addressed via universal health care.

* Where public housing is built, don't over concentrate it, create defensible space and access for low income tenants, and anticipate the need for a suite of supportive programs and systems beyond the default levels since this population will likely need a helping hand to get back on its feet. Avoid long term tenancies in publicly owned housing, preferring housing assistance if necessary. 

* Create housing assistance eligibility rules that have incentives to keep families together rather than fracturing them apart.

* Decriminalize drugs so that harm reduction and treating it like a public health problem is possible, while removing the money and danger of black market activities.

* Decriminalize prostitution for similar reasons so that sex workers aren't exploited by pimps, customers and law enforcement, and otherwise subject to the woes of the criminal world.

* Create a right to a job where anyone who presented themselves can receive guaranteed employment by the day at minimum wage in whatever pursuit the program manager can identify that applicants are qualified to do, even if it is somewhat make work.

* Make available subsidized or guaranteed loans for start up costs like first month's rent and security deposits and down payments.

* Subsidize and support the ability of workers to relocate to places where there are more jobs or higher paying jobs for people with their skills. For example, transportation and moving costs, facilitating school transfers, helping people sell houses at fair prices, terminate leases without penalty and find subtenants or replacement tenants.

* Strengthen the right to substitute economically comparable tenants or borrowers.

* Don't so strongly favor ownership over renting that people who are economically better off renting are pressured to buy. Some people need job mobility, have insecure incomes, and have poor credit, that makes home ownership ill advised.

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