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Symposium Highlights: From Scarcity to Abundance: Research and Strategies for Housing Policy

Author: Carolina Reid, Faculty Research Advisor

A 2023 Terner Center highlight was our symposium, “From Scarcity to Abundance: Research and Strategies for Housing Policy.” We hosted the symposium in collaboration with the NYU Furman Center and with generous support from the Hilton Foundation. We were also grateful for the opportunity to host the symposium at UCLA and connect with researchers at UCLA’s Randall Lewis Housing Initiative and cityLAB, both leading voices in housing policy in California and important partners in our work.

The goal of the symposium was to bring together researchers, policymakers, and practitioners to discuss issues related to housing supply. It was motivated by a number of questions: Which policy reforms have the most potential to unlock new housing? Does new supply increase housing affordability or lead to gentrification? What policies need to be put into place to ensure that new supply aligns with equity and sustainability goals? How can policymakers navigate the complex political realities of advancing pro-housing legislation? And what additional research is needed to help policymakers evaluate trade-offs and make the best decisions?

Panelists, who included researchers, policymakers, and local advocates, answered these questions from different perspectives. There were areas of emerging consensus, such as the need to continue to focus on increasing the supply of housing in single-family neighborhoods through land use reforms that make “missing middle” housing more feasible. The need for data to track the effectiveness and enforce existing laws was also a consistent theme across the panels, as was the importance of building local capacity for implementation. Speakers emphasized the iterative nature of land use reforms and the need to tweak laws over time, cautioning that the state’s housing crisis has been decades in the making, and that an increase in supply resulting from policy change will not happen overnight. Speakers also pointed to areas where more work is needed, including understanding the impacts of supply on displacement, incorporating authentic community engagement into land use planning processes (and away from project-by-project fights), and advancing tenant protections, especially in rapidly changing neighborhoods.

The symposium was our first large, in-person event since the COVID-19 pandemic. It reminded us of the value of bringing together diverse stakeholders to discuss how to advance pro-housing policies that align with affordability and climate goals. We thank everyone who joined us for the event and look forward to future opportunities to connect. The videos from the Symposium, as well as a summary of the panels at the event are available below.

Opening Remarks

The remarks of the two opening speakers—Seyron Foo, Senior Program Officer at the Hilton Foundation, and Jenna Hornstock, the Deputy Mayor of Housing for the City of Los Angeles—set the stage, highlighting that there is a lot more to be done to advance housing policy research and practice. Both emphasized the disconnect between housing and homelessness policies, the persistence of racial inequities in the housing market, and the lack of sufficient and sustained investment in affordable housing at all levels of government. Foo affirmed the “need for evidence-based policy grounded in reality, not in delusions,” and highlighted the role that research can play in identifying and advancing innovative and timely solutions.

In her remarks, Hornstock provided an overview of Mayor Bass’ initiatives to address the city’s affordable housing and homelessness crises from different vantage points, including Inside Safe, a housing-focused initiative that seeks to move people living in encampments or on the street into interim housing, as well as to establish clear pathways for people to move from interim to permanent housing. She also described two of the Mayor’s other Executive Directives (ED) that are designed to remove land and entitlement barriers to new development: ED1 exempts shelters and 100% affordable projects from discretionary review processes, with the city committing to under 60 days for project approvals, and ED3 directs city staff to identify publicly-owned land suitable for temporary and permanent housing.

“We are facing a life and death emergency when we have well over 40,000 Angelenos unhoused, and five of them, five unhoused people, are perishing on our streets every day. We are laser focused on bringing people from encampments to interim housing, and into permanent, stable, affordable housing.” – Los Angeles Deputy Mayor of Housing, Jenna Hornstock

Opening Panel: Does Supply Really Matter? A Review of the Evidence

The first panel was led by Terner Center Founder and Advisor Carol Galante, in conversation with Vincent Reina, Senior Advisor on Housing at the White House Domestic Policy Council, and Vicki Been, Professor of Law at NYU and former Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development in New York City.

Been began by summarizing a recent Furman report that reviews the literature assessing the impact of supply on affordability. She noted that one of the persistent concerns about policies that increase housing supply—and especially market-rate supply—is that they do little to address affordability concerns, and that in some cases, they contribute to gentrification. The existing research evidence, however, shows that new housing supply—even market-rate units—reduces rents. Importantly, some newer studies show that new market-rate supply makes housing more affordable even for low-income households, through a process termed “housing chains.” This mechanism is different from “filtering,” a process in which older units become less expensive over time. “Filtering” takes a long time to occur and is often accompanied by deteriorating housing quality. Rather, research shows that as households move into new units, existing units become vacant, creating a chain of residential moves that can benefit lower-income households. These effects can be large: in one study, researchers found that by the third or fourth move, the “opened” units’ rental costs were equivalent to publicly-subsidized units in the same neighborhood. While promising, Been also noted that findings on the displacement effects of new supply show varied results, and that more research is needed, especially in different market contexts.

The panel also focused on how the federal government is emphasizing pro-housing policies as part of its agenda. Reina shared that the COVID-19 pandemic and rising housing insecurity led the Administration to “think creatively about all the levers the federal government can pull to advance housing issues.” He emphasized the importance of balancing housing production with renter protections, noting that the White House strategically timed the release of both a Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights and a Housing Supply Action Plan for the same day. He also shared new federal initiatives that seek to remove local barriers to production, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) new Pathways to Removing Obstacles to Housing (PRO Housing) program.

“The White House, and the Biden-Harris administration, for the first time in my memory, has put their thumb on the scale of housing supply issues, in particular, in a way that doesn’t necessarily fit into any one housing finance program.” – Carol Galante, Terner Center

Research Panel 1: The Politics and Practice of Density

The first research panel of the day was moderated by Leah Brooks of George Washington University. Panel speakers included Jake Wegmann, an Associate Professor at University of Texas at Austin, Nick Marantz, an Associate Professor at UC Irvine, and Mahdi Manji, the Director of Public Policy at the Inner City Law Center, a pro bono legal service provider based in Los Angeles focused on ending homelessness.

The panel covered a wide range of topics, from accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and missing middle housing to neighborhood opposition to condo defect liability laws and the Subdivision Map Act. Throughout the panel, Brooks prompted speakers to consider potential policy trade-offs, such as between streamlining entitlement processes and ensuring robust community engagement, tightening tenant protections and their potential impacts on supply, and balancing fair housing and climate goals. Panelists also grappled with the politics of NIMBYism, single-family zoning, and how discretionary review processes at the local level can lead to corrupt decision-making, with consequences for  production.

Wegmann and Marantz shared findings from their respective research on increasing lower-scale density, such as reforms to single-family zoning and making it easier to build ADUs. Wegmann studied the effect of zoning reforms in Houston, which allowed for reduced minimum lot sizes and spurred an increase in townhouses. He found that most of this new construction happened in urban neighborhoods with higher-than-average house values, dampening concerns over gentrification. The policy also led to the production of lower cost, if not deeply affordable homes: the median cost of the new townhomes was $340,000, well below the median $545,000 for a single-family home in the area.

“Folks might be wondering what Houston, the anti-hero city of housing policy, might have to teach California. But this is a rare case of a U.S. city that really did change its zoning rules long enough ago that we can see the effects over time…and [those zoning changes] generated that rare example of lower-cost, family-friendly, urban infill housing being built at scale.” – Jake Wegmann, UT Austin

Marantz’s research evaluated the effectiveness of ADU legislation in California. In his remarks, Marantz emphasized the benefits of making it easier to build ADUs: they are usually more affordable (especially in comparison to the single-family homes that are typically in the same neighborhood) and can serve as an alternative to outward sprawl. ADUs can thus align affordability and climate goals, and are often possible to develop without public subsidies. Marantz’s paper found that California’s ADU legislation has been successful at unlocking new supply: for example, from 2018 through 2021, Los Angeles county permitted over 26,000 ADUs, nearly a third of all units permitted in the county over that timeframe. But Marantz also found that some cities were not complying with state ADU laws and argued that continuing to focus and target HCD enforcement actions is critical for long-term impact.

“[You often hear people talk about] a shortage of land. I don’t believe that there’s a shortage of land out there. In the City of Los Angeles, 75 percent of land is devoted to single-family homes. There’s not a shortage of land, there’s a shortage of land zoned for multifamily uses.” – Nick Marantz, UC Irvine

All three panelists said policies could do more to spur smaller-scale projects in existing single-family neighborhoods. Manji noted that the dominance of single-family zoning contributes to racial disparities and intensifies gentrification and displacement pressures in low-income communities and communities of color: “Those tend to be the places for historical reasons where land use regulations allow denser housing, or it’s politically possible to rezone. Whereas the wealthier areas are just locked down.” Wegmann emphasized “we’re just leaving all of this abundance—to hearken back to one of the words for today—we’re just leaving that on the table.” Panelists noted that smaller scale projects may be less vulnerable to political opposition, and can allow smaller developers—including Black, Indigenous and other people of color—to enter the development space. Panelists also highlighted that there is a missed opportunity to create a funding source that could subsidize the production of smaller scale buildings—e.g., the construction of 100 ADUs instead of one, 100-unit LIHTC building—and study the costs and benefits of that type of housing funding strategy.

The panel also tackled questions related to building larger, denser projects—e.g., high-rise, market-rate apartments—in lower-income neighborhoods. Manji brought a critical perspective to this part of the panel discussion. He noted that making it easier to build more and denser housing is an important policy goal, yet there is a reason why community organizations often fight against new market-rate developments: the desperate need for more affordable housing.

“[Advocates] don’t want to slow the production of housing, we don’t want to increase the housing shortage, but we do want to make sure that when conversations about housing production are happening, low-income folks and folks who are homeless are centered.” – Mahdi Manji, Inner City Law Center

While in favor of policies that make it easier to entitle new housing, Manji emphasized that streamlining the production of affordable housing should not be seen as an excuse to silence community perspectives. He noted that the history of planning—where we “just built freeways and tore apart communities of color”—points to what happens when there is not robust community engagement. But he argued that this community engagement—including making it more representative and compensating people for their time—should be focused on providing input into the planning process and developing a collective vision for the neighborhood. Once that process has been completed, individual housing projects should be approved on a by-right basis, rather than being caught in endless cycles of opposition.

Policymaker Panel

One of the highlights from the conference was the policymaker panel, which was moderated by Liam Dillon of the Los Angeles Times, and brought together four state legislators: Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (Oakland), Senator Catherine Blakespear (Orange County), Assemblymember David Alvarez (San Diego), and Senator Scott Wiener (San Francisco).

The panel focused on a few common threads. The first was the ongoing emphasis of state legislators on reducing barriers to new housing production: the legislators noted that while policy cannot address interest rates or supply chain issues, it can create an environment more conducive to housing development. The panel discussed legislative highlights, including the motivation and importance of streamlining bills such as SB 35 and AB 2011. Senator Wiener noted that California’s housing entitlement and permitting are characterized by “chaotic, unpredictable politicized processes,” reflect government failures, and contribute to the ongoing housing crisis in the state. He said that not all impactful legislation gets attention, and shared that he was particularly proud of his role in advancing SB 828, which reformed the Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) process and dramatically increased the amount of housing cities have to plan and zone for.

When asked about how they measure the impact of their work, the speakers all said that the real measure of success is whether legislation will lead to the production of new housing units, at all income levels. But they also noted that passing a bill is only the first step towards success: there needs to be more focus on implementation and enforcement. They also cautioned patience, with Assemblymember Wicks saying that moving the needle on production is like “turning a battleship. It takes a while for these laws to get implemented. It takes a while to see what’s working, it takes a while to make the changes that we need.” Assemblymember Alvarez emphasized the importance of focusing on displacement and the very real challenges of poverty and lack of affordability. He noted that even in communities where there is success in building housing, concerns over the cost of living and affordability remain.

Liam Dillon prompted the panel to talk about political opposition, from local neighborhood NIMBYism to interest groups in Sacramento that often don’t see eye-to-eye on housing issues. He cautioned against characterizing all opposition as the same, noting that in reporting a recent story, he found that there are different reasons that people oppose projects, from thinly disguised racism to legitimate concerns over air pollution or gentrification, and that streamlining can “flatten” those reasons. The policymakers acknowledged the need to engage communities in the planning process and discussed efforts to work with labor—such as the “high road jobs” agreements that underpin AB 2011. They noted that alignment could be improved with environmental groups and entities like the Coastal Commission, which have advocacy and institutional standpoints that can work against a prohousing policy agenda. Senator Wiener said that sometimes legitimate concerns, such as wildfire risks, are used to oppose housing, rather than figure out how to build housing more thoughtfully.

The panel also highlighted the different political contexts that exist across the state. Assemblymember Alvarez, recently elected in June of 2022, noted that during his time as a Councilmember for the City of San Diego, the city was a leader on many pro-housing reforms, including ADU legislation. He pointed to this as an example of how local innovation can scale up, saying that Sacramento has finally “caught up to San Diego.”

In contrast, Senator Blakespear, and a former Mayor of Encinitas, said she has primarily served areas that have been resistant to new housing. She noted that in Encinitas her challenge was to be “a pro-housing mayor in an anti-housing city.” She pointed to the importance of redefining narratives about what housing is: “Instead of seeing [new housing] in terms of it being negative for people because it’s adding to congestion and traffic and crowding and a degradation of their quality of life, redefining that and saying that housing is how we create opportunities for our seniors and our artists and our youth to live in our city.” She also highlighted that for too long, housing has been characterized by local control, but that for other important public goods like schools or infrastructure, it is a given that the state should play a stronger role. While a “difficult shift,” she argued that housing should be seen as a similar public good, and that more state oversight would lead to better outcomes for all.

Research Panel 2: Expanding Affordability Through Zoning and Land Use Policies

The second research panel focused on issues related to housing affordability, and discussed how zoning and land use policies can be used to increase the supply of affordable housing and prevent displacement. Moderated by Donna Borak, Director of External Affairs at NYU’s Furman Center, the panel included Jacob Krimmel, an Economist at the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, Shane Phillips, Housing Initiative Project Manager at UCLA’s Lewis Center, Karen Chapple, Director of the School of Cities at the University of Toronto, and Nithya Raman, Los Angeles City Councilmember.

Chapple set the stage by emphasizing the importance of focusing on low-income households and communities. She argued that although supply is linked to greater affordability, the displacement “debate in research is far from resolved, and certainly, among the public is far from resolved.” Data constraints make it difficult to study displacement, but Chapple’s research has found that while the impacts of new supply on residential mobility are small (and more people tend to move in rather than out), context matters. She noted that smaller buildings—often referred to as missing middle housing—have net positive effects, do not cause displacement, and can even help to overcome exclusion in higher-resourced neighborhoods. In contrast, in some places like San Francisco, Chapple has found that larger buildings (over 100 units) have  small effects on displacement, though in other places like Los Angeles, that was not the case. She argued that in affluent, strong markets, new supply may not create the affordability needed to meet demand without additional subsidies, but that more research is still needed, especially across different types of housing markets.

Krimmel and Phillips both shared research findings on inclusionary zoning (IZ) programs, which are often a tool that cities use to increase affordability by requiring a certain percentage of affordable units be  part of market-rate developments. Krimmel’s research focuses on Seattle’s mandatory inclusionary zoning program, which involved upzoning significant parts of the city—allowing for more units to be built on any given plot of land—and then requiring a percent of those units to be affordable: “upzoning with strings attached.” Phillips focused his remarks on Los Angeles’s Transit Oriented Communities Incentive Program (TOC). TOC also provides development bonuses alongside affordability requirements, but unlike Seattle’s program, TOC is voluntary.

Both researchers pointed to the relative successes of these two programs: in both cases, they have resulted in new developments that have boosted both market-rate and affordable supply. And in both cities, the policies were the result of bringing different stakeholders to the table, which ensured that the policies effectively balanced affordability goals with the reality of what new market-rate developments need to pencil in order to get built. But they also cautioned about IZ’s unintended consequences. In Seattle, for example, Krimmel and his co-author Betty Wang found that developers of smaller scale properties chose to build just outside the IZ borders in order to avoid the affordability requirements that would make their projects financially infeasible.

Phillips focused on the broader limitations of existing IZ policies and density bonuses as tools for expanding affordability. For example, density bonuses only apply to whatever the density is in the existing zoning code: “So if you have a single-family neighborhood, IZ just doesn’t do anything at all. They’re completely untouched by this program.” The fact that IZ only works in limited places also concentrates the impacts of new development in those neighborhoods. He argued forcefully for broader upzoning, saying “as long as we are relying on limiting where you can build multifamily housing, and having high land values, so we can ask for [affordable units], we’re going to be limited in what we can achieve.”

In her remarks, Raman emphasized the importance of balancing production and anti-displacement goals: “If you can do those two things, at the same time, then you can build a great deal more trust in government to be able to move the entire project of improving our city forward.” The panel discussed ways to do this: for example, building more housing in places that have tenant protections to mitigate negative impacts, and being proactive in putting protections in place before broadly launching upzoning strategies. The panel also discussed potential unintended consequences of tenant protections, agreeing that more public funding is a critical piece of the puzzle, especially for low-income households. Raman noted that supply and housing assistance are deeply intertwined, and that more people need to see the connection between more supply and the ability to use tools like housing vouchers more effectively to address homelessness.

“I think what we’re talking about is trust. If you open up a homeless shelter in your neighborhood, and you can show you are taking people off the streets and bringing them into those shelters, you can show people that yes, opening up a shelter works…[we need to put] a human face to all of this so that people really understand what it is that we’re talking about.”  Nithya Raman, Los Angeles City Councilmember

Research Panel 3: Enforcement and Evaluation: What Does it Take to Make Pro-Housing Policies Work?

The third research panel, moderated by David Garcia, the Terner Center’s Policy Director, was focused on the issues of enforcement and accountability. It featured Moira O’Neill, affiliated both with UC Berkeley and the University of Virginia, Mike Manville, Professor and Chair of Urban Planning at UCLA, and Shazia Manji, Research Associate at the Terner Center.

Manville shared new research—done in collaboration with Paavo Makonnen, Michael Lens, and UCLA students—which assessed how Southern California cities were addressing California’s strengthened Housing Element and RHNA processes. Manville described how before the passage of SB 828, RHNA targets were not only too low, but through political processes at the regional scale, cities were able to “game” the system to be assigned very low targets. The cities further skirted the intent of the law by picking new potential housing sites that were completely infeasible to build on: as Manville put it, “these sites usually strained credulity, e.g., assuming fully occupied shopping malls would be slated for redevelopment. In one case, City Hall was listed as a place that would be redeveloped into housing.” What Manville and his colleagues found was that the new targets made these types of strategic behaviors more difficult. Cities that saw the largest jump in their RHNA targets were more likely to rezone their land and identify suitable sites. Manville said,  “We took that as a sign that SB 828 was in fact working.” He emphasized, however, that many cities had not yet completed their Housing Elements, and that rezoning is not the same as new housing units being permitted or going into production.

Manji shared findings from a Terner study focused on SB 35 and its first five years of implementation. She shared that one of the biggest takeaways was that SB 35 has become the default method of streamlining for affordable housing developers, successfully accelerating the housing approval process for 100 percent affordable housing projects. O’Neill also shared her   on SB 35, which adds to the body of evidence of its effectiveness. O’Neill was able to study the impacts of SB 35 “before and after” in five jurisdictions: the cities of Berkeley, Oakland, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, as well as Los Angeles County. They found, for example, that in Los Angeles, similar projects before and after SB 35 saw the entitlement timeline decrease from seven to under three months. In San Francisco and Berkeley—both cities with onerous procedural hurdles—SB 35 also shortened planning review timelines. But in Oakland, projects moved faster under the city’s own processes than under SB 35. O’Neill said these results highlight the importance of focusing on implementation at the local level. She also echoed Manville’s point that it is important to look beyond the streamlining of entitlements to building permits and other steps in the process.

Panelists discussed three important barriers to implementation: overcoming the learning curve for new laws, insufficient resources and capacity at the local level, and jurisdictions actively flaunting state rules. Manji said that they saw examples of all three in Terner’s research on SB 35. Manville described multiple ways that cities actively resist abiding by the intent of state laws, and argued that current policies do not go far enough to remove obstacles to new production. O’Neill shared that one interesting finding from her research is that cities that are very different in their stance towards new housing supply—take Berkeley and Huntington Beach—nevertheless may take similar positions in terms of what they think the state’s role is in intruding on their local power to approve housing.

“The problem is that all of these tactics, they just represent an underlying political sentiment: there are some cities that just don’t want more housing. If you take away single-family zoning, they’ll blow out their lot sizes. If you take away their minimum lot sizes, they’re going to schedule hearings every four months, and so on.”  Michael Manville, UCLA

Because of this variation, all three speakers noted that more could be done to build capacity at the local level, as well as to enforce existing laws. They said that the state has made significant progress on both fronts, and that HCD’s improved reporting requirements are helping researchers and policymakers identify both successes and room for improvements.

Closing Panel: Reconciling Affordability & Equity Goals with Climate Goals – How Does It All Come Together?

The final panel of the day was moderated by Ben Metcalf, Managing Director of the Terner Center, and featured Gustavo Velasquez, Director of the California Department of Housing & Community Development, and Lynn Von Koch-Liebert, Executive Director of the California Strategic Growth Council. The panel focused on the often perceived challenges of aligning fair housing policies—which can push more housing towards suburban neighborhoods—with climate policies, which emphasize building infill housing closer to transit.

Both of the panelists argued for the need to think more broadly about both sets of policies and find opportunities for alignment. Velasquez shared the state’s approach to AB 686, which codified Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) into state law. He noted that AFFH is not just about advancing new housing in higher-resourced areas, but also reinvesting in lower-income communities. He pointed to efforts such as state investments in the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities program as an example of efforts to align affordability with climate goals. He also noted that the state’s Pro-Housing Designation Program similarly focuses on rewarding cities that are removing obstacles to new supply, but that the program includes criteria that emphasize balancing affordability, fair housing, and anti-displacement goals.

Von Koch-Liebert emphasized that housing absolutely needs to be part of the state’s climate solution. She noted that this includes infill, but it also means rethinking housing in more places to reinforce the longer-term goals of healthy communities where housing is closer to “daily destinations.” She pointed to communities like Culdesac in Tempe, Arizona, which—although by definition greenfield development—is characterized by smaller homes and walkability. She pointed to other opportunities as well, such as technology solutions that reduce construction waste or that integrate solar or create net zero buildings.

“If we’re not thinking very carefully about the true cost of greenfield development, then we’re going to end up creating liabilities that our future generations are going to have to manage.”  Lynn Von Koch-Liebert, California Strategic Growth Council

The panel concluded with the importance of both technical assistance and research to help advance affordable housing and climate goals. Particularly for local jurisdictions, ensuring synergies across state policies and providing them with the tools they need to implement those policies will be critical for these goals to align.

“We’re going from policy ideas to implementation to research back to policy ideas in a really meaningful way. And I think that that’s really exciting. And it’s going to help us continue to get that much more nuanced around what we’re going to do next.” – Gustavo Velasquez, California Department of Housing & Community Development

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