Guest Opinions

We must work to remove obstacles to affordable housing

Gary Hanes
Gary Hanes

A regulatory barrier is a rule or policy that is out of touch with reality. For instance, when planning and zoning rules don’t allow the kind of housing that is affordable to people who live or work in your community, that’s a regulatory barrier.

But, what looks like a barrier to one can seem like a protection to another. How you see it depends on which side of the barrier you’re on. There are many barriers to affordable housing.

Active neighborhood opposition to affordable housing (Not In My Backyard — NIMBYism) and regulatory barriers can intertwine and reinforce one another. They begin to look and act in similar ways to someone who needs affordable housing or to those trying to provide it. NIMBYism has been cited as the most potent obstacle in some states.

Several years ago, HUD (Housing and Urban Development) was pressured to install a chain link fence around a proposed public housing project in Oakland, Calif., and lock residents in at sunset. That would have been a barrier and a certain violation of human and civil rights. But would the impact be so much different if planning and zoning requirements prevented the affordable housing from coming to a neighborhood in the first place? Or, when apartments are zoned-out? Or, when neighborhoods reject transit service because it could attract “those people?”

HUD tested regulatory barrier removal nationally. It found that for every $1,000 in savings, a house became affordable to 1 percent more of those seeking home ownership. Inflation may have changed that math, but the impact is clear.

Usually regulatory barrier removal is standard fare in the Republican policy “playbook.” But, in September 2016, the Democratic White House issued a white paper that could have come with a Republican cover sheet. It cited local regulatory environments as a major contributor to the cost and difficulty in developing affordable housing.

Something Democrats and Republicans can agree on should be a message to us all. This is where we should find common ground and a reason to begin working together to review our planning and zoning rules, the approval procedures, and our incentives or lack of them to assist affordable housing development.

The biggest regulatory barrier in Idaho is a state housing trust fund created 25 years ago but never funded. In Idaho, virtually all affordable rental housing funding comes from a federal source. Currently, the state and most cities contribute little or nothing.

Most federal housing programs are proposed for elimination, shifting responsibility to Idaho communities, with bigger impacts falling on rural areas. This leaves thousands more families with unmet affordable housing needs. Business and our economy benefit when there is adequate affordable housing. This allows growth. Shortages make it impossible to have moderate wages or have a workforce that can afford to live where it works.

Necessity suggests that local officials will have to review and remove unreasonable regulatory barriers to affordable housing while legislators must capitalize the state housing trust fund. All Idahoans should support more affordable housing.

Gary Hanes lives in Boise and has spent a professional lifetime working on affordable housing.