Apartments at 13th and Massachusetts by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

As regular readers are no doubt aware, the region’s development policies are highly controversial. In the wake of a series of lawsuits that froze the production of thousands of housing units in DC alone, the Urban Land Institute-Washington’s Impact Task Force sponsored a research project asking the question: What would it take to create a planning and approval process that advanced housing affordability while addressing legitimate community concerns?

The culmination of that effort was last month’s release of ULI Washington’s new report: Increasing Housing Supply and Attainability: Improving Rules & Engagement to Build More Housing. The report examines regional housing conditions and barriers to affordability. It found that expanding housing choices will require significant reforms in two key areas: Community engagement, and the project entitlement and review process.

This report included both quantitative and qualitative research, including interviews, roundtable discussions, and surveys of community representatives, local government officials, and developers. From this research, five critical takeaways emerged:

1. Adding supply matters, but addressing various “dimensions of supply” is critical

Our review of literature and empirical research showed that in growing markets, broad-based housing attainability requires increases in the overall housing stock. However, new supply can have different impacts on specific neighborhoods and populations.

Adding 1,000 microunits in the District of Columbia will affect affordability in different ways than adding 1,000 condominiums in Tysons. Building 100 apartment units on a vacant lot will have a different impact on local residents than tearing down 30 units to build 130.

Therefore, thoughtful development policies should acknowledge the various dimensions of supply, among them tenure, location, building type, and cost.

2. Local policy restricts supply, particularly along the dimensions that most impact attainability

Though some success stories exist, in general regional jurisdictions’ planning and zoning policies have neither enabled adequate supply growth nor encouraged the production of the most affordable housing types. As Tracy Hadden Loh highlighted on this blog last year, zoning restrictions and open space requirements limit supply growth to only 26% of the region’s land area and make the most expensive housing type – single-family detached housing – the easiest to build from a regulatory perspective.

Our analysis of property values and zoning policies in several jurisdictions found that the opportunities to develop the least costly housing types by-right were severely limited. “Missing middle” housing is particularly impacted by a lack of by-right development opportunities, as the local processes for granting flexibility in terms of form, density, height, etc. (additional entitlement processes) do not sufficiently differentiate between a 15-unit and 150-unit development, for example.

Based on developer interviews and surveys, our research found that these processes can add two-years to the development timeline and $2-2.5 million in fixed costs, which can make smaller-scale development (or development not targeting the top of the market) financially infeasible.

3. Policy reform will not be achieved without building community trust

Our report offers actionable recommendations for creating zoning codes and additional entitlement processes better suited to enabling growth and improving housing affordability. However, many of these recommendations—such as allowing denser housing by-right—are highly controversial.

Our examination of community engagement found that there is a significant lack of trust among residents, developers, and local governments. There are many reasons for this distrust, ranging from the stereotypical concerns about neighborhood change to the long-standing history of racism and disenfranchisement that has harmed communities of color.

It will be difficult, if not impossible, to make substantial policy reforms without increasing trust among the varied stakeholders and working to establish a shared vision for the community’s future. The report highlights many recommendations for achieving this goal, with an emphasis on increasing participation among historically marginalized or underrepresented voices.

4. Building trust will require a focus on equity

The region’s communities are diverse, and perspectives on the merits of growth and development reflect that diversity. While much opposition to development is driven by consumer preferences related to neighborhood form and aesthetics, many people have a deep-seated and in many cases legitimate concern that increased development could mean displacement.

For growth to be equitable, achieving “the greater good” (lower median prices) should not come at the expense of the region’s most vulnerable households—lower-income renters in particular. Policies should be centered on providing housing choice across the full spectrum of incomes and needs.

This means allowing growth to occur in exclusive, higher-cost neighborhoods to broaden housing access and reduce redevelopment pressures in lower-income neighborhoods. It means investing in the preservation of existing affordable housing and committing local resources to build new affordable housing. It means incorporating inclusionary requirements and allowing sufficient density to replace affordable units lost in the redevelopment process.

Residents are more likely to support growth-enabling policies if they see that they have a future in their community.

5. We can improve incrementally while we tackle the toughest issues

Adopting many of the recommendations highlighted in our report—reforming zoning codes, restructuring the community engagement process—will take a considerable amount of time. Fortunately, we found that in the meantime we can make progress toward increased housing attainability through (relatively) minor changes.

Increasing the efficiency of administrative reviews of development plans and greater inter-agency coordination (i.e. Are the Planning, Public Works, and Transportation Departments on the same page?) can decrease the time and cost associated with gaining approval, thereby increasing the financial feasibility of projects and boosting the housing supply.

Where do we go from here?

Creating an environment in which more attainable housing can be produced is a shared responsibility. There is no single cause of the region’s affordability challenges, and there is no “silver bullet” that will fix the system. As such, dramatically improving the development process will require a thorough and systematic review of existing policies to address a large number of barriers.

Such action will require trust, collaboration, and will from local officials, community leaders, developers, and the community at large. However, the challenges are not intractable. This research has identified numerous opportunities to make incremental and iterative improvements to the process, with smaller changes aggregating to larger impacts over time.

This article has been updated to clarify that the Urban Land Institute-Washington’s Impact Task Force sponsored this research project.