Social Innovation
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Building internal staff capacity would help HUD support pro-housing policies

02.19.24 | 3 min read | Text by Jenny Schuetz

The United States is experiencing a persistent and widespread housing shortage. Over the past several decades, housing supply has become less responsive to changes in demand: growth in population and jobs does not lead to proportional growth in the number of homes, while prices and rents have increased faster than household incomes. While state and local governments have primary responsibility for regulating housing production, the federal government could more effectively support state and local pro-housing policy innovations that are currently underway. 

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) should designate or hire at least one career staff member to work on housing supply and land use as their primary responsibility. 

Because housing supply and land use have not been part of HUD’s historic portfolio of funded programs, the agency has not invested in building consistent staff capacity on these topics. Designated staff should have substantial expertise on the topic, either through direct work experience or research on land use policy, and enough seniority within HUD to be listened to. The Biden Administration has made a good start by appointing a Special Policy Advisor working on housing supply. Integrating this position into a career staff role would help ensure continuity across administrations. The most appropriate division of HUD would be either Policy Development and Research, which is research-focused, or Community Planning and Development, which provides technical assistance to communities. 

HUD’s housing supply staff should oversee two primary efforts within the agency: supporting the efforts of state and local policymakers and other stakeholders that are experimenting with pro-housing policies, and disseminating clear, accessible, evidence-based information on the types of policies that support housing production. These roles fall well within HUD’s mission, do not require congressional authorization, and would require relatively modest financial investments (primarily staff time and direct costs of convenings).

First, to support more effective federal engagement, HUD’s housing supply lead should develop and maintain relationships with the extensive network of stakeholders across the country who are already working to understand and increase housing production. Examples of stakeholders include staff in state, regional, and local housing/planning agencies; universities and research organizations; as well as nonprofit and for-profit housing developers. Because of the decentralized nature of land use regulation, there is not an established venue or network for policymakers to connect with their peers. HUD could organize periodic convenings among policymakers and researchers to share their experiences on how policy changes are working in real time and identify knowledge gaps that are most important for policy design and implementation. 

Second, HUD should assemble and disseminate clear, accessible guidelines on the types of policies that support housing production. Many local and state policymakers are seeking information and advice on how to design policies that are effective in their local or regional housing markets and how to achieve specific policy goals. Developing and sharing information on best practices as well as “poison pills”—based on research and evaluation—would reduce knowledge gaps, especially for smaller communities with limited staff capacity. Local governments and regional planning agencies would also benefit from federally funded technical assistance when they choose to rewrite their regulations.

Across the country, an increasing number of cities and states are experimenting with changes to zoning and related regulations intended to increase housing supply and create more diverse housing options, especially in high-opportunity communities. Through targeted investment in HUD’s staff capacity, the federal government can better support those efforts by facilitating conversations between stakeholders and sharing information about what policy changes are most effective.

This idea of merit originated from our Housing Ideas Challenge, in partnership with Learning Collider, National Zoning Atlas, and Cornell’s Legal Constructs Lab. Find additional ideas to address the housing shortage here.