Housing is infrastructure was just one of the powerful themes to emerge from a half-day housing conference hosted by the Urban Institute and Fannie Mae in Washington, D.C. Titled “Unlocking the Market: Big Ideas for Local Housing Challenges,” the conference brought together housing advocates, housing providers and major private entities to discuss solutions for improving housing availability and affordability.
“Housing shortages are driving up costs, limiting access to growth and choking off growth,” said Urban Institute President Sarah Rosen Wartell in her opening remarks.
Jeff Hayward, head of multifamily for Fannie Mae, told Multi-Housing News that what made this conference different—and this time in history different—is that a broader spectrum of private institutions and businesses are working to remedy housing problems at the local level. “If you want to have human resources, you have to help them with their human problem, which is housing,” Hayward said.
Among the large private entities speaking on a panel titled “New Partnerships” was Google, which announced a $1 billion housing initiative for the Bay Area in June. (Microsoft and Facebook have also committed to housing investments). “We really recognized we have to do more,” said Michele Jawando, Google’s head of US Progressive Engagement. “We have to step up.”
Daryl Shore, director of Inclusive Communities at Prudential Financial, shared his company’s blended capital approach—social impact capital and grant capital—to housing solutions for the people of Newark, N.J., the company’s hometown. But housing investment, he said, is more than bricks-and-mortar. “We think about it comprehensively because we don’t want to have housing for the sake of housing,” said Shore.
AJ Jackson, executive vice president of Social Impact Investing for JBG SMITH, encouraged audience members to consider what their individual organizations can “bite off.” Employing its skills as an aggregator of capital, JBG has launched the Washington Housing Initiative, a partnership with the Federal City Council targeting the preservation and creation of 3,000 units of workforce housing. The units will be acquired developed and owned by the Washington Housing Conservancy, an independent non-profit. “You can’t be afraid to fail,” said Jackson. “We need to take more of a venture capital approach in our social investments as we do in our core business.”
The panel also included Alicia Wilson, vice president for Economic Development, Johns Hopkins University, and David Zuckerman, director for Healthcare Engagement, Democracy Collaborative.
Other local perspectives were offered at the conference. Laura Grannemann, vice president of Strategic Investments for Quicken Loans Community Fund, discussed how Quicken Loans is addressing high foreclosure rates in Detroit. One aspect of the company’s campaign is educating residents who rent houses of their options when the homeowner is being foreclosed upon. In many cases, Granneman said, the residents were able to buy the homes that they rent, allowing them to preserve their living situation and build wealth at the same time.
“Think radically about how to talk to people—that the data is real—and that you are falling in love with the problem not the solution,” she advised the conference attendees.
Christian Dorsey, chair of the Arlington County Board, spoke about the need for a regional housing plan that could be used to address local needs, and he said land use was the “third rail” in creating opportunities for affordable housing production.
Arlington County encompasses Crystal City and the site of Amazon’s HQ2. But, in a market that absorbs 50,000 jobs regionally per year, Dorsey said, Amazon-related job growth is not going to have a big impact on the housing market. More concerning, he said, is the inflating effect it is already having on value perception. “While we haven’t seen the structure of the market change in terms of people willing to buy a house that is assessed at twice value or banks willing to lend at that rate, there is a speculative nature that must be mitigated.”
Charlotte, an area that has seen significant economic growth of late, has taken a three-pronged approach (building new, revitalizing the existing stock and creating self-sufficiency) to address housing concerns and to keep residents in place whenever possible.
“We’re never going to build out of (the problem),” said Pamela Wideman, director, Housing and Neighborhood Services, City of Charlotte. “We’re never going to have enough money to build.”
She also called for more collaboration between cities and between cities surrounding areas. “In North Carolina, we talk about affordability being a metro issue but a rural issue, too,” said Wideman.
The conference’s final speaker was Janne Flisrand, co-founder of Neighbors for More Neighbors, an advocacy group that helped Minneapolis fight NIMBY in order to pass citywide zoning changes to allow duplexes and triplexes. The organization was successful, Flisrand said, because it “connected the dots” for white residents who didn’t know about the city’s racist land use history.