In Search of Affordability Solutions

As the challenges intensify, our industry needs to spotlight what’s working and provide alternatives to what’s not, NMHC's president contends.
NMHC President Doug Bibby (Image courtesy of the National Multifamily Housing Council)

Housing affordability has become a hot-button issue for policymakers at all levels of government, as the shortage of attainable housing expands into traditionally low-cost cities and increasingly affects not just low-income households, but also middle-income families.

 

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While it is gratifying to see housing elevated to a top-tier issue for the first time in my 30 years of working in this sector, my enthusiasm is tempered when I see policymakers confuse action with results. Namely, I see a concerning pattern of states and municipalities looking for quick Band-Aid solutions, like rent control.

From California’s failed Prop 10 ballot initiative to Oregon’s enactment in February of the first statewide rent control law, the pressure is rising for local and state governments to do something—anything—to ease the growing crisis. That is creating any number of hurdles, ranging from regulatory to reputational, that only further constrain the industry’s ability to deliver solutions in the form of additional apartment homes.

At NMHC’s Annual Meeting in late January, we convened a session on housing affordability. About 250 members joined us for the special session. Industry leaders from across the country reported on specific market challenges; gave examples of successful programs at work; offered creative, alternative solutions; and shared a real desire to be part of proactive, collaborative answers to an acute challenge that threatens to stifle growth in this country.

In the time since that special session, I’ve kept coming back to three main takeaways that all industry stakeholders should be paying attention to, even if debates over rent control aren’t yet raging in their markets.

1. We need holistic solutions that address both new and existing supply.

During our session, there were suggestions on how to improve efficiencies in existing programs and processes, thoughts on new financing solutions, and discussions on various incentives and voluntary programs. The common thread among all the ideas shared that day is that they were all supply-side solutions. The end goal was the production or preservation of affordable apartments.

We need to continue to push for solutions that recognize the fundamental shortage of affordable homes and aim to close the gap between supply and the demand. Policies like rent control, rent caps or so-called anti-gouging measures do absolutely nothing to address this fundamental issue. We have to keep reminding people of that.

2. Our industry’s reputation is at risk as these policy debates continue to emerge.

I don’t have to tell you about the benefits of the apartment industry. We industry house 38.7 million people. We own, manage and pay property taxes on 20.7 million apartment homes. We have built an average of 312,000 new apartments every year for the last five years. Together with our residents, the apartment industry contributes $1.3 trillion to the U.S. economy and supports 12.3 million jobs. That’s amazing stuff.

But these facts are mattering less and less, as are the data—stagnant wages, rising costs, chronic underbuilding—that add up to today’s affordable housing shortage. More upsetting is that the tone of the dialogue has turned quite acrimonious in some places, with apartment developers and owners portrayed as the villains of a dramatic narrative.

Adding to this trend is the spotlight that’s shining on stories of displacement and eviction. For example, did you know that there is even an Eviction Lab website now, with data on the top areas for evictions and—coming soon—the top evictors? And with those behind the website focused less on actual evictions than on the filings rate—which can vary dramatically from state to state, and is heavily influenced by jurisdictional policies—the risks of ugly headlines are mounting.

3. The industry needs to organize locally and get more engaged in the discussion.

We need to change the conversation around affordability—especially in battleground locations—but we cannot do that unless we speak with a unified voice. I encourage you to get started sooner than later, as threats are popping up unexpectedly and with concerning speed.

Moreover, get loud. Write op-ed pieces. Meet with your local newspapers’ editorial boards. Get on the radio. Whatever approach you prefer, we need your voice to help us create a more balanced, productive conversation. And, of course, reach out to your state and local lawmakers to talk about creating real solutions, rather than merely applying ineffective Band-Aids.

NMHC is here to help navigate the choppy waters that are almost certainly ahead at the state and local levels. To that end, we’ve created a new platform and website called “Growing Homes Together” that we will unveil in May. The website will house a number of materials to help the industry in many forms of outreach. We think this will be an important tool as we continue to educate policymakers, housing advocates and neighborhood stakeholders about our industry and current affordability challenges.

Doug Bibby is the president of the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC). He can be reached at dbibby@nmhc.org.

Read the May 2019 issue of MHN.