For Cities, Opportunity Starts at Home

The National League of Cities’ (NLC) Community and Economic Development Committee is consistently one of the largest of NLC’s seven advocacy committees. That makes sense, given that survey after survey has shown that economic development is consistently among the top priorities identified by local elected officials.

It doesn’t seem to matter how well or poorly the national economy is performing — economic development is never far from the minds of city leaders.

Community development, and housing policy in particular, is a little different. By one measure, there is no single federal grant program as universally important to municipal governments as the Community Development Block Grant. However, when measured against other local priorities, housing tends to rise and fall, much like the housing market itself. A strong housing market is associated with good neighborhoods and reliable revenues for municipal coffers.

While reliable revenues make it possible for cities to test innovative approaches and solutions in other areas, it’s not until the market falters that we see housing issues rise among local priorities. The federal government isn’t much different – major federal housing legislation usually follows major housing crisis.

According to NLC’s State of the Cities report for 2018, housing is again a rising priority for municipal governments, overtaking public safety as an area of concern. Moreover, housing supply, affordability and homelessness are identified in the report as top priorities for cities in every population category above 50,000.

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That is consistent with recent reports showing a widening gap between rising housing values and flat wages, leaving cities struggling with the consequences. A report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition shows that in no state, city or county can a worker earning the federal minimum wage or prevailing state minimum wage afford a two-bedroom rental home at fair market rent.

Would that be the case if housing, as a city priority, looked more like economic development? Rather than focusing on a housing crisis or a public safety crisis, is it fair to ask what housing means for public safety? Or public health? Or even economic development? When it comes to housing, we don’t have all the answers, but NLC is working to ask the right questions to driving lasting change.

NLC has history of working with cities to make the connection between housing and public health through convenings like Housing, Hazards, and Health and the Cities of Opportunity pilot program. Now, through the advocacy of city leaders, we are asking Congress to consider these important questions and connections too.

Last week, the NLC announced that it had joined the steering committee for the “Opportunity Starts at Home” campaign, a multi-sector initiative focused on advancing federal solutions that address housing affordability. As a top priority for city leaders, NLC has long advocated for a federal partnership that works with city leaders to expand housing availability, provide rental assistance to low-income and vulnerable communities, and ensure that all residents have the opportunity for safe, decent and affordable housing.

This is not a traditional federal housing campaign. For the most part, the steering committee consists of organizations that, like NLC, are not primarily housing associations or interest groups (though not that those groups are entirely absent).

According to Opportunity Starts at Home campaign director Mike Koprowski, “When people lack access to decent affordable housing, it negatively impacts their health outcomes, educational attainment, and ability to climb the economic ladder. That’s why leaders from a range of sectors — from healthcare to education to civil rights — are coming together to build a broad movement to make affordable homes a top national priority.”

The sectors identified by the campaign include:

  • Housing and Education
  • Housing and Health
  • Housing and Civil Rights
  • Housing and Economic Mobility
  • Housing and Economic Productivity
  • Housing and Homelessness
  • Housing and Criminal Justice
  • Housing and Veterans
  • Housing and Hunger

In addition to NLC, organizations serving on the Opportunity Starts at Home campaign steering committee include:

  • National Low Income Housing Coalition
  • Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
  • Children’s HealthWatch
  • Make Room
  • National Alliance to End Homelessness
  • Catholic Charities USA
  • Children’s Defense Fund
  • Community Catalyst
  • Food Research and Action Center
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness
  • National Association of Community Health Centers
  • National Education Association
  • UnidosUS

None of this is to say that housing challenges confronting cities are uniform across the country.  Depending on the region, or specific city, the gap between housing values and wages could be happening alongside a surplus of vacant and abandoned housing, a hot market driving affordable housing to flip to market rate, a crisis in homelessness, or countless other circumstances.

As a member of the campaign steering committee, NLC will seek to represent cities and city leaders as part of the solution to today’s largest housing challenges, but at the same time, acknowledge that lasting solutions are beyond the scope of any one single stakeholder or level of government.

For more information on the campaign, and to hear directly from some of the leaders involved, an archived webinar is available.

About the Authormike_wallace_125x150Michael Wallace is the Program Director for Community and Economic Development at the National League of Cities. Follow him on Twitter @MikeWallaceII.