On Sept. 26, builders, developers, housing advocates, and housing policy experts gathered in Bloomington, Minn., for Housing Affordability Institute’s 2023 Housing Leadership Summit.
This inaugural event proved to be a dynamic forum where our country’s pressing housing challenges were dissected, transformative ideas were exchanged, and a blueprint for the future of affordable and accessible housing emerged.
Throughout the day, several themes emerged, as speakers shared their thoughts on the state of housing policy reform in America, including the need for bipartisanship, collaboration, and, perhaps most importantly, clean, simple legislation.
In every state in which zoning modernization and housing policy reform have taken root, a large, diverse coalition has helped to deliver public support. When bills did pass, the movement was bipartisan, gathering votes from across both sides of the aisle. Smaller, straightforward bills have also proved to be far more likely to pass than larger, complex bills.
Industry Leaders Share Why Housing Reform Is Needed
Kicking off the event, James Vagle, CEO of Housing First Minnesota, moderated a panel of housing industry leaders, who shared their perspectives on why more action is needed on housing policy.
Jamie Tharp, division president of Pulte Homes explained that demographic changes are driving a change in consumer preferences. Smaller households and move-down buyers are looking for smaller homes, she explained, yet zoning in many areas is for larger homes on larger lots.
Beth Wanless, government relations and public affairs manager for Zillow Group, provided a look at housing affordability in the Midwest. She said Zillow’s data mirrors what homebuilders are seeing, with demand in homes with three or fewer bedrooms rising 30% in 2022, and demand in homes with more than three bedrooms falling.
Tony Wiener of Cardinal Homes provided the perspective of smaller-scale builders and developers. Wiener said that builders want to build at the lower price points, where the greatest demand is. The greatest barrier, he said, is state and local housing policies prevent that from happening.
Experts Lookback at 2023’s Successes in Housing Policy Reform
Salim Furth of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University moderated a panel looking at the successes in states across the country this past legislative session.
Tanner Avery, director of Frontier Institute’s Center for New Frontiers, provided an insider’s look at Montana’s successful zoning reform effort this year. He said that using a zoning atlas was a powerful tool, showing policymakers that zoning in Montana is closely aligned with that of Los Angeles.
Alex Fernandez, senior director of advocacy and government affairs for Vinyl Siding Institute, has worked on ending aesthetic mandates and design standards across many states. He said that early on, massive omnibus bills in housing worked, but that is no longer the case. Fernandez also spoke on the power of coalitions, noting that every state he works in has its own unique set of housing advocates pushing for reform.
M. Nolan Gray, an expert in urban land-use regulation, said that Montana’s reforms have become the “gold standard” for zoning moderation efforts. These bills, he said, were small, simple, and clean. Gray also said that cities are not monolithic, and local government leaders who have embraced housing policy reform have become powerful voices in states where legislators are examining action.
Each speaker agreed that smaller, single-topic bills have shown to be more successful.
A Leading Voice on Housing Shares Her Thoughts
Over the past year, Jerusalem Demsas of The Atlantic has played a pivotal role in the housing policy discussion.
As the keynote for the event, Demsas sat down with Nick Erickson, executive director of Housing Affordability Institute, for a discussion on her work for The Atlantic and what drives her to dig into the complex world of housing policy.
People understand supply and demand in other industries, Demsas noted, but not in the housing market. This lack of understanding has led to seeking scapegoats for the problem, such as blaming homelessness on anything other than the high cost of housing or pointing to for-ownership to for-rent conversions as the reason behind low housing supply.
Minnesota Legislators Share Their Perspectives on Reform
Minnesota State Representatives Larry Kraft (DFL-St. Louis Park) and Jim Nash (R-Waconia) discussed potential reforms in Minnesota with Mark Foster, vice president of political and legislative affairs for Housing First Minnesota.
Both legislators come to the housing policy discussion from different views but share a background in local government. Kraft, a former city council member, said his service on the council has shown him there need to be reforms. As an environmentalist, he sees the need for more housing as critical to the land-use discussion. Kraft noted that the median income for any major population center in Minnesota is insufficient to buy a median-priced home, underscoring the need for urgent action.
Nash, a former mayor, said he is an advocate for local control, but that local control for housing and land-use decisions has not worked. He noted housing affordability and access are not Republican or Democrat issues with partisan solutions, but rather a Minnesota problem with Minnesota solutions.
Experts Preview 2024 and Beyond
Closing the event, Nick Erickson, Salim Furth, and M. Nolan Grey returned to the stage to discuss the future of the housing reform movement.
Housing Leadership Summit was sponsored by Zillow, Larkin Hoffman, and Housing First Minnesota. For information on future events, connect with the Institute on social media LinkedIn or Twitter, or subscribe to our monthly newsletter: The Framework.