City planning is crucial for addressing our biggest challenges, from housing to resilience to equity. But it can also be misunderstood, undercut by past failures, and relegated to more modest missions, like zoning and permitting. The places we live are going to change one way or another and good planning can help make sure these changes align with our communities’ goals.
In my previous role as the director of the District of Columbia Office of Planning, we elevated this discussion by using our agency’s expertise in land use as a jumping-off point for assessing our most pressing challenges at several scales. These scales start with the individual and household level and move up through block, neighborhood, city, national, and global levels.
Defining and analyzing these scales can help frame various citywide challenges and determine where changes—such as new housing policies—might have the biggest impact and where they might have unintended consequences. In DC, our housing work shows how planning through this scalar thinking can improve policymaking.
Looking within a city to understand the neighborhood and individual impacts
Housing policy often starts with citywide tools and programs; even federal funding for housing often gets allocated at the city level. Over the past decade, DC made record investments in affordable housing, using both local and federal funding. And in 2019, Mayor Bowser set ambitious citywide goals to address the structural undersupply of housing and increase affordable housing opportunities.
These citywide steps are necessary but insufficient to address such a complex system as housing, which is affected by forces at every level.
A strong citywide policy could end up with negative results if it doesn’t address issues of housing equity and the distribution of housing opportunity. In DC, I helped the mayor set affordable housing goals by neighborhood to guide the new investments in affordable housing toward addressing the long-standing systems that created an inequitable distribution of affordable housing across the city.
Decisions in one neighborhood affect other neighborhoods. Seemingly objective historical neighborhood-level opposition to more housing—such as impact on school enrollment, traffic, or parking—has squeezed out housing opportunities, especially affordable housing, in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods and has put pressure on higher-poverty, African-American neighborhoods to take on this development. In DC, to address this challenge, we updated our Comprehensive Plan to make it easier to produce more housing across the city, especially in high-opportunity neighborhoods.
The individual level is perhaps the most important and the most challenging aspect of housing policy. Every person has their unique housing stories, experiences, and stresses. So often we hear individual concerns about housing costs, property tax increases, or challenges about aging in one’s neighborhood.
Housing policy, so focused on technical details around land use, financing, or regulations, can often become untethered from real people’s experiences. Policy works broadly, so although it may be able to tackle broad issues, it cannot solve every individual’s challenges. But just as user experience design has become an essential element of technology development, rooting policy in understanding and empathy has become a crucial part of policymaking. And individual experiences and stories can be analyzed along with broader data to ensure policy is based in lived experience and not biased by outlier anecdotes.
Looking beyond a city to account for the regional and federal forces at play
Looking up the scale, if other regional jurisdictions don’t do their part to address housing needs, then the overall housing shortage, which functions at the regional level, will continue to increase costs. And if one or more jurisdictions in a region put further upward pressure on prices, it could make another jurisdiction’s investments more costly and less effective.
During my tenure, I was the cochair of the Planning Directors Technical Advisory Committee for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, where we leveraged Urban Institute research to help the region set ambitious goals for overall housing, affordability, and access to transit and jobs that would help reduce rent pressure across the region’s housing market.
In DC, we recognized national and global forces play a role in housing, even if it’s mostly out of our control. The federal government is a critical funder of affordable housing, especially the most deeply affordable. For example, the continued reduction in federal funding for public housing has caused additional challenges and stresses for localities and residents, while increased funding for vouchers has been critical for addressing issues like homelessness.
In addition, the federal government’s role in the homeownership market is critical, as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac set nationwide underwriting policies. And the Federal Reserve, along with the broader globalized financial market, has a direct impact on mortgage rates and households’ ability to become (or stay) homeowners.
This scalar framework is useful for showing the value of city planning work by providing an accessible way for policymakers, organizations, and residents to conceptualize a complex system, understand the different levels of impact, and promote policies that work to create a more equitable housing landscape for all residents.