Comparing Notes on Affordable Housing

4.12.16 | Housing

One of the most commonly-cited examples of a major American city aggressively developing workforce/affordable housing is Seattle.  A few years ago, the Seattle City Council commissioned a comprehensive survey and analysis to find the best practices of comparable jurisdictions on the issue of workforce housing.  The full report is worth reviewing, although the cities examined are generally much bigger than Portsmouth.

That said, there are some interesting pieces we can take for our own modest-sized community. The Urbanist, a Seattle-based online publication which examines and influences urban policy, did an excellent summary of the report, including the four major themes that tended to run through communities who have been successful at growing workforce housing projects:

  • A market led strategy is important. To be successful it’s necessary to understand how market forces affect prices.
  • Public-private partnerships have been key. In many cities this has meant that the private groups, like large employers, have been key for providing community support.
  • Trust funds have played a huge role in affordable housing development across many cities.
  • Land use and regulatory reforms have been absolutely key. More specifically, reducing barriers to development in areas that the community thinks need development have been critical. Examples include increased heights, reduced parking or reduce unit sizes.

Early in 2016, PS21 held an excellent series of gatherings related to this same issue, and identified 12 action items for the community.  A quick review of the list shows at least three of those 12 items that matched up with the major themes found in the Seattle study, including:

  • Removing regulations (square foot minimums, minimum parking requirements, land use restrictions)
  • Amending zoning ordinances to allow incremental increases in available density
  • Making the review by the Planning Board, ZBA, HDC, and the Conservation Commission(advisory) a predictable, time-bound, object and transparent approval process

In the coming weeks and months, Portsmouth will have opportunities to take meaningful steps to increase the likelihood of workforce and affordable housing finally coming to our community. Indeed, city leaders will have the opportunity to make it so. However, as the Seattle study indicated, we as a community must understand how market forces – supply and demand – affect prices. From height, to density, to workforce-friendlier zoning, to reduced unit sizes, to reduced parking requirements, to predictable and time-bound land-use approval processes, there are legitimate tools at our disposal. After several years of being reluctant to use such tools, opportunities are once again coming for consideration. Let’s look at how the most progressive cities in America have risen to similar opportunities, and use those tools, as well.