Finding Answers to Housing Affordability Over Coffee

We have energetic citizens who want to help solve problems -- we just have to listen.
July 28, 2015 AT 11:00 AM
By Ron Littlefield  |  Senior Fellow
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.

In Lake County, Fla., three small homes sit on one large lot. (Tom Benitez/Orlando Sentinel/MCT)

Housing affordability is rising to the top of mayoral priority lists as more than 40 million Americans currently spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing payments, property taxes and other housing expenses. Worse, 49 percent of renters are “cost burdened” by their monthly rent payments.

It’s an issue that strikes close to home for some of the cities in the second cohort of the City Accelerator. For example, a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, “How to make Los Angeles more affordable,” notes: “… since 1970, half a million more people have moved to Los Angeles than were planned for. Housing supply simply has not kept pace with growth, so it should be no surprise that L.A. has become the least affordable city in the country — a city booming in gentrification (the rich displacing the poor) and busting in affordability (for everyone except the very well-off).”

Seattle is also struggling. Mayor Ed Murray notes: “We are facing our worst housing affordability crisis in decades. My vision is a city where people who work in Seattle can afford to live here.” In September 2014, the city created the Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee to investigate and provide recommendations to make Seattle more affordable.

Seattle and Los Angeles aren’t alone in the complex problem of housing affordability. And there are no easy answers. But as I think about this problem I wanted to reflect on a recent conversation I had with two young entrepreneurs at The Camp House in Chattanooga.

The Camp House is worthy of a brief description. Part restaurant and coffee shop, part performance hall and part church, it fills the first floor of a 60-year-old parking garage and former gas station attached to a historic multi-story office building. It has become a favorite gathering place for some of the city's growing tribe of creative thinkers. It is an interesting and eclectic space, and even though I have always considered myself to be forward-thinking and progressive, I admit I feel old and out of place there.

The purpose of my visit was to meet with Jeremy Weaver and Stephanie Murrer, who are members of the team behind Wind River Tiny Homes, a small start-up company. Both Jeremy and Stephanie are infused with energy and a spirit of adventure as they describe their plans and obstacles to be part of the tiny house revolution.

I have briefly mentioned Wind River Tiny Homes before in previous writings about innovation and they have been featured on the national television show Tiny House Nation. They are also in discussions for a possible reality show of their own.

A large focus of the second cohort of the City Accelerator is the importance of civic engagement. Part of my reason for writing about this meeting is to demonstrate how young leaders – when engaged – are investing their lives to transform their cities. I’m pleased and encouraged to find there are those among the up-and-coming generation who have ambition and ability, but also a lot of heart. They want to make a living, but also create a positive difference in their communities.

Jeremy and Stephanie wanted my perspective as a former city planner and politician as they struggle to find their way through the Byzantine bureaucratic maze of government regulation. Certainly their contemporaries in the tiny house movement in other communities are having similar experiences, but that's always the way with invention and innovation. Change is hard.

I explained to them how Chattanooga has slowly evolved from standard land regulations requiring strict divisions of land use types, large residential lots and overly generous setbacks to a more flexible plan that permits attached town homes on very small lots. We also now have an increased combination of residential and non-residential structures that promotes a mix of work and play.

I assured them that regulations generally don't arise from government wanting to be difficult, but that it's usually a reaction to a painful experience with the worst cases of bad development and to prevent future such abuses. Governments can be just as experimental and innovative as private sector entrepreneurs and inventors. However, when regulations change and things do not go as planned, improper developments can stand for decades as public monuments to poor decisions. I pointed them toward some existing historically bad developments that still haunt parts of Chattanooga and we discussed ways to avoid such experiences.

They told me about participating in Chattanooga's most recent civic engagement exercise – a series of public hearings leading up to a major overhaul of local land regulations and adoption of a form-based code. We discussed how such changes might impact the tiny home concept and how they can continue to be part of the process.

Most interestingly, at least to me, was their professed desire to make their tiny home concept work for such diverse communities as the poor and homeless, and to provide housing for college students and for people with modern, highly mobile lifestyles. We discussed how to design and develop inclusive and cohesive neighborhoods, how to prepare in advance for inevitable transitions in ownership, how to create a sense of financial stability so as to make such developments “bankable,” how to promote growth in a homeowners' equity, and how to prevent the dual threats of deterioration or gentrification.

It was a most encouraging and wide-ranging discussion. This is not an advertisement for Wind River Tiny Homes or any of the principals involved in that new enterprise. Nor is it intended to spark greater interest in the already burgeoning tiny house movement. This is simply an acknowledgment that in the ever-changing world of urban development, there are some significant bright spots and there are always some innovative answers to some of our biggest, most complex problems.

Seattle’s Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee put together a report of 65 recommendations to Mayor Ed Murray and the City Council. Among them was to provide more housing by increasing access, diversity and inclusion within single family areas by boosting production of accessory dwelling units and detached accessory dwelling units. The committee also recommended removing specific code barriers to allow for more variety of housing types.

The world is changing. Cities are changing. As we focus on providing better opportunities for low-income populations, it’s important to see how we need both new policies and engaged citizens who can innovate within the bounds of those policies. New ideas and innovations are needed and new leaders can rise to the challenge. To paraphrase President John F. Kennedy, “The torch is passed to a new generation.”

Be part of the campaign for civic innovation at the City Accelerator, presented by Citi Foundation.