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January 2021

Veteran policy consultant offers insights for housing advocates

January 6, 2021

In a special presentation tailored to Realtor associations, veteran public policy/communications consultant Michael Luis discussed constraints and strategies for working effectively with local governments. Drawing on his experiences as an elected official and executive with local not-for-profit and economic development organizations, the Medina resident offered insights on changing land use policies and regulations to increase housing supplies.

Housing construction once proceeded with little opposition or constraints until the 1980s. That's when anti-sprawl efforts started to emerge in many areas of the country, including the Evergreen State, Luis recounted in his opening comments. Efforts in Washington culminated with passage of the Washington State Growth Management Act (GMA) in 1990, a measure designed to slow the spread of urban growth and to concentrate growth in existing developed areas.

The measure also led to a "seismic shift in the housing business," and it changed how local governments should look at housing, Luis stated.

"Political conflict and a more complex regulatory environment have made local housing advocacy far more important," stated Luis, a former councilmember and mayor of Medina.

"Housing advocacy is hard work," Luis acknowledged, adding, "Governments are not set up to change quickly or for radical change." Because people in local government can at times exhibit a '50s mindset and tend to be very conservative at the local level even though they may be liberal nationally, "you have to be strategic about picking your shots."

"Local governments exist, in many ways, to resist change," Luis asserted. Local officials may perceive housing as a beast that has to be reined in, but their attitude should be more akin to economic development and their role should be akin to a facilitator, Luis suggested

Unlike states and counties, which are typically tied to physical land areas, local governments are tied more closely to people, Luis said. A central driver of local politics is the element of choice - "choice to incorporate or annex, choice of what services to provide and how to provide them." Consequently, among the nearly 1900 local governments within the State of Washington, adjacent cities can take very different approaches to providing services.

The evolutionary and fluid nature of local governments also mean any particular property may be served by multiple governments, such as school districts, utility, fire and hospital districts, or other special purpose districts.

Local governments historically have wide authorities regarding land use and development. With regard to housing, Luis said such authority is concentrated in five areas, including

  • Planning and zoning
  • Permitting
  • Infrastructure
  • Environmental regulation
  • Local services

In working with local governments on housing, Luis said a lack of understanding of what "housing affordability" is about can be very frustrating.

To address these and related challenges of housing and land use politics, housing advocates should be mindful of three pieces of social science theory and how they come into play:

  1. Tiebout and public choice. Economist Charles Tiebout analyzed neighborhood differences on taxes and spending and concluded residents shop around for a city that best meets their personal preferences. Luis said this principle of self-selection and sorting easily applies to land use: Once they find a city with a land use pattern they like, they want to preserve their perception of "community character." For housing advocates, this means remembering local officials were elected "by people who tend to like things just the way they are and expect their city leaders to honor their aversion to change."
  2. Cosmopolitans and locals. Issues at the city level cut across the normal Republican/Democrat or conservative/liberal national groups. Socialist Daniel Elazar developed the cosmopolitan/local concept based on how people fit along a continuum, rather than an either/or political grouping. Luis suggests housing growth is a good way to distinguish between the perspectives. For people near the cosmopolitan end of the spectrum, more housing means more people, more activity, and more spending in the local area. If housing is more affordable, residents can spend more money on other things. For a more locally oriented person, more housing means more traffic and crowding, higher prices and a threat to the environment.
  3. The value of losses and gains. This theory, based on the concept of loss aversion, highlights the different value people place on losses versus gains. "People tend to place a higher value on the prospect of losing something than on the prospect of gaining something of equal worth," Luis explained. When applied to changes in a community or neighborhood, advantages of a new development need to be articulated as large to offset the fear that a neighborhood will be degraded. Luis contends a strategy should address potential downsides before attempting to promote the upsides.

After discussing various "things" that make housing politics "really hard," Luis outlined three strategies for housing advocacy and two critical ingredients of success. He said strategies operate at three levels;

  1. Creating a supportive atmosphere (an ongoing process to make sure public officials understand the importance of housing, appreciate the challenges of supplying it, and be receptive to ideas for improving the housing situation.
  2. Ensuring favorable regulatory and commission actions. "The goal is to ensure that administrative decisions are fair and timely and commission recommendations are pro-housing," he emphasized.
  3. Ensuring favorable council action.

Advocacy with any level of government requires two critical factors: friendly, positive, respectful relationships (both individual and institutional), and information (to understand each other's objectives and constraints).

The strategies and ingredients for success don't happen sequentially, Luis cautioned. "They're concurrent. If you wait for sequence, you lose your opportunity."

As part of his presentation, Luis also offered tips on effective meetings and written materials, building constituencies, the elements of an ongoing housing advocacy program, and activities needed for a successful campaign when pursuing a particular legislative or regulatory action. Three "non-negotiables" he emphasized were having an annual agenda that identifies the problem, holding regular meetings with decision-makers, and building coalitions.

Luis is a third generation native of the Seattle area and author of several local history books. His consulting practice clients include state and local governments, high education institutions, not-for-profit and economic development organizations, and businesses. Much of his work has focused on issues of housing, infrastructure, and community and economic development.

The "Politics of Housing" program for local Realtor associations was hosted by Washington REALTORS®.