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Housing Technology Series: Planning for New Supply


Keywords: HUD, Housing Technology, Zoning, Community

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Housing Technology Series: Planning for New Supply

Aerial view of Greensboro, North Carolina.Encouraging civic engagement can help allow community members to contribute local knowledge about mobility access features, which in turn helps determine sites best suited for housing construction.

On January 18, 2024, HUD and Terner Labs hosted the second symposium of the Housing Technology Series: Planning for New Supply. The two-panel event brought together housing experts, technologists, and innovators to explore emerging technologies designed to support civic engagement and planning for new housing supply.

The first conversation explored how industry professionals leverage technology to engage residents for housing development. Moderated by Beth Lynk, the assistant secretary for public affairs at HUD, the panel included Annemarie Gray, executive director of Open New York; Taiwo Jaiyeoba, city manager of the city of Greensboro, North Carolina; and Ceasar McDowell, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Claudia Monterrosa, deputy assistant secretary for grant programs at HUD, moderated the second conversation, in which experts discussed how technology helps developers, planners, and other decisionmakers improve zoning codes and select optimal sites for housing projects. The panel included Kevin Donnelly, vice president of government affairs technology and strategic initiatives at the National Multifamily Housing Council; Sara Bronin, director of the National Zoning Atlas; and Dan Reed, regional policy director of Greater Greater Washington.

Defining Meaningful Engagement

The first panel centered its discussion around a consensus definition of meaningful engagement: engagement that enhances people's ability to participate democratically. Jaiyeoba elaborated, stating that the three crucial elements of democratic engagement are collaboration, continuity, and consistency. Jaiyeoba described how the city of Greensboro held a design sprint in which city staff and community members collaborated to build a digital platform to program available land for additional housing units. The platform was intended to incorporate local knowledge as one of many data sources that contribute to siting projects. For example, one feature of the digital platform allowed community members to contribute their understanding of the quality of mobility access such as sidewalks, roads, and public transportation to help determine the sites that were best suited for housing construction. The platform also allows residents to continue sharing information so that the city can be more informed in identifying areas and projects to meet its housing goals.

To provide insight on the need to practice continuous engagement, McDowell highlighted the Real Talk for Change project, emphasizing that specific issues such as housing cannot be discussed in isolation, because they are intimately connected with other facets of people's lives. The project consists of short dialogues among Boston residents in which local organizations serve as facilitators, asking residents two questions: "What is your question about the future of Boston and your place in it?" and "What's the experience in your life that got you to that question?" Unlike the traditional top-down approach to engagement, in which city officials preselect a narrow set of issues for discussion, this type of inquiry allows residents to share the priorities they have for their lives and their city and allows officials to uncover unexpected connections between these different priorities.

Gray introduced the challenges of traditional community engagement, which require community members to travel and attend events at a specified time. She explains that the resulting audience often includes "predominantly white, wealthy and homeowners and not the ones experiencing housing insecurity." As Jaiyeoba suggested, technology that addresses these time and resource constraints can "balance the voices in the room" and overcome traditional engagement barriers. Even so, he acknowledged that although technology can diversify engagement, those who employ these platforms must consider the reality that the digital divide in some Black and Brown communities could reinforce inequities. The panel briefly argued for using technology to improve the consistency of communication during engagement processes, as uneven messaging can sometimes erode trust, thus defeating the purpose of the engagement.

Using Technology for Housing Supply

The second panel centered on technology that helps identify rezoning opportunities for boosting housing supply. Reed framed the discussion by explaining that developers and policymakers likely make decisions based on preconceived notions about the communities in which they work that can be inaccurate or outdated. To overcome this hurdle, zoning atlases can help stakeholders objectively assess the development potential of specific properties by accounting for zoning regulations and physical constraints. The state of Maryland, for example, recently announced proposals for increasing housing supply by upzoning property owned by nonprofits or the State that is within a mile of public transit. The proposal uses tech-enabled zoning maps to determine eligible properties and estimate the effect on housing supply of such a change. Through Reed's experience, a national platform such as the National Zoning Atlas could offer municipalities a resource to understand the potential for zoning innovations to increase housing supply in their area.

According to Bronin, the National Zoning Atlas not only informs legislative changes but also standardizes understanding among researchers and policymakers. Covering areas across which 33 million Americans live, the project provides robust data for understanding national zoning codes. In addition, the data have enabled more research on the relationship between zoning, race, household income, education level, and other demographics. As the project integrates more municipalities, Bronin stated that smaller towns that are not yet covered and do not have their own zoning atlas are using case studies from similar places to guide local discussions about housing supply. In the private sector, Donnelly explained that technological innovations such as zoning atlases and artificial intelligence are helping multifamily housing developers identify opportunities to reduce costs and improve efficiency.

The Promise and Limits of Technology in Housing

The two panel discussions demonstrated that technology offers promising solutions for enhancing housing policy while acknowledging some inherent limitations. Relying solely on technological platforms may risk empowering a subset of the population to make decisions for the broader community. A key consideration in moving forward with such technology is to not only codesign the platforms with communities but also to pair this technology use with on-the-ground and face-to-face engagement with residents so their local expertise can be properly incorporated into decision-making processes.

Published Date: 5 March 2024

This article was written by Sage Computing Inc, under contract with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.