The goal of the NAHB/HUD/Mayors partnership is to build 100,000 more new housing units — over and above the number that would have been built — each year from 1999 to 2009.
Equally important, all three organizations hope that the partnership will strengthen the relationship between homebuilders, mayors, community leaders and others, so that we can all work together to meet the nation's housing demand and help revitalize the long-ignored neighborhoods in our nation's cities.
Doing the Right Thing
Building homes in America's cities is the right thing to do. It is a proven element of "Smart Growth." Revitalizing older suburban and inner city markets and encouraging infill development is widely accepted as good public policy.
Infill development, done wisely, can take advantage of existing infrastructure; provide higher densities in locations where mass transportation is already in place; and integrate new housing into the fabric of the community.
New, market-rate housing can do a lot to help cities retain and attract more families. New housing helps broaden a city's tax base. And it is often followed by new businesses — the corner deli, the local grocer, and the many services that provide the jobs and amenities that help attract more residents and more businesses.
Furthermore, the market is ready. From Washington to Sacramento and from Houston to Detroit, home builders are finding that demand for homes in the cities is strong and growing. Infill housing is smart business.
Homebuilders need to meet with their local mayors and other officials to explain how cities can become more open to new housing by streamlining permitting processes, providing creative financing, identifying potential sites, and implementing other initiatives. Mayors and other elected officials need to foster the creativity to replace outdated zoning codes, regulations, and perceptions.
There is little question that demand for suburban homes will continue to outpace demand for urban housing for the foreseeable future. A 1999 NAHB survey, for example, found that 83 percent of those polled would choose to purchase a detached home in an outlying suburban area over a townhouse located in the city that is near work, public transportation and shopping.
And census numbers indicate that three houses are built in the suburbs for every one built in the cities. Regardless, it is a goal of the Million Homes initiative that a greater percentage of this nation's housing demand be met in coming years by innovative urban builders working with cooperative public officials.
Many challenges remain, however, before we reach the goal of one million more new homes in America's cities. The nation's cities will have to work closely with the housing industry to overcome major impediments, such as aging infrastructure that makes redevelopment costly and difficult, and federal liability laws that increase risks for builders involved in the redevelopment of "brownfield" sites.
Making cities safe from crime, improving the quality of schools and creating employment opportunities are prerequisites for rebuilding the nation's inner cities and for encouraging people to return to them.
We also must understand that not every idea will work in every city. Instead, each city needs to look carefully at successful infill strategies in other cities and use and adapt those ideas that best suit its own unique circumstances.
It is my hope that builders, mayors, planners, community activists, lenders, and others can learn from the experiences of America's cities, so that we can work together to bring new housing to forgotten communities. Building homes in America's cities is Smart Growth and it is good business.
Case Study: Cincinnati, Ohio
St. Ann's Common is a product of the Home Builders Association of Greater Cincinnati's CiTiRAMA showcase. The single-family houses in the city's historic Betts Longworth neighborhood were built by several local builders. The city assisted the project by providing low-cost lots, infrastructure improvements, and a 15-year tax abatement.
Just a few years ago, homeowners were leaving Cincinnati's older neighborhoods and heading for the city's suburbs. Now they're returning, thanks to this partnership between city government and homebuilders.
Jay Buchert, past president of NAHB, explains that they found it more expensive to develop in the city than in the suburbs:
"We are finding that in the inner cities, the infrastructure is dated. A lot of it is Work Projects Administration work from the 1930s — with lead taps and other things that don't meet modern standards. In many cases the utilities are buried under the streets. Somebody has to go in and repair and update that infrastructure."
"The city has been willing to pick up much of that expense," Buchert said. "In the early stages, they have done much of the cleanup, and they have been willing to work on those parts of the infrastructure under the public right-of-way. In the later stages they have done streetscapes: brick sidewalks, lighting, retaining walls, trees. These things make a big difference."
"As long as the city is willing to take on some of the expenses, it keeps the lot prices competitive," Buchert added. "That makes these projects work for the developer, for the builders, and for those families that want to buy a new home in the city."
Robert L. Mitchell is the 2000 President of the National Association of Home Builders.
This article was excerpted with permission from the NAHB publication, "The Next Frontier: Building Homes in America's Cities."