Michigan Ross Professor Shares Ideas to Ease Housing Crisis

Brian Connolly, assistant professor of business law
Brian Connolly, assistant professor of business law

A proposal developed by a University of Michigan business expert and others to help ease the U.S. housing crisis is being shared with federal housing officials. Brian Connolly, assistant professor of business law, plans to participate on Thursday in a housing ideas showcase in Washington, D.C. Officials from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and National Economic Council are expected to attend.

Connolly and his colleagues, Heidi Aggeler and Avilia Bueno of Root Policy Research, recommend creating a federal government dashboard to track housing production within and across local areas and states. No laws currently require—and few agencies have developed—methods to track this production despite the data’s relevance and importance to fair and affordable housing. The idea was among 18 winners of a Housing Ideas Challenge, spearheaded by the Federation of American Scientists and other organizations aiming to crowdsource ideas to boost the housing supply. The initiative drew several hundred proposals. Connolly discusses his proposal as well as its societal and economic implications.

How did you arrive at this idea and what about it appeals to you? The fact there’s currently no means of doing this type of tracking seems like a strong reason, for starters.

The United States faces a serious housing crisis, and a lot of scholars and policymakers are fixated on the idea that we need to reform zoning to make it easier to build housing. Although there is a need to ease the housing development process, there’s surprisingly little data on the nuances of housing approvals, permitting and production.

In any given city, there is little accessible information about the numbers of housing units proposed by developers, permitted for construction, and actually constructed, and it’s hard to determine why certain housing does not get built. For example, it’s difficult to determine whether unbuilt housing is the result of restrictive zoning, other legal restrictions or developer financing challenges. That lack of information is even more significant when it’s compounded across all of the cities and states in the country.

With the data collected and made available through a national housing dashboard, researchers, policymakers, developers and others would have an improved understanding of what’s causing our housing crisis—and what policy changes are most effective in addressing it.

How heavy of a lift, in terms of money and resources, would this be for local and state governments?

It’s a lift, but less heavy than some other policy interventions. For state governments, there would be little obligation.

As we’ve proposed it, local governments that receive federal housing funds would need to submit an annual report to the federal government detailing how many housing units have been proposed in their jurisdiction, how many they’ve approved, how many have been constructed, the affordability levels of those completed units, and why proposed units haven’t been built.

What do you hope to accomplish in Washington?

The event in Washington is a showcase of the ideas that were selected for publication by the Federation of American Scientists. Leaders in federal housing policy will be in attendance, and it will be a great opportunity to have more discussion about this idea and others to improve federal housing policy.

The issue of meeting the demand for more and better affordable housing seems intractable. Are you optimistic that, if your idea and others are implemented, they could move the needle in the right direction?

I am certainly optimistic we can address our housing problem, but it’s going to take time and a significant departure from the way we’ve been doing things for the past 100-plus years. Right now, polling shows that political attitudes are aligned in favor of expanding affordable housing options, and policymakers need to take advantage of those attitudes by adopting the most effective solutions to the problem.

Data collection on new and existing housing has been limited, and our idea presents an opportunity to better understand our housing market and housing development. Many of the other ideas in the showcase present other departures from old practices that will help to move the needle.