Obtaining quality housing at an affordable cost is a major challenge in wealthy and developing countries alike. In the United States, nearly half of renter households and one-quarter of homeowners spend more than 30% of their total income on housing, which makes them officially housing cost overburdened. In Europe, an estimated 82 million citizens are similarly overburdened by housing costs. This deepening crisis is made even worse by climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and other “wicked problems” affecting the world.
Though the crisis is global, effective solutions can only be developed at the local level, said Kat Grimsley at George Mason University's School of Business. “The legal and policy frameworks of every country and jurisdiction are unique, which is why there are no universal solutions.”
Grimsley is an expert on the evolving toolkit with which governments around the world are combating the affordable housing crisis.
“Despite the fact that each jurisdiction has its own policy framework and limitations at both national and local levels, jurisdictions willing to embrace innovation can learn from the experience of others and adapt ideas for their own context,” said Grimsley, who is director of the MS in Real Estate Development Program at Mason.
Recently, she was one of six main researchers and co-authors for the 188-page United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) #Housing2030 Report, a joint initiative of UNECE, UN Habitat and Housing Europe that compiles and analyses examples of successful affordable housing initiatives from Europe and elsewhere.
“The research to develop the report was a herculean effort by a great international team led by Dr. Julie Larson from the [Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology] that brought together case studies, best practices and innovative thinking from around the world,” said Grimsley.
Grimsley’s contribution to the report follows on from her involvement as vice chair of the UNECE’s Housing and Land Management Advisory Group. Her previous work for the UN includes heading up a working group tasked with updating guidance and reference documents about condominium housing.
The ideas and suggestions in the #Housing2030 Report are broken into four categories: governance, finance and investment, land policy and climate neutrality, with this last issue being key to providing affordable housing at scale without significant impact to the natural environment.
“These four categories align with the broader mission goals of the partner entities, as well as many of the UN’s global Sustainable Development Goals, and are obviously critically important to the lives of millions of people in Europe and elsewhere,” she said.
Each category contains a panoply of examples. Under governance, the report lists such initiatives as Slovakia’s State Housing Policy, a system of five-year plans that bridges several policy silos as well as action by Parliament.
Finance and investment includes Albania’s unique National Housing Agency, which has grown into a financially self-sustaining entity that acts more like an independent real-estate developer than a conventional government body.
Land policies covers critical incentives such as the city of Vienna, Austria’s requirement that at least two-thirds of floor space be given over to subsidized housing anytime greenfield land is recaptured for residential use.
Finally, carbon-neutral housing solutions often combine various funding vehicles alongside, or in place of, regulatory approaches. For example, Estonia hoped to boost the energy efficiency of its older housing stock through a 2018 law meant to hold landlords accountable. But the new regulations proved too difficult to enforce, prompting the state government to instead deploy a mix of loans, guarantees, grants and technological initiatives.
For Grimsley, the report underscores that “affordable housing issues are increasingly receiving the attention they deserve, and there is a robust, growing global community of people trying to find solutions.”
At the same time, she said having an array of proven options to choose from does not necessarily mean that policymakers will be able to enact any or all of the solutions within their jurisdictional authority. No single report can deliver the political will to pursue the dramatic change that would be required to rein in the crisis.
“We have the ability to construct the housing that we need,” Grimsley said. “Unfortunately, a range of complex, interrelated factors often stymie our progress. If we don’t address the very real underlying policy issues, the problem will likely still be here in ten years’ time.”