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Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

Can Digitalization Improve How We Plan, Review, and Regulate Housing?

Digitalization, which has already changed how housing is produced, sold, financed, and used, could also improve how we plan, review, regulate, and shape both housing and housing markets, according to three new papers. However, policymakers and advocates who want to take advantage of digitalization must overcome significant obstacles according to the authors, who first presented their work at last year’s symposium on housing and digitalization.

In “Data-Driven Multi-Scale Planning for Housing Affordability,” Paul Waddell and Arezoo Besharati argue that growing concerns about housing affordability have spurred the development of digital tools to assess potential sites for housing. To illustrate the potential of these tools, Waddell, a professor emeritus of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley and CEO of UrbanSim (which uses data and data analytics to improve planning) and Besharati, the firm’s director of product, discuss efforts to develop a nationwide, data-driven planning strategy in Canada, where UrbanSim has been working with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and several local governments. This work includes using new techniques to collect and synthesize data and uses machine learning algorithms and other tools to develop, analyse, and assess policies and projects. For example, the company worked closely with Housing Now, a Toronto housing advocacy organization, to spur the development of over 12,000 units of mixed-income, mixed-use housing on “unexpected sites” near high-capacity transit lines. Using UrbanSim’s feasibility tool, they assessed how different development options might advance key goals, such as making housing more affordable and increasing ridership on underutilized transit lines. The sites included a lot zoned for a three-story structure, where, after reviewing alternative approaches, the city ultimately approved a 25-story building with 266 rental units, half of them affordable. Despite such successes, Waddell and Besharati caution that the process is still relatively complex and lengthy and that using digitalization to improve and speed up processes requires that public, private, and non-profit actors adopt the same tools and approaches.

Efforts to use data in urban development must also contend with the fact that, historically, those in power have often used data to elevate some while marginalizing others, write Sarah Williams, Justin Kollar, and Niko McGlashan in “Creating Action with Data: Using Data to Increase Equity in Urban Development.” For example, maps developed by the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) were used to exclude minority communities from mortgages in the mid-twentieth century and many zoning laws still reinforce structural racism. Williams, an associate professor of technology and urban planning at MIT and director of the school’s Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism; Kollar, a Leventhal doctoral fellow; and McGlashan, a Leventhal research associate, also assert that by exposing inequality and encouraging dialogue and debate, carefully designed, data-driven initiatives can make development processes more inclusive and cities more accountable.

To illustrate this claim, they examine two initiatives. The first is the Equity Indicators project at CUNY’s Institute for State and Local Governance, which used publicly available data to develop equity scores for neighborhoods, first in New York City and later in five other major US cities. The second is a set of interrelated initiatives in Seattle that used data to identify places with social, economic, and environmental disparities and then built on that work via community planning processes. These efforts include the city of Seattle’s Equity and Environment Initiative and its Equitable Development Initiative; an Equity Index created by the semi-autonomous Port of Seattle; and plans for investments and programs in targeted areas such as the Duwamish Valley and communities near the region’s airports.

Four important themes emerge from their analysis:

  1. Building a proper team and engaging stakeholders is essential to defining equity.
  2. It is critical to evaluate both the source of the data and the data’s appropriateness for measuring equity because, while Census data is an excellent way to measure challenges, it doesn’t help policymakers understand which issues are most important to specific communities.
  3. While it's important to find the right data, it is equally important to find the appropriate analysis techniques for translating data into actionable knowledge.
  4. Communicating results effectively can yield compelling insights. The authors caution against presenting findings that cannot be easily understood or analyzed by people who do not have advanced analytical training.

Digitalization also has an under-appreciated potential to advance fair housing goals, contends Nestor Davidson, the Walsh Chair in Real Estate, Land Use, and Property Law at Fordham University’s School of Law and faculty director of the school’s Urban Law Center, in “Innovations in Digitalization and the Future of Fair Housing.” In the paper, Davidson acknowledges concerns expressed in other symposium papers that, by facilitating the entry of new investors into residential housing markets, digitalization makes it harder for people of color to find and finance housing. However, he asserts that innovations in how we collect and analyze the vast amount of information about housing markets could “move our complex, all-too-opaque, fragmented systems of housing in more equitable and sustainable directions.” Indeed, aggregating and analyzing new data might reveal hidden patterns of bias while improved analytical tools, such as AI, might make it easier to assess the fair housing implications for housing subsidies, zoning policies, infrastructure investments, and affirmative marketing plans, although such efforts may be constrained by court decisions that limit race-conscious policymaking.

The fact that each of the papers, in its own way, focuses in part on problems with local zoning codes, highlights the need for a National Zoning Atlas, contends Sara Bronin in her commentary on the papers. A professor at Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, Bronin helped develop the Connecticut Zoning Atlas and also chairs the US Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. In her commentary, she notes that, historically, we haven’t had good tools to measure and compare the restrictiveness the 30,000+ local zoning codes in the US. However, a few months after the symposium was held, a National Zoning Atlas initiative was launched and, a little more than a year later, zoning atlas projects are underway in 30 states and 60 organizations have become part of the National Zoning Atlas research collaborative. While a National Zoning Atlas will not automatically lead to better outcomes, it should make it easier to implement many of the approaches highlighted in the new papers. Doing so, Bronin asserts, could strengthen planning at the local, regional, statewide, and even national level; help people become better informed participants in land-use decisions that affect them; and provide baseline information for researchers exploring the impacts of zoning on issues like affordability.

The papers are the fifth and final set in a series focused on how digitalization is changing all aspects of housing; whether those changes are likely to advance (or stymie) efforts to address challenges related to housing affordability, equity, resiliency, and livability; and what kinds of policies might spur desired changes or exacerbate existing problems.