Why Maryland Needs to Set Local Housing Targets

Alice asked the Cheshire Cat, who was sitting in a tree, “What road do I take?”

The cat asked, “Where do you want to go?”

“I don’t know,” Alice answered.

“Then,” said the cat, “it really doesn’t matter, does it?”

Debates over housing policy often have an Alice in Wonderland quality, with supporters and opponents of development talking past each other and never offering a clear sense of why, where and how much more housing is needed. That’s why a top priority for housing advocates – and Gov. Wes Moore – should be legislation to establish housing targets for each local jurisdiction in the state.

Why are Local Housing Targets Valuable?

The details of land use regulation are usually left to local governments, and with good reason. City and county councils working with local planning commissions are in a much better position than the state to make decisions about how individual parcels of property should be zoned and how a community’s economic, social and environmental goals can best be met. But when these local leaders restrict development to the point where housing shortages become a drag on the state’s economy – not to mention a serious burden on its residents – the state has an obligation to step in.

Gov. Wes Moore has recognized that Maryland is facing a housing crisis, estimating that the state has a shortage of at least 960,000 housing units. To his credit, the governor has introduced a package of bills designed to encourage construction of more homes, including a bold proposal to preempt local zoning limits that limit affordable housing near transit stations.

Housing advocates are applauding the governor’s courage in taking on local control over land use, but they are concerned that the legislation won’t spark much development because it does not apply to market-rate development or cover most parts of the state. What’s more unsettling is that some legislators are already expressing concerns about the idea, raising the prospect of pressure to water down or narrow it even further.

That’s where local housing targets come in. The governor has estimated the shortfall in construction of new housing at about 5,600 units a year, but these numbers don’t provide a clear benchmark that can be used to hold local governments accountable. It’s too easy for local governments to acknowledge that the state has a housing shortage but shrug off responsibility for making sure that they accommodate their share of new homes.

By establishing a framework for figuring out how much housing should be built in each jurisdiction, legislation setting local targets would focus attention on where housing problems are most acute and on holding elected leaders accountable for fixing them. Targets are no substitute for regulatory changes, but they can help document the need for these changes and catalyze action to remove barriers to housing.

How Would Local Targets Be Calculated?

There’s no one right way to measure how much housing a community needs, but housing targets can be established with objective measures. The best example in our area is the housing target resolution adopted in 2019 by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG), a group consisting of the local governments of the District of Columbia and its suburbs in Maryland and Virginia.

COG used economic and demographic forecasting tools to estimate how many more people and jobs are likely to be added across the region. COG’s central finding was that the Washington region is likely to generate demand for about 413,000 new jobs in the decade ending in 2030, and the workers needed to fill these jobs will need 320,000 more housing units (based on the average number of people in each household). This analysis led COG to conclude that the DC area needs to build 75,000 more housing units (beyond the 245,000 new units anticipated based on projections of current trends) over the next decade.

The state of Washington took a somewhat different approach, requiring local governments to demonstrate that their comprehensive land use plans include a housing “element” that explains how future housing needs will be met. When drafting these plans local governments must follow state-approved guidelines, which encourage – but do not require – the use of job forecasts along with factors such as household size, commuting patterns, and trends in population growth. Similarly, California law requires local governments to demonstrate that they have adopted plans to accommodate sufficient housing to meet forecast needs.

While the methodological details may seem daunting, the good news is that much of the work involved in developing estimates of future growth in population, households, and jobs is already required. For example, every large metropolitan area must gather and analyze data on population growth and related trends to comply with the Clean Air Act and other federal transportation planning requirements. COG’s housing forecasts are based in large part on information gathered for this purpose; the Baltimore Regional Council performs these functions for the Baltimore area.

Likewise, the state currently collects and reports information on ten-year job growth forecasts by sector and occupational category for each local jurisdiction, although state and local planning agencies sometimes choose to conduct their own analyses of these trends.

What Happens if Targets are Missed?

By themselves, housing targets do not compel local governments to change their zoning laws, streamline procedures for approval of proposed housing, or provide subsidies to make housing more affordable. Even without an enforcement mechanism, though, targets can prod local governments to confront their housing supply challenges. Montgomery County, for example, has embraced the COG housing targets and is developing goals for 22 separate parts of the county to be used in its future land use plans.

In California, state law establishes a system for forecasting housing needs and allocating responsibility for meeting those needs to local juridictions. Municipal governments that fail to adopt plans to accommodate their share of housing give up the power to reject development projects that set aside at least 20 percent of units for low-income residents. This so-called “builder’s remedy” is rarely used for a variety of reasons, but it can be a powerful tool to preempt local zoning rules or, more often, to persuade local elected officials to plan for more housing.

Legislation establishing housing targets in Maryland would spotlight parts of the state where local governments have failed to establish a regulatory framework that consistently delivers enough housing to meet the needs of their community. In many, if not all, cases these jurisdictions are likely to respond by working to improve their rules. If they refuse, they will no longer be in a position to insist on local control and the state will be on firm ground in taking stronger action to override local zoning laws or take other steps to ensure that housing needs are met.

Without targets to set expectations about where and how much more housing is needed, consensus on better housing policies will remain elusive. After all, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do.

Casey Anderson recently joined Rodgers Consulting as an adviser after more than a decade of service on the Montgomery County Planning Board