Wednesday, February 11, 2009

SEWRPC Releases Housing Study Plan: More Work Needed

Edging ever more closely to launching a regional housing study - - its last was published in 1975, so you can see just what priority the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission has attached to this issue - - SEWRPC has finally released what it says will be the housing study advisory committee's scope of work.

The document, an 11-page pdf, is here.

A few initial observations:

On the positive side, SEWRPC is giving its Environmental Justice Task Force a formal advisory in the study development.

That makes sense, as the task force focus certainly incorporates housing, though SEWRPC has made a habit of ignoring its task force following its long, drawn-out creation in 2007.

But SEWRPC declined to adopt a task force recommendation to include independent, socio-economic analyses in all its studies, so the lack of a budget to hire independent consultants for the housing study - - acknowledged in the housing scope of work - - will limit the study's depth and credibility.

You will also note on page six that the scope dips its little toe into one of the deeply embedded socio-economic housing problems in the region - - exclusionary zoning - - which suggests to me that SEWRPC management is not looking for a study that really tackles controversial issues and moves us, as a region, to fundamental change.

Here is how the agency hints at the issue, in classic SEWRPC elliptical, infinitive-splitting, mind-numbing prose:

"An analysis will be undertaken on the extent to which local land use controls may operate to effectively - - albeit not illegally nor necessarily intentionally - - discriminate against sub-groups of the Region's population."

SEWRPC would have been smart to have shared the draft with policy experts and opinion-makers prior to its release.

Instead, it held it close, as is its practice, then will lay it on the volunteer advisory committee - - a group of very busy people denied their own staff or consultants - - so the committee will find itself in a very reactionary position.

Which is SEWRPC's goal: The agency will keep its hands on the controls, naming also in advance Bill Drew, one of its commissioners and long-time insiders, as the housing committee chair.

Note that the just-concluded water advisory committee operated with a three-year budget of nearly $1 million used to hire several consultants and recognized experts to which committee members could make specific requests for refinements, charts, maps, data, and so forth.

SEWRPC says it didn't have the funding for housing consultants, but when it needed financing for the water study it went out and found the money by assessing its seven-member counties proportional shares.

It has had more than 33 years to get this study underway (I've posted a running clock on the front page of my blog to make clear how long it's been) and SEWRPC decided not to seek grants or any other new dollars to make its housing study deep and timely.

I've been on task forces or committees, and staffed them over the years. Task forces and committees are weakest when they have no independent or consulting staff.

They meet every few weeks or months, and really cannot manage, with their limited time, the detailed oversight that a major study requires.

This arrangement will put SEWRPC staff and senior managers more firmly in charge of the agenda, work product, and outcome.

There will have to be a core group of housing committee and environmental justice task force members willing to roll up their sleeves and, as best as they can, assert leadership from Day One over the mechanics of the study.

That would necessitate naming a chair of their choice, and then re-writing the study's scope of work as its first order of business, because once the parameters of the study scope are approved, the direction and the outcomes are set, too.

A final observation:

It is amazing that even with all the headlines about a national and regional housing financing meltdown, these issues are not raised in the housing study scope:

Mortgage finance scarcity; ballooning foreclosures; emergent, post-Baby Boomer and ongoing housing crisis patterns (smaller, urban); technological advances in sustainable construction; significant regional transit deficits; or the impact of SEWRPC-recommended Lake Michigan diversions on regional housing markets - - to name a few contemporary matters.

That's what you get when a study scope is written behind closed doors, at an agency that is notoriously inward looking, and does not link its studies together in comprehensive fashion.


Anonymous said...

The first meeting of the Housing Study Advisory Committee has been scheduled. It will be March 5th 4-6pm at the Tommy Thompson Youth Center, Banquet Room #2, 640 S. 84th Street, West Allis.

James Rowen said...

Thank you, Kori;

Perhaps SEWRPC will post that on its website, where at the Housing Study link, it says no meetings are scheduled.