Rochester’s Multi-Pronged Housing Strategy Started With Data
2021 Certification Level: Silver
By Jadeen Samuels and Madeleine Weatherhead
In many U.S. cities, residents face rising rents and home prices that put affordable housing out of reach. But Rochester, New York’s housing crisis is different. The city is a soft market in which supply exceeds demand. Median housing costs for homeowners and renters are significantly lower in Rochester than in New York State and nationwide, but high poverty rates and very low incomes still create major affordability challenges. There’s also a basic quality problem: An aging housing stock requires maintenance and upgrades.
“We have one of the oldest housing stocks in the country,” says Elizabeth Murphy, associate planner and administrative analyst in Rochester’s Office of City Planning. Nearly two-thirds of housing units in the city were built prior to 1950 and nearly 90 percent were built prior to 1980. “That means a lot of deferred maintenance and healthy housing needs.” In many parts of the post-industrial city, houses have deteriorating roofs and mechanicals, as well as lead paint and asbestos. Renovation and remediation needs are high, but given low home values and high poverty rates, rehab or redevelopment at the scale that is needed only makes financial sense with “significant subsidies” in the mix, Murphy notes.
Rochester’s 2018 citywide housing market study, its first in more than a decade, crystallized officials’ understanding of the housing crisis. Drawing on a range of qualitative and quantitative data sources, including City-owned and U.S. Census data, the study painted a detailed picture of the housing market’s structural challenges as well as key market interventions the City could pursue to help develop both affordable and market-rate housing units. City leaders incorporated the data-driven housing analysis and recommendations into its new 15-year comprehensive plan, Rochester 2034, adopted by City Council in 2019.
“The housing study made the challenges of our market context clear,” says Kevin Kelley, manager of planning. “It also made clear that we need to strategically engage that reality to help reposition and revitalize our neighborhoods.”
Like the housing study, Rochester 2034’s blueprint for growth and development reflects the City’s commitment to foundational data-driven practice areas including stakeholder engagement, performance & analytics, and data governance. It draws on input gathered from over 4,000 community members and over 100 stakeholder groups to set specific, achievable goals across a range of areas — transportation, economic growth and housing among them. Recognizing that Rochester’s housing challenges are multidimensional, the Plan envisions the City playing multiple roles to spark and sustain positive change.
“There’s a spectrum of roles local government can play with housing,” Kelley says. “In some instances it serves as a charitable giver and in others it plays the role of strategic investor. There’s a time and a place for each.”
As examples of the former, the City serves hundreds of low-income households each year through grants to pay for housing rehab, new roofs, emergency furnace/boiler/water heater repairs, and addressing lead hazards in pre-1978 housing units. As a strategic investor, the City is looking to take a data-driven approach to support projects in so-called “middle markets.” These are defined as neighborhoods vulnerable to decline where targeted investments could help stabilize home values and promote long-term benefits to the community.
Rochester 2034’s Housing Action Plan set six overarching goals with 37 specific strategies recommended for implementation. Staff track progress on the goals by updating a shared internal reporting site. In its first Two-Year Progress Report since Plan adoption, the City reports that work has been completed on one of the 37 housing strategies and is underway (i.e., “started” or “ongoing”) on 28 of them. Reports that describe overall progress on Plan implementation and provide detailed status updates on specific strategies will be released to the community every two years through 2034.
Leveraging RFPs and City-Owned Land to Catalyze Change
One of the Plan’s housing goals was to support the production of new high-quality, mixed-income housing that is both affordable and accessible to people across a wide range of incomes, abilities, household sizes, and ages. Rochester’s annual budget now sets specific targets for the number of affordable and market-rate units the City will create; current fiscal year goals are 152 and 103, respectively.
To spur production of units, the City updated its annual Housing Development request for proposals (RFP) requirements for any organization (whether for-profit or otherwise) seeking financial support from the City or looking to buy vacant City-owned land for a housing project. As of this year, to garner City support, developers of market-rate mixed-income projects that do not qualify for affordable housing subsidy programs administered by New York State have to make at least 20% of housing units affordable to individuals or families earning at or below 60% of the area’s Median Family Income (MFI).
The Rochester 2034 plan has also jump-started more strategic approaches to developing vacant lots; the City owns thousands of parcels across Rochester. City officials are working to customize redevelopment goals and RFPs for City-owned land to better reflect market context, with the goal of stimulating neighborhood development in more targeted ways. In low-demand areas, which tend to be lower-income, parcels may be reserved for businesses that will create durable jobs and thereby stimulate demand for housing. But if the parcel is in a higher-market area, the city may want to use the RFP to spur affordable and mixed-use development.
“We’re taking a more customized approach in how we think about land use and our role as a strategic investor,” Kelley says. “A basic goal here is to provide more jobs, with better wages, so housing options can become more in reach for folks.” Because Rochester’s affordability challenges are rooted in very low incomes, its housing strategy and economic development strategy need to dovetail.
This is on display in Rochester’s Development Opportunity Sites initiative that markets 12 City-owned sites which, officials believe, are well-positioned to help revitalize surrounding neighborhoods. While those sites await buyers, residents interested in understanding how their government is working to attract businesses and produce more affordable housing can view a GIS-based map detailing projects the City has invested in during the last 10 years.
“We’re proud of the progress we’ve made in embedding data-driven governance practices into our culture and grateful to What Works Cities for its support,” says Kate May, Rochester’s chief performance officer. “There’s been a valuable shift in how we think about housing challenges and pursue solutions. In the coming years, I expect our new strategies will deliver more and more results to residents.”
Jadeen Samuels is Assistant, Strategy & Innovation, and Madeleine Weatherhead is Senior Manager, Strategy and Innovation for What Works Cities at Results for America.
As a member of the nationwide What Works Cities (WWC) network, the City of Rochester has received technical assistance from one of WWC’s expert partners to strengthen data-driven governance capacities. The City has also participated in WWC’s Economic Mobility Initiative and City Budgeting for Equity and Recovery program.
Rochester is one of 33 cities to achieve 2021 What Works Cities Certification, the national standard of excellence for well-managed, data-driven local government. Read stories from other certified cities here.