Facilitating collaborations between cities and counties
In some jurisdictions, city and county governments have distinct responsibilities for addressing housing needs within the same geography. This relationship can sometimes be challenging to navigate, but a thoughtful city-county partnership can help both entities advance their housing goals. By coordinating their approach to housing, city and county governments can leverage each other’s distinct resources, expertise, and policy tools.
This brief discusses key considerations for county-city partnerships to address housing needs, focusing on the challenges and opportunities that can arise from a partnership between a county and one of its constituent cities. (For a more detailed discussion of collaboration among multiple jurisdictions within a county, see this related brief on addressing housing needs on a regional basis.)
Understanding the challenge of city-county partnerships
While the roles of municipal and county governments vary widely from state to state, in many jurisdictions, city and county governments have distinct responsibilities within the same geography. For example, in many states, counties are responsible for assessing property values and collecting property taxes; recording deeds and affordability restrictions; and providing county-wide services like homelessness response, transit, and environmental management. Cities, on the other hand, are often responsible for developing local zoning and land use regulations; administering federal and state funds for affordable housing; and carrying out community development and neighborhood revitalization.
The sometimes-fragmented roles of city and county governments within the same geographic area can complicate efforts to address pressing housing challenges. First, cities and counties may have competing priorities for housing and economic development. For example, a county might prioritize the speedy disposition of tax-delinquent properties in order to recoup revenue that funds county-wide infrastructure and services. However, the city might prefer to offer tax relief to the owner as part of a neighborhood stabilization strategy, forgoing the tax revenue that a sale might provide, or might prefer to repurpose the tax delinquent property for affordable housing. In another example, smaller cities may not have a large enough tax base to support the city’s roads, bridges, and other infrastructure, and may need to seek supplemental funding from the county. While the city may argue that its infrastructure benefits the entire region’s economy, the county may wish to prioritize areas outside of the city for its infrastructure investments. In some states, county participation or agreement is also required to establish a Land Bank, which can be helpful for assembling and holding land for future development or redevelopment. These types of tensions can make it difficult to effectively collaborate on certain issues.
At the same time, cities and counties both feel the negative effects of an inadequate supply of affordable housing, and both benefit from addressing these housing challenges. From a county’s standpoint, expanding the supply of affordable housing and increasing the diversity of housing types can make the county more attractive to new businesses and workers, benefiting the entire region’s economy. For cities, working in partnership with counties can open up new funding streams and make it easier to integrate new housing developments with transit, green space, and other infrastructure that falls outside of the city’s purview.
A collaborative approach can leverage the unique resources and policy tools available to each entity and can help achieve policy aims that neither entity would be able to on its own. While it will not always be possible to reconcile competing interests, the likelihood is enhanced by robust and ongoing dialogue and experience working together that builds trust and clarifies opportunities for working together for mutual benefit.
Although some jurisdictions have integrated the PHA functions into local government, in many jurisdictions the two entities mostly operate independently of each other, with limited collaboration on policy development or programming. This is unfortunate as PHAs and cities can accomplish more to advance shared housing goals by working together than they can on their own.
Encourage regular and meaningful dialogue between city and county officials about housing policy goals, challenges, and solutions
When city and county governments control different policy levers that affect housing affordability and other housing policy goals, it is important for them to communicate with each other to identify shared housing goals, discuss obstacles to achieving them, and consider solutions that can advance their common priorities. Ongoing, thorough communication can also help each entity develop coordinated policies. For example, cities might need guidance to ensure that city policies conform to requirements set by the county, and counties may need input from cities to develop a regulatory framework that is responsive to cities’ needs. These conversations can also provide an opportunity to discuss state or federal policies and their implications for local housing conditions.
Ongoing dialogue can provide a foundation for a more robust collaboration, such as a joint strategic planning process, needs assessment or even a comprehensive city-county housing strategy. Communication between cities and counties can be informal, or it can take a more structured approach. Some jurisdictions have created formal communication channels through joint city-county housing working groups, annual forums or meetings, or other types of information-sharing partnerships.
Example: 21 Elements is a collaboration between San Mateo County and its constituent cities. The initiative is co-sponsored by the San Mateo County Department of Housing and the San Mateo City/County Association of Governments. These two entities manage the initiative and provide most of the operating funding, with additional financial contributions from participating cities. 21 Elements is a forum for local jurisdictions to share tools, resources, and strategies for meeting local housing needs. Members of the collaborative meet regularly to discuss a range of issues, including changes to state and federal policy and resources, upcoming county- and city-led public engagement initiatives, and status updates on affordable housing projects.
Pair county and city resources for housing development
While housing affordability challenges often cross jurisdictional lines, in many cases, cities administer resources for affordable housing development. This approach ensures local control over resources, but also has important limitations: small cities and towns may not have sufficient resources to invest in large-scale projects or those that require a deeper level of subsidy, and might have limited capacity to secure other capital.
Cities and counties can pair their resources strategically to finance housing development across jurisdictions. Although this approach can be politically challenging, a single financing initiative can often be more efficient and effective than multiple smaller initiatives. By contributing to a larger pool of resources, counties and cities can invest in projects that require higher levels of investment or more specialized expertise than either jurisdiction could provide on its own. For example, they might be able to support rental developments that serve extremely low-income households with a deeper level of subsidy, or to invest in a larger developments to take advantage of economies of scale. A collaborative approach can also make it easier to attract investment from external sources, such as CDFIs and philanthropic partners. It can also reduce the administrative burden for developers, allowing them to avoid duplicative application processes.
Example: The Cuyahoga Land Bank is a collaborative effort between Cuyahoga County, Ohio, the city of Cleveland, and other public and private partners. After acquiring tax-delinquent properties, the land bank demolishes or rehabilitates the property or conveys it to individuals, non-profit developers, community organizations, or municipalities. While many cities (including Cleveland) operate a land bank at the local level, the broader geographic reach of a county-wide land bank creates a larger and more diverse inventory of properties, expanding opportunities for cross-subsidization or the accumulation of larger parcels for redevelopment. For example, the county can generate sales revenue from higher-value suburban properties to help offset the costs of rehabilitating distressed properties in the urban core.
The Cuyahoga Land Bank generates substantial revenue through penalties and interest on delinquent taxes in addition to the support it receives from state and federal housing programs. Typically, revenue from delinquent taxes would be split between the county and city. However, cities in Cuyahoga County have agreed to forgo their share and instead direct the entire amount to the land bank. This ensures that the land bank has a permanent and stable funding stream, so they are not reliant on competitive grants or other state and federal resources. The county-wide program benefits small cities that otherwise would not have the capacity to address issues of foreclosures and abandonment, and helps promote neighborhood stability throughout the region.
Use complementary policy tools to support housing development
Municipal and county governments each have distinct sets of policy tools at their disposal and can leverage these tools in different ways to meet local housing needs. For example, if counties are responsible for recording deeds, they may be able to collect fees from real estate transactions to provide a reliable source of funding for affordable housing initiatives. Cities, on the other hand, may be able to use their zoning authority to incentivize developers to produce more affordable housing.
By strategically pairing these different policy tools, cities and counties they may be able to offer stronger incentives or more sustainable support for affordable housing than they would be able to on their own. A thoughtful partnership can also braid together the different policy priorities of each jurisdiction, addressing housing challenges alongside other needs within the community. For example, there might be opportunities to bring together county-administered economic development incentives and municipal affordable housing programs to support mixed-use developments, benefiting both jurisdictions.
Example: The City of Minneapolis and Hennepin County each have a robust suite of programs and policies to encourage affordable housing development. As a taxing authority, Hennepin County levies a special property tax to provide dedicated funding for affordable housing initiatives. Minneapolis, on the other hand, has limited taxing authority but is responsible for planning and implementing tax increment financing (TIF) districts throughout the city. The combination of reliable county subsidies and strong local place-based incentives has facilitated new projects that address multiple needs. For example, the city recently created a TIF district that supported a new mixed-use development on a former industrial site. The development includes 143 units of affordable housing plus market-rate housing, retail, and educational space for the nearby University of Minnesota. The development is located less than a quarter mile from a light rail station and will incorporate new pedestrian and bike infrastructure. The county supported both housing and non-housing elements of the development, contributing funds from its Affordable Housing Incentive Program (supported through a property tax levy) and its Transit Oriented Development Fund.
Jointly administer housing programs
Under some circumstances, cities and counties might offer similar housing programs—such as rental assistance, evictions prevention programs, or homelessness response programs—within the same jurisdiction. Rather than duplicating efforts, cities and counties can consolidate program operation across an entire jurisdiction. Much like a shared housing fund, a jointly-administered program can be more efficient than multiple smaller programs. For example, cities and counties can share the costs of staffing, outreach, and program infrastructure, such as IT systems. By sharing information about available housing units, they can also work together to connect program participants to a wider range of housing opportunities. Larger, established programs can also share staff expertise and administrative capacity with smaller or newer initiatives.
Perhaps most importantly, a joint city-county program can be much easier for program participants and other stakeholders to navigate. For example, if a county and its cities each administer a housing subsidy program, renters who live within the city might be unsure which program they qualify for or where to go for assistance. If they submit applications to both, the county and city may need to coordinate with each other to minimize the risk of duplicating benefits, causing delays for the applicant. By creating joint programs, cities and counties can offer participants single, streamlined points of entry, increasing the likelihood that vulnerable residents will apply for and receive the assistance they need.
Example: The City of Houston and Harris County each received an allocation of Emergency Rental Assistance funds through federal COVID-19 relief. Rather than operate two programs in overlapping jurisdictions, Houston and Harris County joined together to create a single Emergency Rental Assistance Program. Any renter in the county can apply for assistance through a single streamlined portal, and their application will be prioritized based on their income and risk of eviction. This approach has also made the process significantly less cumbersome for landlords, many of whom own multiple properties both within the City of Houston and elsewhere in the county. A landlord can complete a one-time enrollment process and then receive assistance for any units they own within Harris County. The program has also relied on partnerships with regional non-profit organizations, such as Catholic Charities of Houston-Galveston, to help conduct outreach to renters and landlords. The Department of Treasury notes that the Houston-Harris County program has disbursed funds more quickly than nearly every other program in the country, distributing over 90% of its initial emergency rental assistance allocation (over $150 million) between January and August 2021. Program administrators note that the county-city partnership has been instrumental to the program’s success.
Although collaborations between counties and cities can be challenging, they can also lead to stronger housing policies and greater efficiencies in housing programs and funding. Partnerships between city and county governments can help each accomplish more than they would be able to on their own and address the housing challenges that affect residents throughout the jurisdiction. Cities and counties can begin to approach these partnerships by thinking carefully about what role each jurisdiction plays in local housing policy and what types of incentives, financing, and other resources they can leverage. They can then consider their common housing challenges and develop a plan for addressing them collaboratively.
- The City and County of San Diego recently launched a new outreach strategy to address the growing challenge of unsheltered homelessness. The strategy aims to integrate shelter support provided by the city with mental health services offered through the county. The initial phase is focused on strengthening outreach efforts by creating teams of city and county staff who will work together to help clients access emergency shelters and health services. In the second phase, the city will commit funding to expand shelter capacity and acquire permanent supportive housing, while the county will provide on-site behavioral health services.
- A Regional Coalition for Housing (ARCH) is a partnership between King County, Washington and fifteen East King County cities. In 2015, ARCH developed a Housing Needs Analysis that covers the entire county and all member cities. The Housing Needs Analysis includes a county-wide report highlighting trends in housing, transit use, and employment growth, as well as separate analyses of housing conditions in each member city. The report is designed to provide cities with consistent data to help them create comprehensive housing plans (as required by the state). It also provides a broad view of regional housing needs to inform economic development efforts led by the county, state, and other regional partners.
- The City of Newark launched the Lead Service Line Replacement Program to reduce or eliminate lead concentrations in local tap water. The city’s goal is to replace nearly 18,000 water service lines that are completely or partially made of lead components at no cost to homeowners. In 2019, the City of Newark secured a $120 million bond with help from Essex County. The county’s AAA bond rating allowed for significant cost savings over a city bond issuance. This collaborative approach allowed the City of Newark’s Lead Service Line Replacement Program to complete nearly 24,000 lead service line replacements over a three-year period.