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Policy Types: Ordinances and Resolutions

You might remember School House Rock’s splash hit I’m Just a Bill, which covers the arduous journey a legislative bill goes through to become a law4. While School House Rock covers what happens at the federal level, the local level isn’t all that different.

Local-level legislation begins with ideas about how the government should regulate or deal with a particular issue. For instance, an idea for legislation could focus on expanding what nonprofit hospitals can count as community benefit so they can invest in community development projects, or enacting stricter zoning regulations to ensure childcare centers aren’t located next to hazardous waste dumps, or protecting tenants from unscrupulous landlords through an antiharassment law.

Those ideas can come from community groups working with their representatives, city agencies, the mayor, city staff, or lobbyists. If there is interest in the idea, someone with working knowledge of the city’s laws will need to draft language for legislation that decision makers can debate and refine.

The draft legislation is then taken to a committee, where it may be passed, amended, or voted against. If the committee passes the draft legislation, it goes to the jurisdiction’s governing body (city council, supervisors, alderman, etc.) for a vote. The governing body can pass the legislation, amend it, vote against it, or send it back to committee to be refined. Depending on how your local government is organized, mayors may or may not have veto power5.

Local governments pass two types of legislation that are usually called ordinances and resolutions6.

  • Ordinances are binding. They become laws and generally provide more guidance about process and procedures to support implementation and often have enforcement mechanisms.
  • Resolutions generally state a position and indicate an interest and intention to act but aren’t laws and don’t necessarily include clear implementation plans or enforcement mechanisms.

If proposed legislation has a financial cost to taxpayers, that will also need to be outlined in the draft.

Ordinances are generally preferable when you need the government to commit to a specific solution or course of action. When elected officials agree on the need to solve a problem but are not ready to come to consensus on a specific solution, a resolution can be a good first step. Resolutions can get elected officials to name a problem, commit to act (even if the specifics are fuzzy), set up pilot programs, evaluate different strategies, and even formally lay out different possible solutions.

Ordinances in Washington, DC and San Francisco

In an effort to curb resident displacement and promote community ownership, many communities are pursuing right of first refusal ordinances, largely inspired by Washington, DC’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) passed as part of D.C. Law 3-86 in 1980. This ordinance gives tenants of multifamily properties the first right to buy their building before anyone else, when the owner wants to sell. The program has been expanded to include financial and technical assistance to support tenant groups to purchase and convert their buildings into cooperatives or condominiums, often in partnership with a third-party housing provider.

Inspired by TOPA, as well as their own successful Small Sites Program, in 2019 the San Francisco City Council passed Ordinance 79-19, the Community Opportunity to Purchase Act, which gives nonprofit organizations the right of first offer and/or refusal to purchase properties for sale in the city. Other cities such as Minneapolis and Berkeley are considering similar policies.

Resolutions in the Coachella Valley

Across the Coachella Valley, nonprofits, cities, and county government have rallied around a shared goal of reducing the number of rent-burdened households by 30 percent over the next 10 years. To achieve this ambitious goal, they will need to operate systemically across the Valley to increase the supply of affordable housing, change local policies, and increase regional investment.

One early challenge the partners identified was the disparate community investment and development strategies across the Valley. While rising housing costs were rooted in regional market forces, city and county governments had grown accustomed to working on housing in their individual silos with deal-by-deal strategies that could never meaningfully address the scale of the problem they collectively faced.

The partners would only accomplish their goal if the different public sector entities began working together. Riverside County and nine participating cities in the Valley began drafting resolutions to support a regional pledge that outlined eight specific steps they would take together including providing detailed pipeline information, creating incentives for affordable housing development in their communities, collaborating with other jurisdictions to align funding opportunities, and crafting policies to remove barriers to the production and preservation of affordable housing.

Unlike an ordinance, these resolutions signal a commitment but do not specify things like the particular policies they will use to remove barriers to affordable housing. Any specific policy changes will require ordinances, and efforts to align funding and programs will be taken up by department staff through procedural regulations, programmatic work, or funding schemes.