Feedback    Print    Email
Building A Strategy Heading
Overview Introduction

Each of the individual housing policies discussed in has the potential to contribute to a solution to a community's housing needs. But no one policy by itself is likely to be enough. This is due in part to the complexity of the problem. There are many factors that have contributed to our growing housing affordability problems. Different policies are needed to address each of these factors and meaningfully expand the supply of homes affordable to working families.

The Building a Strategy section discusses how to go beyond individual housing policies to develop an effective and comprehensive housing strategy. The Q&As in this Overview section review the basics of a housing strategy and why it’s needed. Subsequent sections address the process of setting goals for a housing strategy, creating a plan, and key ingredients for making it work. Building a Strategy also provides profiles of a number of comprehensive housing strategies developed by states and localities around the country as well as a discussion of the connections between housing and other social policies, including transportation, energy, health and education policy.
back to the top
What is a comprehensive housing strategy?

A comprehensive housing strategy is an approach used by a growing number of states and localities to move beyond individual and disconnected housing policies toward an overall housing strategy that ensures the jurisdiction's policies are well-coordinated and well-tailored to meet their objectives.

In its broadest form, a comprehensive housing strategy focuses on issues of housing supply, affordability, and quality to ensure that housing is available and affordable for families at all income levels. Some communities choose to take a comprehensive and strategic approach to developing a housing plan to assist a more specific population, such as the homeless, the elderly, or working families.

"One of the most fundamental differences between a strategy and a series of efforts in the absence of a strategy, is that a strategy has a body of goals and a series of objectives through which those goals can be reached.

It is the existence of those goals and objectives that enable all of the participants to see their role clearly, and to work together with the others to make them a reality. Without them, one may have a series of sound program elements or activities, but it is questionable whether one can call it a strategy."

--from An Affordable Housing Strategy for Stamford, CT
Comprehensive housing strategies are usually developed through inclusive, detailed planning processes involving the following steps:

1. Convening of multiple agencies and stakeholders. While some government agencies develop their housing strategies internally, many of the most successful plans are built on the foundation of broad input from a wide spectrum of stakeholders. The early and consistent involvement of the different government agencies whose collaboration is needed to address the many facets of a community's housing challenges is also important.

2. Clarification of the community's goals. One of the first tasks for communities seeking to develop a more strategic approach to housing policy is to identify the specific problems the community is trying to solve and to analyze the root causes of these problems. This analysis is often informed by a formal assessment of the community's needs as well as thorough discussion among stakeholders.

Ideally, this process leads to the identification of specific public policy objectives that address specific problems (e.g., "Reduce regulatory barriers to development so the market can respond effective to increases in demand for housing," "Expand funding for predevelopment and acquisition costs so nonprofits can be more effective in producing affordable housing," etc.) as well as overall numerical goals (e.g., "Build 10,000 new rental units in the next 10 years") and milestones use to measure progress toward those goals.

3. Coordinated development of multiple housing policies to meet these goals. In most communities, the needs assessment and goals-setting process will identify a variety of specific housing challenges to be addressed through public policy. Through consultations with stakeholders, discussions with key agency staff, a review of best practices, and input from knowledgeable consultants, a comprehensive list of policies can be developed to meet these various challenges.

4. An implementation timeline, with short-term benchmarks to track progress and responsible parties designated for each step. This can help officials and stakeholders to ensure that implementation stays on track and community goals continue to be met.

Once a comprehensive housing strategy has been developed, it of course needs to be adopted, funded, implemented, and monitored. This is by no means an easy process, and many well-conceived plans never get fully or effectively implemented. The Ingredients for Success section reviews some of the lessons learned about effective implementation.

back to the top
Why does my community need one?

As in other public policy areas, the current set of housing policies in effect in any given community generally reflects a series of discrete policy decisions and compromises made over the course of many years. Some policies were developed more recently, while others were developed many years ago. Because housing markets change over time, some of these policies may no longer be up-to-date. Others may in fact be counterproductive or may conflict with one another. In many cases, there are housing programs to address certain pieces of the housing challenge, but not others. Periodically reviewing the community's overall approach to meeting its housing needs can ensure that policies are up-to-date and in sync as part of an effective strategy.

A comprehensive housing strategy is also important for broadening the range of actors and agencies involved in working together to solve a community's housing problems. As indicated by the high-impact policies reviewed in the Toolbox section of this site, the solutions to a community's housing challenges will likely require action by multiple agencies, including those responsible for planning, housing, tax, building inspections, and other policies. It also will require significant involvement by the private and non-profit sectors. A comprehensive housing strategy can bring all of these players to the table and facilitate cooperation.

Finally, the specific numerical goals set out in a comprehensive housing strategy can help a community track progress toward a solution and provide a trigger for reconsidering elements of the strategy if progress is not made as fast as needed or intended.
back to the top
Who is responsible for preparing it?

Most comprehensive housing strategies are prepared by a taskforce drawn from a wide range of stakeholder groups, including but not limited to: local government officials, for-profit and nonprofit developers and builders active in the area, representatives from community development groups, members of neighborhood organizations, banks and other funders of affordable housing initiatives, real estate professionals, employers seeking affordable housing for their workers, affordable housing advocates, and resident representatives.

In assembling an affordable housing taskforce, it is important to go beyond the loudest voices and be as inclusive as possible. In particular, it is important to ensure adequate representation by the private sector. Nonprofits are essential to affordable housing development, but they cannot meet the nation's housing needs all by themselves. Ultimately, the private sector has a major role to play in expanding the supply of affordable homes. Involvement by members of the for-profit development community can help ensure the correct configuration of incentives and other supports to motivate the private sector to provide more affordable homes. Employers and other members of the business community also have a stake in making sure there is enough housing to support a stable workforce. Their participation can help to broaden the base of political support for the taskforce recommendations and ensure it meets the area's workforce needs.  (Click here for more on the role of the private sector.)

By involving a broadly representative group of housing practitioners and other stakeholders in the planning process, local officials can capitalize on years of experience while building a constituency of partners to support and assist in implementation. In many cases, employees of government housing agencies provide staff support for the task force and help translate members' ideas into actionable plans. Some communities also choose to bring in an outside consultant to assist in the process.

back to the top
Don’t we already have a comprehensive housing strategy?

Some communities do in fact have comprehensive and well-conceived housing strategies that were developed through a broad and inclusive planning process. In such cases, it may be more important to move forward with executing the existing plan than to create a new one. This is an issue that arises sometimes when a new mayor, county executive or governor assumes office. Some newly elected officials feel compelled to develop their own housing strategy rather than implement one developed during their predecessor's tenure through a comprehensive and broadly representative process. Unfortunately, this can set back years of progress. Even when everything goes well, it may take years to implement a comprehensive housing strategy, and this process may well transcend the boundaries of specific administrations.

On the other hand, it is important not to confuse the type of strategic approach to housing discussed in the Building a Strategy section with several other documents that have similar names. Most larger communities and all states submit a Consolidated Plan to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that sets out how they plan to spend certain federal funding streams. The Consolidated Plan includes a needs assessment and also incorporates something called a Comprehensive Housing Affordability Strategy (CHAS).

While some Consolidated Plans and CHAS statements are well-done – and can be a valuable source of data and ideas to inform the development of a broader housing strategy – Consolidated Plans tend to be fairly narrow in scope and focused almost entirely on how the community will spend certain federal dollars. They thus do not generally address the zoning, planning, and tax policies needed to fully address a community's housing needs. They also do not generally reflect the full range of programs developed with state and local funding. While a stakeholder input session is required as part of the development of Consolidated Plans, these plans are generally developed almost entirely by housing agency staff (or consultants to the housing agency), rather than by a broader constituency of stakeholders. Such plans thus generally lack the base of support that is developed through a broader task force process.

Most communities also have a document called a Comprehensive Plan which sets out their zoning and other land use policies. Roughly half of the states require the inclusion of a Housing Element within communities' Comprehensive Plans that explains how the expected demand for housing will be met. Some Housing Elements are very comprehensive and well thought-out. Others are more narrow or even perfunctory.

In some communities, the process of developing a Housing Element can serve as a foundation for developing a comprehensive housing strategy. In other communities, it may make more sense to separate the processes. In any event,

Plaza East
Plaza East, San Francisco CA - Photo courtesy of McCormack Baron Salazar
there are certainly aspects of a community's housing strategy – particularly changes to allowable densities or other zoning policies – that will need to be incorporated into the Comprehensive Plan, so ultimately the two processes will need to be coordinated.

As a condition for receiving funds for its homelessness programs, HUD requires the preparation
and submission of a Continuum of Care plan, which is developed through broad stakeholder input and addresses many aspects of the homelessness challenge. While the Continuum of Care plan obviously addresses a very specific component of a community's housing challenges, the collaborative and comprehensive process used to develop and implement it may be worth examining as a model for the development of broader housing strategies.

One final plan that is worth reviewing as part of the process of developing a comprehensive housing strategy is the PHA Plan. This document summarizes the various discretionary policies of public housing agencies, who administer the Housing Choice Voucher and Public Housing programs. As with the Consolidated Plan, the PHA Plan is no substitute for a broader housing strategy, but in communities that have done a good job developing their PHA Plan, it can serve as an important source of information and data. Because public housing agencies are one of the agencies that should be involved in the process of developing a comprehensive housing strategy, a review of the PHA Plan can also be helpful in better understanding their programs and priorities.

The Center for Housing Policy gratefully acknowledges the input and feedback provided by Rick Jacobus on the Building a Strategy section, as well as many sections of the policy Toolbox. Please note, however, that the views and opinions expressed on are those of the Center for Housing Policy alone.
back to the top
Setting Goals
Setting Goals Introduction

One of the first, and sometimes overlooked, tasks in developing a comprehensive housing strategy is to clearly articulate the community's goals for its housing strategy. Exactly what housing and related problems is the community seeking to address? In some cases, this mission will be defined broadly -- "develop a comprehensive housing strategy for the community." In other cases, the mission will be defined somewhat more narrowly -- "develop a plan to boost homeownership rates" or "develop a workforce housing strategy."

A well-defined mission can help to focus the information gathering and analysis processes that are critical to the rest of the housing strategy development process. The goal of these processes is to analyze the nature and extent of the community's housing problems. The standard "needs assessment," which looks at the extent to which different population segments are facing housing affordability and quality challenges, is a core component of this analysis, but it is important not to stop there. Other components include: an analysis of expected demographic trends and future demand for housing; an investigation of the root causes of the housing challenges faced by the community, including any obstacles preventing the market from responding to demand; and an inventory of the assets and programs currently available to help the community address these challenges.

A clear understanding of the root causes of your community's housing challenges is essential for helping to set specific policy objectives to guide the policy development process. For example, if your analysis indicates that affordable housing developers find it difficult to find land on which to build, the corresponding policy objective may be to "Expand the availability of land for affordable housing." Similarly, if your analysis indicates that decisions by owners to exit federal subsidy programs are reducing the availability of affordable rental homes, the corresponding policy objective will be to "Preserve affordable rental housing."

Once the problems are better understood and the policy objectives clearly articulated, the final step in the goals-setting process is to develop numerical targets that will allow you to track progress in meeting the identified needs. Each of these components is discussed in more detail below.
back to the top
What problems should a housing strategy address?

The first question for the taskforce or other body developing a housing strategy to consider is what exactly you want to accomplish. In some cases, the mission will be clear from the charge to the taskforce -- develop a five-year plan to end homelessness; help existing homeowners avoid foreclosure, etc. In other cases, the mission will be more open-ended: develop a housing policy for the city or county; review and make recommendations to the state on how to strengthen support for affordable housing, etc. Some charges fall in-between, such as the increasingly common mission of developing a workforce housing strategy. This charge is specific in that it focuses on a particular income segment (though one which can be defined in many ways), but open-ended in that it can lead to a wide array of different approaches.

The process described in this Building a Strategy section can be applied to just about any housing-related mission that a community may choose to pursue. So ultimately, this is a question that each state, locality, or taskforce will need to decide for itself. In cases in which the charge is open-ended or capable of being shaped, communities may wish to consider the following points in setting the parameters of their efforts to develop a housing strategy:

1. While it may be harder to develop and implement, a comprehensive housing strategy is more likely to have a major impact than a narrowly focused one. This is because there are many areas where improvements are needed in order to change the fundamental dynamics of the housing market and meaningfully expand the supply of affordable homes. If you just expand the funding for affordable housing without addressing the underlying problems that make it so difficult and expensive to build in the community, you may have only a limited impact. Similarly, if you just expand density near public transit without putting policies in place to encourage or require that a share of that development be affordable to working families, the effect may be to create more luxury opportunities for families seeking a shorter commute, without providing affordable homes where they are most needed.

2. An approach that addresses the full range of housing needs in the community can bring in a wider array of stakeholders. All members of the community share an interest in ensuring that the diverse housing needs of the community's current and future residents are met. By focusing broadly on the housing needs of teachers, nurses, fire fighters and other working families, in addition to the very poor, the elderly, and people with a disability, communities can bring employers, unions, and other business leaders into a coalition along with more traditional affordable housing advocates.

3. In addition to affordability and quality, communities may wish to consider the location and energy-efficiency of housing. In its study, A Heavy Load: The Combined Housing and Transportation Burdens of Working Families [PDF], the Center for Housing Policy found that working families with incomes between $20,000 and $50,000 spend about as much on transportation costs as they do on housing costs.  Furthermore, their expenditures for housing and transportation are linked. As families move further from job centers to afford the costs of housing, their transportation costs increase; in many cases, the increased transportation costs eat up all of the savings on housing. Moreover, they now have long commutes and less time with their children and contribute to traffic congestion.Mill Creek
Mill Creek Apartments, Vancouver OR - Photo courtesy of Washington Mutual

The location of a home relative to jobs and public transit also affects the amount of energy the residents consume through vehicle miles traveled. By improving the coordination of housing and transportation planning to promote sustainable and inclusive development and expand affordable housing options near public transit and job centers, and by working carefully to improve the energy-efficiency of existing buildings and new construction (one needs to proceed cautiously so as not to drive up housing costs and make housing less affordable), communities can contribute to the resolution of our energy and environmental challenges and expand the constituency for their affordable housing strategies.

4. In a world of limited resources, it is important to ensure that affordable homes remain affordable over time.

For for-sale homes, communities can adopt shared equity homeownership policies, such as community land trusts or shared appreciation mortgages. Shared equity homeownership policies preserve the affordability over time of homes with major public investments, while simultaneously allowing homeowners to build individual wealth. To leave this section and learn more about shared equity homeownership, click here.

5. Define the problems to be addressed in ways that lead to commonality of interest. Because so many actors are needed to develop and implement an effective housing strategy, it is important to work to identify common ground so as large a coalition as possible can be built to support the needed changes. Efforts to find common ground start in how the problem is defined. "Stop gentrification" provides a very clear action agenda, but it is much more likely to divide the coalition than a goal such as "address gentrification concerns." This is particularly important for an issue like gentrification, where concerns about the nature and pace of change in neighborhood composition may serve to slow down the very community improvements that are needed to strengthen the quality of life for neighborhood residents.

Gentrification is almost always going to be a contentious issue. But by defining the challenge in a way that all parties can understand and support, it may be possible to put policies into place -- such as preservation of affordable rental housing, assistance to help existing residents buy into the neighborhood to benefit from rising home price appreciation, shared equity homeownership, and the establishment of a tax increment financing district with a mandatory affordable housing set-aside -- that can help preserve housing affordability and address equity concerns in changing neighborhoods.

The public invests considerable resources creating affordable rental and for-sale homes for working families. Because public resources are limited, communities have a vested interest in ensuring that these homes stay affordable over time. For rental developments, policies to maintain long-term affordability include covenants requiring that new affordable developments remain affordable in perpetuity (or for as long as possible), together with realistic funding structures that make it possible for owners to make good on this promise. It is also important to put policies in place to preserve the affordability of existing affordable rental developments in danger of leaving the affordable inventory. To leave this section and learn more about the preservation of existing affordable rental homes, click here.
back to the top
What data and analysis are needed to inform the goals-setting process?

There are several types of data and analysis that can be helpful – some would say critical – for informing the development of a comprehensive housing strategy. A clearly defined mission for the housing strategy process can be helpful in focusing this analysis. At the same time, the analysis may lead a taskforce to revise its mission to focus on a broader, narrower, or different set of policy concerns. Some of the needed information is statistical in nature, and thus will be most effectively gathered by a statistician or other researcher, while other critical input can only be provided by practitioners and other stakeholders:

1. Needs assessment. This analysis looks at the extent to which different population segments face housing affordability and quality challenges. Typically, a needs analysis reports on:
  • the share of renters and homeowners at different income levels paying more than 30 percent or 50 percent of their income for housing,
  • the amount and location of substandard housing; and
  • the housing challenges facing specific population groups, such as the elderly, people with a disability, and minority households.
In considering these data, it is important to remember that the standard measures of housing unaffordability – are families paying more than 30 percent or 50 percent of their income for housing? – are merely rules of thumb that, while easy to understand and often useful for comparing one place to another, may not tell the whole story.

Many families that show up as only moderately cost-burdened (30 to 50 percent of income for housing) or not burdened (less than 30 percent of income) in fact may have real difficulties affording their housing costs. A family with an income between $20,000 and $50,000 that spends 26 percent of its income for housing and 31 percent of its income on transportation – these are the actual median figures for families in the Dallas, TX metro area as of the 2000 Census – has very little income remaining to meet other essential expenses such as nutritious food, health care, education, retirement, etc. [1]

2. Analysis of demographic and market trends. Because most of the nation's housing – including most affordable housing – is supplied by the private sector, it is important to understand current and projected market conditions, as well as expected population trends. To the extent that demand for housing is expected to increase due to net in-migration of families from other communities or increased household formation – in some cases, due to smaller household sizes – it is important to examine whether the market is able to respond adequately to this increased demand by producing new housing.

It is also important to understand the extent to which housing preferences are changing. For example, interest in downtown living and in housing well-located near transit has grown significantly in recent years. What is the expected future demand for various housing types and locations in your community?

This analysis should also focus on the availability of land for development. To what extent are sites available for new development or redevelopment? Are there enough sites available to meet projected demand at current densities? To what extent could increases in density be used to accommodate increased demand within areas well served by current infrastructure? Where appropriate, it may be useful to include within this analysis an inventory of potential sites for infill development.

Researchers and housing practitioners will sometimes characterize a community's housing market as strong or weak. Strong-market cities tend to have stable or rising demand for housing and a strong economic base. In many of these communities, housing prices have risen rapidly over the past five to ten years. In weak-market cities, housing prices are not rising at all or as fast, in part because of declining demand and/or a weak economic base.

In strong-market cities, the major focus of affordable housing strategies is generally on bringing down the price of homes to an affordable level, with housing affordability concerns reaching into the middle class. In weak-market cities, housing affordability may still be an issue for poor- and near-poor families, but housing quality may be a problem of equal weight, as older housing deteriorates and is not replaced or upgraded. Some communities have a mix of neighborhoods with strong and weak housing demand.

In this context, it is important to note that both strong and weak markets are affected by market cycles, such as the nation-wide housing slowdown that began in 2007. Just because housing prices decline for a year or two does not make a strong housing market a weak one. Rather, the housing price declines represent a market correction. In a strong housing market, housing prices will eventually resume their upward growth unless steps are taken to change the underlying causes of housing price growth pressure.

Fall Creek Place
Photo credit: Chris Palladino
3. Input from practitioners and stakeholders. In addition to gathering quantitative (i.e., numerical) data on the nature and extent of a community's housing challenges, it is important to consult with stakeholders and practitioners to learn more about what they perceive the principal housing challenges to be, what obstacles they experience as they seek to address these problems, and what solutions they propose to resolve them.

In many cases, developers working to build affordable homes can pinpoint specific problems that delay and drive up the costs of new development, as well as problems with current financing and funding mechanisms. Practitioners and stakeholders also may have ideas for creative solutions to expand the supply of affordable homes.

Input from residents and other stakeholders can be particularly useful for better understanding the housing challenges facing working families, which often do not show up clearly in the official
data, but are nevertheless real and worth addressing. For example, workers who move to the edge of the metropolitan area because no affordable housing is available closer to work, may have housing costs that fall below 30 percent of their income, but now have to purchase a second car, spend more on gas, and endure long commutes.

In other cases, workers may be looking for different types of housing than are currently available near work – for example, apartment living rather than a single-family home, or vice-versa. Working families also may be experiencing challenges finding communities that combine all of the attributes they are looking for in a single package, including affordable housing, proximity to public transit or the workplace, safety, good schools, etc. As a result, employers may very well be experiencing high rates of turnover among key employees and area residents may be experiencing increased traffic congestion.

4. Analysis of the root causes of the community's housing challenges. While the needs assessment will help communities understand the magnitude of their housing challenges, it will not indicate how those problems arose. A separate analysis is thus needed to identify the root causes of the community’s housing problems so they can be addressed in a comprehensive and strategic fashion. For example, one of the major factors contributing to the shortage of affordable housing is the cumulative impact of the complicated regulatory environment that makes it difficult or expensive to build new homes. Many of these policies are well-intentioned and necessary – for example, to advance environmental objectives; others are designed to deliberately slow development. By making it difficult for the market to produce new supply in response to increased housing demand, however, these barriers drive up the price of housing for everyone.

For example, below is an excerpt from the report of the Washington D.C. comprehensive housing strategy task force that identifies some of the specific problems driving up housing prices:

"Recently graduate students in the School of Public Policy and Public Administration at George Washington University conducted a study of the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), the office that is responsible for inspecting housing and issuing construction permits, certificates of occupancy, and other licensing services. The study concluded that the DCRA faces serious obstacles in its day-to-day operations. These include understaffing, weak training, an inadequate budget, out-of-date technology, a weak managerial culture, ineffective coordination with other agencies, and poor presentation of information to customers. In addition, the unique relationship between the District government and the federal government and its various agencies adds a layer of complication that is not present in other cities.

As a result of the problems that DCRA faces, the development review process often drags on much longer than it should. The process consists of four phases: historic preservation, zoning, permitting, and inspections. Of these, the longest delays often occur in the permitting phase. Securing an Environmental Impact Statement, if one is deemed necessary (not every development calls for one), can take a year. The permit review, in which DCRA engineers review a project, is supposed to take 30 days, but on average it lasts six months to a year. In comparison, the same process takes an average of one month in Chicago and three weeks in Philadelphia.

It is clear that strengthening the DCRA and DHCD to improve the lending, permitting and inspections processes is essential to producing housing quickly enough to solve the District’s pressing needs."

The following are some of the factors to consider in analyzing the root causes of a community's housing problems:
  • Constraints on new development and redevelopment that prevent the market from responding efficiently to increased demand for housing
  • Community opposition to new development generally and affordable housing specifically
  • Decisions by owners of affordable rental housing to exit federal subsidy programs
  • Decisions by owners of unsubsidized but affordable rental homes to substantially upgrade or sell their properties to take advantage of higher market rents or property values
  • The deterioration of older homes due to neglect or lack of financing for repairs
  • The loss or diminished buying power of deep subsidies for affordable homeownership that are not required to be repaid or do not keep pace with the market
  • Lack of coordination between housing and transportation planning
  • Difficulty accessing financing for various expenses, such as to rehabilitate older homes
  • Shortages of land on which to develop
  • Low-density development patterns that constrain supply and make it difficult to build affordable homes
  • Activity by investors to purchase and "flip" properties for a profit
  • A proliferation of predatory loans and/or sub-prime loans that may not be affordable over the long-run
  • Credit problems that make it difficult for families to qualify for a well-priced mortgage
  • Challenges faced by existing homeowners affording their housing costs
  • Insufficient funding for affordable housing
  • Low wages

5. Inventories of current assets and programs. Gaining a better understanding of the assets and programs currently available to a community to meet its housing challenges can be helpful in identifying both the promise and the limitations of the current lineup. The community's assets include its existing stock of affordable homes – both affordable rental homes and for-sale homes subject to ongoing affordability requirements; the nonprofit and for-profit developers focused on building and preserving affordable homes; the staff of the government agencies that administer housing programs; affordable housing lenders and funders; and the stakeholders – employers, community groups and others – willing to advocate for stronger housing programs and policies.

By closely examining these assets, taskforce members can gain an understanding of the extent to which there is underutlilized capacity among existing assets – for example, a willingness by banks or local foundations to expand financing for affordable homes or the ability of existing developers to ramp up their production – and/or a need to build capacity in particular areas – for example, stronger capacity among nonprofit developers to build more homes through multi-year operating funding tied to clear development milestones; lenders willing to make particular types of loans, such as loans to rehabilitate smaller rental properties, etc.

An inventory of existing housing programs and policies is also important. By matching up this inventory with the specific housing challenges identified by taskforce members, the taskforce may be able to assess whether existing programs are adequate to meet each of these needs, and potentially, which gaps in policy or funding are the most pressing.
back to the top
How do we develop specific policy objectives for our housing strategy?

The identification of the root causes of the community's housing problems will lead naturally and directly to a list of specific policy objectives to be addressed through the community's housing strategy. For example, to the extent that "community opposition to new development" is identified as a principal underlying cause of the community's housing challenges, the corresponding policy objective of "building community support for affordable homes" can be identified as a key objective for the community's housing strategy. Similarly, to the extent that "shortages of land on which to develop" are contributing to higher housing prices, one may wish to identify "Expand the availability of land for development" as a core policy objective for the community's housing strategy.

Other key policy objectives may include: "preserve affordable rental housing," "help existing homeowners avoid foreclosure," "preserve the buying power of homeownership subsidies in the face of rising home prices," etc. The choice of which of these or other policy objectives to select for your community's comprehensive housing strategy will depend to a large extent on which root causes the taskforce identifies as major factors contributing to your housing challenges. Other policy objectives – such as "expand capacity of nonprofit housing developers" or "expand funding to acquire properties for redevelopment" – may grow out of the inventory of assets and programs.

While a comprehensive approach is desirable for addressing the many factors contributing to a community's housing challenges, communities may find it useful to prioritize their policy objectives based on the relative severity of the problem they address. For example, a community with a large stock of older deteriorating homes may prioritize the policy objective of "facilitate the rehabilitation of older homes," whereas a community that has very little multifamily housing but recognizes a growing demand for it may prioritize "facilitate the development of new multifamily rental homes."
back to the top
Do we need specific numerical goals?

Setting and monitoring progress toward numerical goals can help keep the implementation of a housing strategy on track and enhance accountability and transparency. Cities like Boston and Chicago, which have both implemented consecutive multi-year housing initiatives, issue interim and final detailed achievement reports comparing actual activity with commitments made in their plans.

Many numerical goals focus on the number of affordable housing units that will be developed or preserved at varying levels of affordability over a specified period of time. In some communities, the goals may focus on the overall number of new housing units -- including market-rate units -- that are developed; the number of rental units that are developed; the number of existing homeowners helped to avoid foreclosure; or the number of renters helped to become homeowners.

There is no magical formula for setting appropriate numerical goals. Rather, the numerical goals will depend on the specific objectives of a community's housing strategy, the amount of resources devoted to implementing the strategy, and the background market conditions and trends.

[1] A Heavy Load: The Combined Housing and Transportation Burdens of Working Families. [PDF] 2006. Washington, DC: Center for Housing Policy.
back to the top
Creating A Plan
Creating a Plan Introduction

In theory, a community can have a comprehensive and effective housing strategy without a written plan that explains it. But that is unusual. Developing a formal document that sets out the community's overall housing strategy can help to ensure that all bases are covered and facilitate an evaluation and monitoring process that increases the likelihood of successful implementation. The process of developing a plan is also critical for bringing diverse agencies and stakeholders on board to maximize support for the plan's adoption and implementation.

Some of the components of the plan development process are discussed elsewhere in the Building a Strategy section of We include links to those sections when discussing the process of creating a plan below.
back to the top
Assembling a housing taskforce

Many of the most effective housing strategies are developed through a broad and inclusive taskforce. One reason is that a taskforce allows for input from individuals with a wide range of experience. Another is that an inclusive taskforce facilitates the critical process of getting buy-in from the diverse range of stakeholders needed to support the plan's adoption and implementation.

In considering who to include within a housing taskforce, you may wish to consider these three points: (a) process matters; (b) inclusive is generally better; (c) participation by a diverse range of government agencies is important.

Process matters
As many policymakers and advocates know, it is often easier to stop a policy from being adopted than to enact one. By bringing a diverse range of stakeholders together to develop a shared package of policy interventions that everyone can support, the chances of adoption are greatly increased. The plan development process can also be helpful for educating each other on the nature of the community's housing challenges and the roles that many well-intentioned policies may be playing in inadvertently contributing to these challenges. While a taskforce process can often take much longer than a more unilateral one, a comprehensive housing strategy developed by a broad-based taskforce will have much more momentum and support, and thus a greater likelihood of adoption and implementation by the range of agencies and other actors whose backing is needed.

Westminster Place
Westminster Place, St. Louis MO - Photo courtesy of McCormack Baron Salazar
Inclusive is generally better
For these reasons, it is important to involve a diverse array of stakeholders in the development of a comprehensive housing strategy by including representatives of the various practitioner and other stakeholder groups on the taskforce and by scheduling frequent opportunities for meaningful citizen input from the outset of the planning process.

Among other key groups that should be represented on a housing taskforce are: both nonprofit and for-profit developers and builders, lenders, community development corporations, housing counseling entities, employers, and representatives from a diverse range of government agencies (more on this below).

Other groups that may be interested in being involved in one way or another are civil rights groups, labor unions, and organizations – whether faith-based or secular – with a strong social justice mission.

Involvement by residents is also important, especially for plans that focus on particular neighborhoods or include a neighborhood component. Studies have shown that public involvement results in a greater likelihood that plans will be implemented, by building ownership of plan initiatives and interest in seeing projects through. [1]

Resident participation and input also allows authors of the plan to benefit from "insider" information on local conditions and concerns, and can provide early warning of proposed strategies that are likely to meet with opposition on the basis of NIMBY concerns and other grounds. As stated in Stamford, Connecticut's affordable housing strategy, "input should not come in a reactive mode. Public hearings are, frankly, too late. The lack of consultation would inherently promote tension and opposition." To build trust and support for the planning process, residents and other stakeholders should be given early notification of meetings and community forums, and efforts should be made to hold events at varying times and in accessible locations.

Involve multiple government agencies
By necessity, a comprehensive plan to meet the community's housing will require the participation – and ideally, the collaboration – of multiple governmental agencies. The following are some of the key government actors whose involvement will be necessary for the successful implementation of a comprehensive housing strategy:
  • Zoning and planning boards, building departments and other agencies involved in the zoning, planning or permitting processes to reduce regulatory barriers to development
  • City and state housing finance agencies and community development departments to provide project financing, implement efficient practices and oversee projects
  • State and local legislatures to pass necessary legislation
Depending on the community, state and local housing authorities also may have a prominent role to play in implementing some of these policies. In any event, they should be included on the core implementation team as they bring a number of key complementary tools to the table, including the ability to attachSection 8 housing vouchers or public housing subsidies to rental developments to increase the range of incomes that can be served.

Other government agencies also may need to be involved, especially if a community is searching for publicly owned land that could be made available for the development of affordable homes. In New York City, where finding new land for affordable housing is a long-standing challenge, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) has identified a wide range of City and State agencies to work with on land use collaborations. Among other agencies that own or oversee land that could be developed as affordable housing in New York City are: the City's Housing Authority and Economic Development Corporation, as well as the Departments of Transportation and Education, Health and Hospitals Corporation, and the Human Resources Administration. HPD projects these partnerships will result in 20,000 units of new housing by 2013.

Beyond acquisition of vacant or underutilized land, collaboration between government agencies can yield positive outcomes related to the integration of housing and other related goals. In its most recent five-year plan for affordable housing, Chicago's Department of Housing continued its partnership with the Chicago Public Schools to offer the Teacher Homebuyer Assistance Program, which creates housing incentives to help in the recruitment and retention of Chicago public schoolteachers. The Department offers a similar program for police officers, paramedics, and firefighters, providing downpayment assistance to those who purchase homes in the City, and additional financial incentives to buy homes in designated Chicago Housing Authority redevelopment areas.
back to the top
Gathering and analyzing information

Many of the best housing strategies start with a clear understanding of the housing challenges facing the community. The standard "needs assessment," which looks at the extent to which different population segments are facing housing affordability and quality challenges is a core component of this analysis, but it is important not to stop there. Other components include: an analysis of expected demographic trends and future demand for housing; an investigation of the root causes of the housing challenges faced by the community, including any obstacles preventing the market from responding to demand; and an inventory of the assets and programs currently available to help the community address these challenges.

Click here for more information on the info gathering process.

back to the top
Setting goals

There are three different types of targets that need to be defined as part of a housing taskforce process:

The first is the overall mission or charge for the taskforce process. Is the taskforce developing a comprehensive housing strategy for the community, or addressing a more specific need – such as promoting homeownership or a workforce housing strategy?

The second are the policy objectives needed to meet the challenges identified through the information gathering and analysis process.  For example, if an analysis of the root causes of the community's housing challenges indicates that affordable housing developers find it difficult to find land on which to build, the corresponding policy objective may be to "Expand the availability of land for affordable housing."  Similarly, if your analysis indicates that decisions by owners to exit federal subsidy programs are reducing the availability of affordable rental homes, the corresponding policy objective will be to "Preserve affordable rental housing."

The third type of goal is a numerical goal that helps the community track progress toward successful implementation of the plan. Examples include: "Build 10,000 new homes in the next five years," "Increase the homeownership rate to 50 percent by 2012," etc.

Click here for more information on setting these different types of goals.

back to the top
Evaluating existing policies and programs

Once communities have identified the root causes of their housing challenges and the corresponding policy objectives needed to address these challenges, the next natural question to examine is whether the community's existing policies and programs fully address those concerns. The hardest thing about this review may be to set aside both personal and political considerations and take an objective and honest look at whether the policies are effective. For this and other reasons, it is essential that this process be constructive and forward-looking, rather than critical or judgmental. The goal is not to pass judgment on the current or prior administration and its policies, but rather to determine whether modifications are needed to more effectively meet the community's housing challenges.

In most communities, the range of problems identified as root causes of their housing challenges will require an examination of a fairly broad set of policies administered by different agencies. For example, in addition to considering programs set up specifically to provide funding for affordable housing, many communities will want to consider their zoning and planning policies – could they be revised to expand opportunities for new development?; their tax incentives for development – could policies be put into place to incentivize or capitalize on market activity?; and their building code inspection and enforcement process – could the policies be streamlined to reduce red tape and other barriers to development?

In examining the policies of the city, county or state housing department, it will be useful to go beyond the question of whether the department is fair and thoughtful in how it distributes HOME and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds – two large HUD block grants – and consider more broadly whether the policies meet the most pressing affordable housing challenges. If there is a need for predevelopment and acquisition funding, for example, are policies in place to meet this need? To the extent that a community seeks to help working families move closer to their places of employment or to public transit, are there existing programs set up to help make this happen?

In the course of this evaluation, many communities may determine that certain desired activities are not permissible expenditures under the main federal funding
Friendship Court
Friendship Court, Charlottesville, VA - Photo credit: Jackson Smith
sources for developing affordable homes: HOME, CDBG, and the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit. This is one reason why it is important to look beyond federal programs and consider all the various resources of the city, county or state. Just because the federal government has limited the use of its funds for a particular activity does not mean that states and localities need to adopt the same limitations for locally generated funds from trust funds, tax increment districts, etc. Certain financing needs can also be met effectively through the private sector, or through public-private partnerships. Finally, as noted throughout, there are many strategies community can adopt that carry little or no out-of-pocket costs.

One key question to consider in evaluating existing programs is the extent to which the review will focus on the public housing and housing voucher programs. While these programs are generally funded almost entirely with federal funds, there are a number of discretionary policy decisions that state and local housing authorities can make to tailor these programs to meet local needs. Moreover, these resources are absolutely essential for meeting the housing needs of the poor and near-poor who require very large subsidies to afford the costs of renting a home.

By attaching housing vouchers or public housing subsidies to new or rehabilitated rental properties developed through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit or HOME programs, for example, communities can incorporate a wider range of incomes within a mixed-income property than might be possible only with locally controlled resources. Similarly, by using Section 8 vouchers for homeownership, communities can bring sustainable homeownership opportunities within reach of poor and near-poor families.
back to the top
Developing recommendations for new and improved policies and programs

Developing a set of recommendations for how to improve the community's policies and programs is clearly one of the principal responsibilities of a housing policy task force. While this is not an easy assignment, a taskforce that has progressed through the earlier steps of information gathering and analysis, goal setting, and evaluation of existing policies and programs, should have a pretty good sense of the policy gaps that need to be addressed by the time they get to this point of the process.

Many members of the taskforce and other stakeholders will have specific ideas about how to strengthen existing policies and programs to respond to the gaps that have been identified. Staff members of the various government departments that touch on these issues (housing department, planning department, zoning commission, building inspections division, housing authority, housing finance agency, etc.) will also have ideas.

An open and honest conversation among stakeholders and agency staff can go a long way to identifying ways to improve the existing procedures. Remember that in some cases, it is the policy itself that needs revision – say, the policies regarding allowable densities. In other cases, however, the problem is with how the policy is being implemented – for example, a building inspections process that looks good on paper but is slow and unpredictable in practice, driving up development costs.

In many cases, existing policies can be improved by allowing for greater flexibility. For example, authors of the Arizona housing plan recognized that regulatory barriers limited developers' ability to combine resources from two key state agencies on a single project. A recommendation to better coordinate administration of these finance programs allows funds to be jointly leveraged, offering greater resources and flexibility to developers.

To identify new policies that may be helpful in rounding out a comprehensive housing strategy, communities may wish to consider what is working in other similarly situated communities. The Toolbox section of this site provides a good place to start. It identifies more than 20 high-impact state and local housing policies in a broad range of policy domains, including planning, zoning, tax, finance, and counseling. The Toolbox is organized into six sections corresponding to six key roles for state and local governments to play in expanding the availability of homes for working families and others. Visit the Toolbox to explore these six roles in more detail or jump directly to one of the following sections:
To learn how specific communities have put these and other pieces together to form a comprehensive housing strategy, visit the Housing Plan Profiles section.

back to the top
Targeting state and local funding

Once a decision is made to generate revenue for affordable homes – for example, through a housing trust fund, a housing bond issue, a dedicated share of tax increment financing, etc. – the question arises as to how those funds will be distributed. Similar questions arise in determining how to spend HOME or CDBG funds at the state or local level.

These decisions can be controversial. Many affordable housing advocates will argue that all or nearly all of the funding should go to families with the lowest incomes – often known in housing parlance as "extremely low-income" or "very low-income" families – because these families are the most likely to be spending half or more of their incomes on housing. Some employers may argue for assistance for moderate-income families to help them find affordable homes closer to work, to boost retention rates. Some groups may want housing activities to be concentrated in particular neighborhoods, in order to stimulate community revitalization; others may argue for spreading affordable homes throughout the broader community to minimize concentrations and promote a mix of incomes.

Before examining the specific questions that need to be addressed in targeting state and local housing funds, it may be helpful to consider some cross-cutting observations on how to reach common ground:
  • Funding allocation decisions are easier when you are expanding the pie rather than changing how existing resources are allocated. By bringing new money on the table – through a new or expanded trust fund, bond issue, or other source – one can change the dynamic among stakeholders and advocates to be more open to new ideas.
  • One way to generate political momentum to expand the pie is to bring in a greater range of stakeholders than those who have traditionally focused on affordable housing. The employer community in particular represents a promising ally. Labor unions, lending institutions, civil rights organizations, and private and non-profit developers may also consider joining a coalition in support of stronger affordable housing policies.
  • The conversation shouldn't be about funding alone. As illustrated in the Toolbox section of this site, there are many things that states and localities can do to expand the availability of homes for working families without spending public funds. Some communities may decide to implement low- or no-cost strategies to help working families – for example, inclusionary zoning requirements or incentives; expedited permitting; etc. – while concentrating the bulk of direct funding on affordable homes serving very low-income families.
The Qualified Allocation Plan (QAP)

As federal funding for the production of new construction has waned, the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) has become increasingly important to the developers of affordable homes. Each state develops a federally-mandated qualified allocation plan (QAP) that explains the standards and priorities against which LIHTC applicants will be ranked each year. As the importance of the LIHTC as a revenue source has grown, so has the influence of the QAP as a targeting statement.

Targeting by Location
In most cases, states use the QAP to establish preferences for development in specific areas, such as targeted improvement zones or rural communities. Recently, the Sacaramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency issued a proposal to increase the competitiveness of LIHTC applicants developing homes in new, master-planned communities, primarily by re-assessing criteria that require site amenities such as public transit and schools to be in place when the project is placed in service. Click here to read the proposal.

Targeting by Population
In other states, the QAP has been used to prioritize housing for particular types of residents, such as large families, elderly households, or people who have experienced homelessness. In its QAP, the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency established a threshold requirement that all LIHTC applicants reserve 10 percent of units for extremely low-income persons with disabilities. Click here to read a case study about North Carolina's QAP from the Corporation for Supportive Housing [PDF].
  • Consider how to expand the pie by leveraging additional federal and private-market funds. When public funds are used to make a 4 percent or 9 percent low-income housing tax credit work, the community leverages additional federal funds. Similarly, a tax credit or direct matching program can be used to leverage employer contributions for affordable homes for their workers, magnifying the impact of public funds.
Click here to learn more about some of the key decisions that communities will need to make in determining how to target state and local resources.
back to the top
Monitoring progress

Central to any strong housing policy is the continual monitoring of results and the corresponding refinement of strategies. Numerical goals set out in a comprehensive housing strategy – for example, build 1,000 new homes affordable to working families in the next five years – can give both agency staff and the public an opportunity to track progress toward implementation of a housing strategy. Specific targets also can provide the impetus for periodically reviewing the strategy to ensure it is on track, and to resolving the obstacles that will inevitably emerge as implementation proceeds.

Ideally, evaluation will also become a core value and operating principle of the agencies that administer housing programs and policies. Among other data, communities may wish to keep track of the numbers of families served by each program, the costs and the amount of unspent funds within each program, and the extent of unmet needs. When funds are not being spent as quickly as assumed, why not? Are changes in program rules needed?

Erin Place
Erin Place, Eagan MN - Photo courtesy of LHB, Inc.
If programs are costing more than expected, what is the source of extra costs? What additional changes do practitioners recommend to make programs easier to use and thus more effective?

As communities consider updates to program rules, it is important to bear in mind that frequent rule changes may be counterproductive, unsettling existing expectations and forcing beneficiaries to change their business plans midstream. Ideally, programs should be well-designed from the start, reflecting feedback from practitioners before the programs are implemented, and thus minimizing the need for subsequent change. When data or other feedback demonstrate a need for program changes, by all means, make the changes; but again, it's best to solicit input on the specific changes before they are implemented.

In Portland Oregon, changes to the River District Urban Renewal Area housing strategy reflect the importance of flexibility as implementation progresses and local conditions evolve. Initially adopted in 1994, the housing strategy is one element of a larger 20-year redevelopment plan for the area. Due to public concerns about increasing rents and the perceived displacement of low-income people, in 1999 the Portland City Council requested a comprehensive survey of all housing in the area. Based on data collected on the cost of owning or renting a home, findings indicated that the River District, once home to primarily extremely low-income households, had doubled its housing supply and become a mixed-income community, reaching its goal of achieving an income distribution similar to the City’s overall income distribution. Recognizing this shift, the 1999 update to the housing strategy refines the income categories used to set housing targets, to ensure the maintenance of this balance and preservation of units affordable to low- and extremely low-income families.

[1] Raymond J. Burby. 2003. Making Plans that Matter: Citizen Involvement and Government Action. APA Journal 69(1): pp. 33-49.

back to the top
Ingredients For Success
Twelve ingredients for success

1. Exercise leadership
Securing and maintaining collaboration between multiple agencies that are not used to working together will require strong leadership, both as programs get started and in an ongoing capacity. Ideally, there should be both high-level commitment to the development and execution of a plan and someone playing a more hands-on role to keep the process moving and monitor results.

back to top

2. Know your market
The housing needs of working families, and the resources available to meet those needs, must be judged in the market context, which means it is essential to understand the dynamics of the market. For example, at what price point can private or nonprofit developers build different types of homes? What is preventing them from producing homes at lower costs? Do for-profit and nonprofit developers have ready access to financing for new projects? Do existing rental property owners have access to financing to maintain their properties? Is there a high-quality older rental stock that could be preserved as an affordable resource for lower income families?

Understanding the housing needs the private sector is already meeting, or could meet with some relatively modest changes in state or local policy, will help identify the gaps that could be filled by the government or nonprofit sectors. This process also may uncover policy changes that could be made to reduce the costs of market-rate homes.

back to top

3. Get ahead of the curve by proactively planning for the future
In developing and implementing a strategic housing plan, it's critical to stay ahead of the curve. In particular, it's important to understand where future growth is likely to take place as it will generally be easier and less expensive to intervene in the market before a neighborhood has "taken off" rather than afterwards. Planning for future growth also involves coordinating housing, transportation and economic development plans so that working families can afford to live near (or with good transportation access to) employment centers.

For example, some communities have taken steps to make sure housing affordable to working families is available in neighborhoods adjacent to proposed mass transit stations. These areas can accommodate greater residential density and allow development with
Centennial Place
Centennial Place, Atlanta GA -- Photo courtesy of McCormack Baron Salazar
fewer parking requirements—conditions that ease the development of affordable homes. At the same time, however, these areas are vulnerable to speculation and skyrocketing land prices as transit plans are finalized.

By exercising some measure of control over adjacent land very early in the process – through acquisition, establishing a tax increment district, or inclusionary zoning incentives or requirements – communities can help to ensure that affordable homes are well located near transit. For example, in 2003 the City of Minneapolis implemented the Corridor Housing Strategy, a small area plan intended to ensure the continued availability of affordable housing along a newly-established light rail line. In addition to a robust community outreach and engagement process undertaken in partnership with area developers and neighborhood groups, the initiative involves City acquisition of smaller, strategic parcels of land to be reserved for mixed-income development along transit corridors.

back to top

4. Be comprehensive
In constructing a housing plan, it is important to realize that there is not generally going to be one single answer to meeting families' housing needs. Rather, it is likely that a combination of strategies will be needed – for example, combining expedited permitting to reduce the time and expense of development with mechanisms for generating additional capital for homes affordable to working families and strategies for strengthening families' capacity to obtain a reasonably-priced private mortgage.

back to top

5. Be inclusive
The housing challenges facing most communities are long-standing, substantial, and multifaceted. By building a broad and inclusive coalition of stakeholders and agencies, communities can ensure they have the widest possible input into how to solve these problems, a deep and diverse base of support for their adoption, and a large arsenal of partners and allies who can assist with their implementation. Click here for more information on assembling a taskforce to develop a comprehensive housing strategy.

back to top

6. Create open lines of communication
In a rapidly changing business like housing, it's essential to stay in close contact with practitioners in all sectors of the business, including nonprofit and for-profit developers, lenders, mortgage servicers, rental property owners and managers, low-income advocates, and architects and planners.

Most communities have provisions for one or two formal public input sessions per year, often in connection with the HUD-mandated Consolidated Plan, but these meetings generally are not conducive to the kind of intensive, fact-gathering, iterative analysis and open exchange of views that are necessary to improve housing policy. In addition to these formal sessions, state and local governments should consider establishing open channels of communication with practitioners throughout the year – perhaps as part of the housing strategy taskforce process – to review and refine public policy to provide maximum support for practitioners' efforts to expand the supply of affordable homes.

back to top

Bungalow Court
Bungalow Court, Minneapolis MN -- Photo courtesy of LHB Inc.
7. Insist on excellent design
Like any other form of housing, affordable homes can be designed well or designed poorly. Governments should insist that any affordable homes they support be well-designed – both to ensure that they remain durable assets for the residents and the community and to minimize public opposition.

The City of Boston has taken design recommendations a step further; the City's housing strategy not only promotes good design that fits with the surrounding neighborhood, but indicates that design standards will be modified to incorporate construction practices that help reduce the incidence of asthma. In addition, authors of the report note that the Mayor's Green Building Taskforce will recommend greater use of green building techniques and high energy performance technology in new construction and major renovation projects.

View the Gallery section of this site to see examples of housing that is attractive and affordable to working families. The Affordable Housing Design Advisor provides a good primer on both attractive design and principles of environmentally sustainable design.

back to top

8. Promote a mix of incomes

There is a general consensus among practitioners that neighborhoods that include families with a mix of incomes tend to be more successful over the long-term than those that include very low-income families exclusively. This does not necessarily mean that every single development of affordable homes must include families with a mix of incomes. In general, however, jurisdictions should aim to ensure that their investments help to facilitate the creation of healthy, vibrant neighborhoods that provide homes affordable to families across the income spectrum. Tools like inclusionary zoning policies and zoning codes that allow accessory dwelling units and other types of lower-cost units help local officials achieve an income mix in new and established neighborhoods.

Click here to leave this section and learn more about developing mixed-income housing through cross-subsidies.

back to top

9. Preserve and recycle resources

In a world of limited public resources, it is essential to maximize the value of public subsidies to ensure they provide long-term benefits to the community. In the housing context, this can be accomplished by requiring that homes made affordable through public subsidy or large implicit subsidies – through density bonuses, for example, or the donation or the below-market sale of publicly-owned land – remain affordable for an extended period of time, and even in perpetuity, where appropriate.

On the rental side, many states now require that developments funded through the low-income housing tax credit remain affordable for 50 years or more. Some even require permanent affordability. Many of the early tax credit developments and federally assisted properties did not have these long-term affordability requirements, so efforts are now underway to preserve their affordability. These preservation efforts are another important way to maximize the initial investment in those properties, but of course it would have been less costly and more effective to build long-term affordability in at the outset. Click here to learn more about rental housing preservation.

On the homeownership side, there is a trend toward recycling downpayment assistance so that a single investment of public funds can be used to assist multiple families, but many communities still provide downpayment assistance in the form of a grant or a forgivable loan. As the amount of assistance required to assist any given homeowner has grown, some communities have turned to shared equity solutions that preserve the buying power of public homeownership subsidies in the face of rising home prices.

Debates about how to structure homeownership assistance can sometimes be contentious, with advocates on the one side arguing that homeownership policies should maximize individual opportunities to build assets, while advocates on the other side argue that the only important goal is to preserve the affordability of assisted homes to future buyers. In reality, there is much ground in between these two extremes and successful strategies for advancing both goals at the same time. Click here to learn more about how to balance ongoing affordability with individual asset-building in designing a homeownership subsidy program.

back to top

10. Consider a demonstration
In some cases, adoption of strategies on a demonstration basis can help test assumptions and reduce risk when policy outcomes are uncertain. Boston's housing plan, for example, includes an increase in the inclusionary housing requirement, from 10 percent of total units to 15 percent of market-rate units (equivalent to 13 percent of total units) in new development. Because of concerns about future market conditions, rather than introducing a permanent shift in the inclusionary development formula, this change was implemented on a temporary demonstration basis. Adopting this change on a provisional basis allowed the City to assess its impact on private development before making a permanent adjustment.

This approach may also help in the implementation of politically sensitive or controversial strategies that initially meet with community opposition. Successful introduction of programs on a demonstration basis allows sponsors to address NIMBY concerns, setting the stage for broader acceptance of programs related to housing affordability.

back to top

11. Think locally and regionally
Like labor markets, housing markets are regional in nature. While most families live in the same metropolitan area in which they work, they do not always live in the same city or even the same county as their workplaces. For this reason, the housing policies that one community adopts may affect other communities in the same metropolitan area. For example, when one community restricts new development or sets up conditions that effectively preclude the development of affordable homes, other communities end up picking up the slack. Since the housing policies of communities are rarely coordinated with one another, the end result is often sprawl: affordable homes get built in the areas of least resistance – often on the fringes of the metropolitan area – and traffic increases as these families travel long distances to and from work.

While each community can and should develop its own local housing strategy, it is important to open a dialogue with other nearby municipalities to determine the optimal role of each in addressing the broader housing needs of the region. To reduce sprawl, for example, communities may want to focus energy on infill development in areas with existing infrastructure and on areas with good access to public transportation. Rural areas on the fringes of growing metropolitan areas can work with nearby city officials to make sure that if and when annexation occurs, development proceeds in a well-planned manner. Cooperation between different jurisdictions can help regions develop coordinated housing strategies to meet needs that transcend political boundary lines.

In addition to the development of complementary housing strategies, another benefit of regional cooperation is the opportunity to learn from the experiences of other jurisdictions. Included in the housing action plan of Provincetown, Massachusetts, for example, is a recommendation to create a roundtable forum for nearby communities facing similar housing affordability challenges. While development of a regional approach to common housing issues is an eventual goal of this group, the forum is also presented as a venue for participants to share successful strategies and develop ways to work together on funding applications and other projects.

back to top

12. Build public support for affordable homes
Public opposition to new development is one of the biggest obstacles to expanding the supply of homes affordable to working families. State and local leaders can help expand public support for new or rehabilitated homes by working to educate the public about their benefits for the community, as well as the importance of providing homes for essential workers.

Encouraging public involvement throughout the planning process is a powerful way to build a strong base of support, but efforts should not end once the plan has been officially accepted. Fairfax County’s affordable housing plan includes a recommendation for the establishment of an ongoing advocacy and public education campaign to promote the need for affordable and workforce housing and advocate for full funding of related programs.

Among other things, members of the committee that developed the plan will serve as "ambassadors," speaking to civic organizations and the media about housing. Similarly, as part of the development of its housing strategy, Provincetown, Massachusetts created a Community Support Work Group,
Crawford Square
Crawford Square, Pittsburgh PA -- Photo courtesy of McCormack Baron Salazar
charged with the task of finding methods to educate the community about housing needs and progress made. In addition to coming up with key messages to use in its public education work, the Group proposed the initiation of regular meetings with other community groups, in order to build support for housing-related activity.

Some of lessons learned from state and local efforts to build support for affordable homes are reviewed in the context of winning support for housing bond measures. To learn more about building support for affordable homes, visit the website of The Campaign for Affordable Housing.
back to the top
Housing Plan Profiles
Plan Profiles Introduction

In this section, we present profiles of 12 strategic housing plans that have been prepared -- and are in various stages of implementation -- by jurisdictions across the country. Plans were selected to represent different types of communities and levels of government, as well as to provide an indication of the diversity of approaches to development and implementation.

Use the browse categories below to find specific types of housing plans, or simply click through the profiles to learn about how communities across the country are putting the pieces together to create a comprehensive approach to increasing the availability of homes for working families.
Does your community have a strategic housing plan that should be highlighted on

Visit the Contact Us page to send us more information.
back to the top
Find Plans by Jurisdiction Type

Housing strategies can be implemented at all levels of government, and in communities of all sizes:




More than 1 million

500,000 to 1 million

100,000 to 500,000

Less than 100,000

back to the top
Find Plans by Scope: Broad or Focused

Broad plans focus on a wide range of issues and may address, for example, homelessness and preservation of affordable rentals and first-time homeownership. Focused plans are more limited in scope and tend to hone in on a small range of issues.

Both approaches are equally important. For example, "Great Housing in Great Neighborhoods," Atlanta, Georgia's housing strategy, outlines steps for implementing recommendations decided upon in earlier visioning sessions. In this case, a focused plan makes sense for achieving clearly defined goals. In contrast, "Build Preserve Lead: A Housing Agenda for Chicago's Neighborhoods" brings together in one document the full spectrum of the City's housing activities. A broad plan is needed to capture the full range of programs.

Broad Plans

Boston, MA: from homelessness to homebuyer assistance
Chicago, IL: a five-year plan coordinating all of the City's housing initiatives
Jacksonville, FL: a starting point to inform decisionmakers of available tools
Stamford, CT: prepared in conjunction with the City's Master Plan
Washington, DC: identifies a wide range of goals and tools to achieve them

Focused Plans

Arizona: address three major hurdles to affordable housing production and preservation
Atlanta, GA: implementation of initiatives identified in an earlier visioning report
Fairfax County, VA: one piece of a larger initiative, this plan focuses exclusively on preservation
Montgomery County, MD: focused on initiatives in five areas
New York, NY: focuses on tools for achieving four policy goals
Portland River District, OR: update to an earlier plan, in response to changing market conditions
Provincetown, MA: policies chosen to increase the supply of homes affordable to year-round residents

back to the top
Connections Between Housing and Other Policy Areas
Connections Introduction

Affordable housing is a critical piece in the puzzle of many other of the nation's most pressing challenges, including:
  • Improving educational outcomes for our children
  • Improving health outcomes for children and families
  • Improving standards of living for working families
  • Improving livability and reducing sprawl
  • Reducing energy usage and improving the environment
A full appreciation of these connections is important for three reasons. First, it may lead to changes in housing policy to better support these other objectives. Second, it may lead to changes in these other policy areas to better support housing objectives. Third, it may help to expand support for affordable housing by increasing awareness of the importance of affordable homes among stakeholders focused on these other objectives.

The sections below briefly review each connection, with links to more detailed information.

back to the top
Improving educational outcomes for our children

In partnership with Enterprise Community Partners, the Center for Housing Policy has prepared a comprehensive review of available research on how affordable homes contribute to improved educational outcomes. The following are some of the findings of the research reviewed:
  • Children who live in stable housing where they move less frequently are more likely to do better on reading and math tests and less likely to drop out of school than children who move regularly.
  • Children who live in good housing conditions – in particular, housing free from pesticides, mold and cockroach infestation – are less likely to develop asthma and, as a result, to miss school.
  • Children in families that receive housing assistance in the form of housing vouchers live in better neighborhoods and are less likely to move frequently, experience crowding and to miss school compared to children in families that do not receive vouchers.
  • Children of homeowners scored up to 9 percent higher on math and up to 7 percent higher on reading tests than their peers in families that rented their homes.
Click here for links to both the full research review and a shorter summary of the research on the connections between housing and educational achievement.
back to the top
Improving health outcomes for children and families

In 2007, the Center for Housing Policy and Enterprise Community Partners released a comprehensive review of available research on how affordable homes contribute to improved health outcomes. The following are some of the findings of the research reviewed:
  • Children who live in housing built before 1960 – approximately 14 million children under age 6 – are more likely to suffer from increased lead exposure and lead poisoning since older rental housing contains the highest levels of lead-based paint hazards.
  • According to one study, children in families that receive housing assistance were approximately 50 percent less likely to suffer from iron deficiencies than children in low-income families that do not receive housing aid.
  • Children of homeowners and their families achieve better physical and mental health outcomes compared to renters, including fewer long-term illnesses, as well as lower blood pressure and depression levels.
Click here for links to both the full research review and a shorter summary of the research on the connections between housing and health outcomes.
back to the top
Improving standards of living for working families

The fundamental promise of America is that if you work hard and play by the rules, you will earn a decent quality of life and generate expanded opportunities for yourself and your children. Today, the nation's ability to deliver on this promise has been undermined by increases in housing prices that have put homeownership and stable rental housing outside the reach of many workers. Certainly, changes in the economy and weaknesses in the educational system have also played major roles, but rising housing prices may well be the single biggest factor undermining the quality of life of middle-income families in a growing number of high-cost communities.

Over the ten-year period ending in the 3rd quarter of 2005, home prices virtually doubled, while the incomes of homeowners grew only 39 percent. Similarly, rents increased by 33 percent between 1995 and 2005, while renter incomes rose only 23 percent. [1] As a result, many working families can no longer afford to buy or rent a home near their place of work. The recent slow down has created a temporary window of opportunity for communities interested in addressing their housing challenges, but is unlikely to unwind housing prices sufficiently to bring them within reach of working families. For the latest data on the housing affordability challenges facing working families, see the Center for Housing Policy's Paycheck to Paycheck database.

Many advocates and policymakers are focused on improving wages for working families – a laudable goal that will certainly be helpful. However, in areas with severe constraints on the ability of the market to supply housing to meet rising demand – most high-cost markets – increases in salaries will most likely lead to higher housing prices, eating up a sizable share of the benefits of the higher wages. For this reason, in high-cost areas, it is essential to combine efforts to increase wages with efforts to reduce barriers to new development.


[1] Home price trends calculated using the Freddie Mac Conventional Mortgage Home Price Index. All other data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 1995 and 2005 American Housing Survey, Tables 2-12 and 2-13.
back to the top
Improving livability and reducing sprawl

The shortage of affordable housing plays a central role in producing sprawl, which in turn harms the environment. While other factors (schools, crime, etc.) also play a role, much of the leapfrog development that creates and aggravates sprawl is driven by families' search for affordable, amenity-rich homes. The increased energy usage associated with sprawl and other low-density development patterns has obvious implications for global warming and other related environmental challenges. Low-density development patterns also make it much more difficult to efficiently provide public transit.

Another outcome is a reduction in the quality of life for many Americans. The shortage of decent, affordable homes near job centers and public transit forces many families to endure longer commutes and higher transportation costs. The resulting sprawl leads to increases in traffic congestion and commute time for other residents, including those who are closer-in.

To address the challenges of sprawl and traffic congestion, among others, many communities have adopted sustainable and inclusive development land use policies that promote redevelopment of the urban core, more compact development, and increased public transit. Because shortages of well-located affordable housing play a central role in contributing to the problems sought to be addressed by sustainable development patterns incorporating a strong affordable housing element can help to increase the likelihood that a land use plan will achieve its objectives.

For the same reason, in considering how to preserve open space and advance other sustainable development patterns, communities should remember that barriers to new development are a key factor driving up housing prices in many high-cost areas. A land use plan that ends up further constricting new development will actually harm rather than advance the overall goals of sustainable and inclusive development. The key to balancing these concerns is to accommodate new growth in a sustainable manner, not to restrict overall growth.

Click here to learn more about compact, transit-oriented, mixed-use and other forms of sustainable and inclusive development patterns.

back to the top