building better communities: overview

This introduction familiarizes the reader with the notion of a full range of housing choices and why housing choice is instrumental in the creation of thriving, healthy, and connected communities. The Toolbox is intended for elected officials, planners, and city/county staff, and citizen volunteers working to strengthen our communities. The information grounds practitioners in research-supported practices and informs dialogues within the field, and between practitioners, policymakers, and implementers, to improve housing choices. Tools and strategies are also included to help policy leaders engage in discussions about the role that housing can play in strengthening our communities and to answer questions from community organizations, advocates, and constituents about housing policy.

Building better communities and support for a full range of housing choices takes strong public leadership. Elected officials, planners and staff, and citizen volunteers must talk about housing issues in terms of the benefit to the broader public interest, of making the community and neighborhood an even better place to live and work. Click here to learn more about information regarding the need for a full range of housing choices; including tools and strategies that help policy leaders talk about and answer questions surrounding affordable, workforce housing.

How To Use The Toolbox

The toolbox is a collection of best practices from throughout Minnesota. It should be viewed as a starting point, rather than an end. In addition, it should serve as a springboard for new ideas and solutions to be developed, ones that can further position the state and the greater Minneapolis/St. Paul region for a vibrant future.


Having a common language to talk about the goals and objectives of housing policies helps bridge expectations and understandings. Many of the words used in dialogues around housing, however, can mean different things to different people and in different contexts. Therefore, we begin by defining the key concepts of community, housing choices, and affordable housing.


According to the dictionary, community is defined as a “unified body of individuals.” [1] For the purposes of the Toolbox, we define community based on the places bodies of individuals inhabit. In that sense, a community can be a block, a neighborhood, a town, a city, a county, a region, the state, the nation, and the world at large. Therefore, when speaking of a community, defining the particular community one is referring to is important.

Housing choices

The physical aspect of communities includes housing, an inherent part of peoples’ lives and well-being. Access to housing choices supports diverse ways of living and being in the world, and is responsive to the many types of people who call Minnesota home:
  • increasing numbers of immigrants and minorities
  • aging baby boomers
  • young professionals
  • college students
  • families with children
  • singles, etc.
All those people have a wide range of incomes, ages, abilities, as well as preferences for how and where they wish to live.

As homes are typically made-up of spaces that support activities such as sleeping, cooking, eating, grooming, relaxing, etc. we tend to think of houses as consisting of many rooms – living rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, bathrooms, offices, storage rooms, etc. Providing choice in housing requires unlearning singular definitions of housing; instead it provides a focus on people. Housing choices vary as much as individuals, their characteristics, and their preferences do. The factors that vary include:
  • Location – urban, suburban, rural, and everything in between.
  • Cost – varying price points to respond to varying income levels.
  • Type – single family, multi-family, apartments, condos, townhomes, duplexes, manufactured homes, etc.
  • Size – number of bedrooms, bathrooms, square footage, etc.
  • Ownership – owner occupied, rented.
  • Financing - mortgage, contract for deed, monthly rent, publically subsidized land trust, etc.
  • Non-traditional use of rooms - shared spaces, office use, etc.
  • Access to amenities – transit, airport, parks, libraries, hospitals, grocery stores, schools, work, etc.
When speaking of housing choices, it is important to be aware of the many components that could vary and refer to those in dialogues.

Affordable housing

As a rule of thumb, and according to federal definitions, housing is affordable if it does not cost more than 30% of household income. Three nuances require clarification:
  • The 30% rule: The 30% standard might need to be readjusted depending upon the particular situation. As an example, some families might desire to have an even lower housing cost so that a portion of their income can support extended family members. Others, particulary New Americans, set aside money necessary to travel internationally to visit family and friends.In addition, the typical housing costs do not include the cost of transportation to and from work which can add 15-20% to a household's budget.[2] Further, the cost of childcare can add another 18% to a household's budget according to a study completed by Childcare Aware. [3]
  • Affordable housing is not one thing: Affordable housing includes a range of options for a range of populations. It can be single homeless people, elderly, disabled, or working middle class families and many combinations in between. A single person who has been homeless or unemployed and has no savings has different requirements and needs than a working family with a small nest egg. When talking about affordable housing then, one must be specific about cost points and incomes based on the particular individual(s) and the housing needed. Questions to ask: whom are we talking about and what type of housing is this referring to? Is it multi-unit housing or single-family homes? Is it naturally occurring affordable housing or housing that has restrictions on the amount of income one makes, etc.?
  • Avoiding “us” versus “them” thinking: Affordable housing is often connected with unemployed people, increased crime, lower housing values, etc. Also, affordable housing often connotes the idea of catering to those who are poor and therefore benefiting only a subsection of our population. These are the myths of affordable housing. Instead, ensuring the quality, professional management and location of affordable housing is more important than who lives in the housing with regards to how it affects the neighborhood and surrounding properties. Everyone in the community benefits from availability of quality, affordable housing—those who need it and those who do not. [4] The reasons are outlined here.

To print the full toolbox introduction, click here for a print friendly format.

Acknowledgements: Much of the information and ideas presented above were made possible through a University of Minnesota Extension Block Grant Award and Dr. Tasoulla Hadjiyanni, Associate Professor with input from the Regional Council of Mayors, ULI MN Executive Committee and the ULI MN/RCM Housing Initiative Advisory Group.

kids playingClick here to learn more about why access to housing choices is important

question markClick here to learn more about how we can enhance housing choice

[1] Community. [Webpage].
[2] U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Location Affordability Portal [Webpage]. 2014. Washington, DC.
[3] ChildCare Aware of America. Parents and the High Cost of Child Care: 2013 Report [PDF]. 2013. Arlington, VA.
[4] Building Support for Affordable Homeownership and Rental Choices: A Summary of Research Findings on Public Opinion and Messaging on Affordable Housing. [PDF] 2013. By Janet Viveiros and Rebecca Cohen. Washington, DC: Center for Housing Policy.