publicly-owned land: overview

What is publicly-owned land, and how can it be made available for affordable homes?

In most communities, public agencies control significant amounts of land. Publicly-owned land can include both undeveloped and developed parcels, such as schools, public hospitals, parking lots, fire and police stations, and agency headquarters. Communities may also have surplus properties which are no longer needed to serve public purposes. Others may have properties that are underutilized and could accommodate higher-densities.

Publicly-owned land can be a critical resource for affordable homes. Opportunities to use publicly-owned land for affordable homes include making vacant land available for housing development, building at higher density on lower-density sites, and adding residential space on top of existing structures such as fire stations. By finding affordable housing opportunities on publicly-owned land, localities can lead by example and demonstrate their commitment to increasing the supply of affordable homes.

What about tax-delinquent properties?

The reuse of tax-delinquent properties involves substantially different processes and policies than the use of other publicly-owned land. Acquiring and reusing tax-delinquent properties is, therefore, the focus of its own section of To leave the current section and learn more about facilitating the reuse of tax-delinquent properties, click here.

What problems are solved by making publicly-owned land available for affordable homes?

In high-cost areas, affordably-priced land is in short supply. Land may also be unavailable or unaffordable in key locations near transit or near major employment centers. By offering publicly-owned land at no cost, or at a reduced cost, to developers of affordable homes, communities can bring down the land costs and make affordable housing possible with less significant direct outlays.

Publicly-owned land also offers a valuable opportunity for local governments to take an active role in shaping their communities through direct control of land-use decisions. For example, a community could use publicly-owned land to demonstrate the feasibility of higher-density, mixed-income, or mixed-use developments, particularly developments with a strong affordability component. (In some cases, localities need state authorization to transfer publicly-owned land or to sell or lease properties at below-market prices. States can reduce the need for case-by-case authorization by passing enabling legislation.)

Where are these policies most applicable?

Since developable land can be extremely hard to find in high-cost housing markets, these areas will benefit the most from using publicly-owned land for affordable homes. New York City, notable for its lack of vacant land, has found new opportunities for affordable homes by using former schools, hospitals, and underutilized parking lots. In lower-cost or slow-growth markets, publicly-owned land may still be an important resource for stimulating community development, saving outdated community assets through adaptive reuse, or building affordable housing despite widespread NIMBY sentiment.
Solutions in Action
Mountain View Apartments
Photo courtesy of ULI Development Case Studies

Mountain View Senior Apartments were developed on publicly-owned land in Ontario, California. A 55-year ground lease to Simpson Housing Services made the land available for affordable homes, but allowed the city of Ontario to retain ownership. Lease payments are due from residual cash flow.

The development consists of 86 one- and two-bedroom apartments for persons ages 55 and over.

Visit the Gallery to learn more about Mountain View Senior Apartments.

Mountain View Senior ApartmentsLearn more about making publicly-owned land available for affordable homes

Montecito VistaGo back to learn about other policies that expand development opportunities

The Center for Housing Policy gratefully acknowledges the input and feedback provided for this policy section by the following reviewers (in alphabetical order): Aaron Gornstein, Citizens' Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA); Rosalind Greenstein, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy; Judith Jacobson, Massachusetts Housing Partnership; Charleen Regan, Housing and Community Development Consultant; Ann Verilli, CHAPA; and John Warren, New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Please note, however, that the views and opinions expressed on are those of the Center for Housing Policy alone.