sustainable and equitable development: overview

What do we mean by "sustainable and equitable" development?

In recent years, a variety of factors have converged to push sustainable, equitable development to the top of the policy agenda. These include increased awareness of the environmental consequences of lengthy commutes and greenhouse gas emissions; a growing recognition that housing affordability is measured not just by rent or mortgage payments, but by a wider set of 'costs of place' that includes transportation costs; and mounting concern about the ability of low- and moderate-income families to find affordable homes in areas where transportation costs are likely to be low, such as near public transit and job, town and village centers.

In this policy guide, we focus on strategies and policy tools that help to ensure families of all income levels have the opportunity to find or stay in

Photo courtesy of Urban Land Institute Development Case Studies
decent, affordable homes in neighborhoods that provide convenient access to jobs, schools, retail and other amenities. In rural and suburban areas that cannot support a public transit system, a sustainable and equitable approach may mean clustering development affordable to families of all incomes around town centers to ensure that trips to the workplace, retail services, and other amenities do not require lengthy travel in a personal vehicle. In communities with a robust public transit system, this approach may mean coordinating efforts on a broader geographic scale to ensure that families throughout the metro area can afford to live near subway or light rail stations or have good access to reliable and frequent bus service.

We use the short-hand "location-efficient development" to refer to these and other models of development that allow families to reduce their transportation costs. We use the term "sustainable and equitable development" to refer to location-efficient development that includes housing affordable to families of all incomes.

What does location-efficient development look like?

Location-efficient development can take many forms, depending on the surrounding neighborhood context. Some location-efficient development patterns include the following:
  • Compact or cluster development can occur in any community, including rural and suburban areas, and refers to the construction of homes at higher-than-usual densities, either to preserve surrounding open space or to allow a greater number of families to access public transit and other amenities (or both).
  • Transit-oriented development (TOD) describes a pattern of mixed-use development at higher-than-usual densities located within walking distance of a transit hub and oriented toward the transit hub. These compact areas help expand the number of people who can use public transit to meet some or all of their transportation needs.
  • Infill development occurs on vacant, abandoned, or under-utilized lots within an already-developed community. Infill projects make efficient use of existing infrastructure and help to avoid sprawl. By contrast, breaking ground on open space or agricultural land—sometimes called "greenfield development"—often results in the loss of open space and requires the extension of new roads, sewer water connections, and other services.

What tools are available to create opportunities for low- and moderate-income households to live in location-efficient areas?

Housing practitioners often define "affordable housing" as housing where the costs for rent or mortgage payments and utilities do not exceed a set percentage of income, such as 30 percent. But research shows that families' expenditures on housing and transportation are closely linked, suggesting that a better approach is to examine the combined costs of housing, transportation, and utilities—the complete costs of place. The classic example is the family who cannot find an affordable home and thus has to "drive 'til they qualify." The family may secure lower-cost housing, but now needs to drive longer distances and may need to purchase a second car. To ensure that families can afford to meet basic needs for nutritious food, health care, and other essentials, it's important to keep their combined costs for housing, transportation and utilities to a reasonable level.

Several approaches are available to states and localities to ensure that low- and moderate-income families can find affordable homes in location-efficient areas and thus reduce the combined costs of place:
Solutions in Action
In 2006, Mercy Housing California opened the Mission Creek Senior Community in San Francisco, a compact, transit-oriented infill development that provides 139 one-bedroom apartments for very low-income adults age 62 or older. All units in Mission Creek can be adapted to serve handicapped residents; the development also provides on-site services to 51 frail seniors, including an Adult Day Health Center that provides skilled nursing, meals, and physical therapy.

The residential space is located above a 7,500 square-foot branch location of the San Francisco Public Library and a coffee house, and within walking distance of public transit services, including a light rail line. Developed with support from the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency and the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco, Mission Creek is sited on a former brownfield site and includes many energy- and resource-saving features, and has been honored with an array of awards, including the 2008 National Award for Smart Growth Achievement in Equitable Development.

Click here to read an article about the development.

Click here to view a linked "table of contents" that describes the tools discussed in each of these sections.

A comprehensive approach to location-efficient development, with policies and programs drawn from each of these areas, will enable communities of all types to provide affordable housing options for households at all income levels, ensuring that development is both sustainable and equitable.

Developing a neighborhood-specific approach

A 2012 Center for Housing Policy research review found that the impact of public transit on housing costs varies substantially from neighborhood to neighborhood and metro area to metro area. Overall, proximity to public transit appears to lead to higher home values and rents. The magnitude of the impact, however, varies widely (one study put the range of the home price premium at anywhere from 3 to 40 percent) and depends in large part on a number of mediating factors, including the extent and reliability of the transit system, the strength of the local housing market, and the characteristics of the surrounding area.

These and other factors should be taken into consideration when determining how to prioritize efforts to preserve and expand affordable housing near transit. Demographic, real estate, and other data can be used to create neighborhood typologies that identify types of neighborhoods in which different interventions might be appropriate. In areas with a large concentration of affordable housing that have little prospect for growth even with the introduction of a new transit station, efforts to expand housing affordability may not be a priority and a local community development strategy might be the best intervention. By contrast, in a neighborhood poised for new development and growth, where the introduction of a new transit station is likely to amplify existing trends, an inclusionary housing strategy along with many of the other affordability mechanisms described in this policy guide will be critical to creating and preserving housing opportunities for low- and moderate-income families.

One note of caution. The more that communities succeed in creating vibrant, livable communities with a mix of uses within close proximity to a transit station that provides reliable, frequent and speedy access to job centers -- essentially, the ultimate goal of most sustainable communities initiatives -- the more likely it is that housing prices and rents will rise. This policy guide provides tools for building in affordability as these areas grow.

Click here to download the literature review

Poinsettia Station
Learn more about who benefits from sustainable and equitable development

6 North
Go back to learn about other policies that promote sustainable and equitable development