What Are the Best Practices for Providing Affordable Housing Options in High-Cost Urban Areas?

March 22, 2024

We live in a world where the divide between the income of the rich and the poor is becoming increasingly vast. High-cost cities are exacerbating this issue, turning into regions where only the affluent can comfortably thrive. One of the necessary steps towards bridging this divide is to ensure that everyone has a safe and affordable place to call home. However, in high-cost urban areas, this seems like an unachievable dream for many low-income and even middle-income families. As development continues to soar in these areas, it is critical that affordable housing is not left behind in the process.

Addressing Zoning Laws

Zoning laws play a significant role in the housing affordability crisis that many cities face. These laws often limit the density of residential units in given areas, leading to a limited amount of land available for housing development. This scarcity in turn drives up the cost of land and, therefore, the cost of housing.

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To combat this, certain policies can be implemented to encourage the development of affordable housing. One such approach is inclusionary zoning, which requires developers to include a certain percentage of affordable units in their projects. This helps to increase the supply of affordable homes, giving more families the opportunity to live in the city they work in.

Another strategy is to allow for ‘upzoning’, or increasing the allowed density of housing. This can help to create more housing units, reducing the overall cost per unit and making it more affordable for families.

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Leveraging Public Land

Public land is one of the most valuable resources that cities have at their disposal. This land can be utilized for the development of affordable housing, particularly in areas where land costs are high.

Cities can work with developers to build affordable housing on these lands. As the owners of the land, local municipalities also maintain control over the development, ensuring that the housing remains affordable for low-income families.

Using public land for affordable housing can also help to revitalise neighbourhoods and contribute to community development. By prioritising affordable housing on public land, cities can help ensure that all residents, regardless of income, have access to safe and affordable homes.

Encouraging Private Developers

Private developers play a crucial role in housing development. However, in high-cost areas, they often focus on luxury units that yield higher profits. This leaves low and middle-income families struggling to find affordable places to live.

Cities can incentivise developers to build more affordable units through various strategies. This can include offering tax breaks or subsidies for projects that include affordable housing. Additionally, cities can streamline the approval process for these projects, making it easier and more efficient for developers to build affordable units.

Private developers can also be part of community land trusts, where land is held in trust for the community. This allows for the development of affordable housing that remains affordable in perpetuity, as the land is not subject to market fluctuations.

Partnering with Non-profit Organisations

Non-profit organisations often have a dedicated focus on providing affordable housing and supporting low-income families. By partnering with these organisations, cities can leverage their expertise and resources to develop affordable housing units.

These partnerships can take various forms. For example, cities can provide funding or land to non-profit developers, who then build and manage the affordable housing. Alternatively, cities and non-profits can collaborate on joint projects, combining their resources and expertise for maximum impact.

Implementing Rent Control Policies

Rent control policies limit the amount by which landlords can increase rents, helping to keep housing affordable for tenants. While they can be controversial, these policies can be an effective tool in high-cost areas to ensure housing affordability.

However, rent control policies need to be carefully designed to avoid unintended consequences. For example, they should not disincentive landlords from maintaining their properties, or discourage the construction of new rental housing. One way to achieve this balance is to allow for reasonable rent increases that cover the cost of property maintenance and inflation, while still protecting tenants from steep, unaffordable hikes.

By implementing these practices, cities can help to ensure that all their residents, regardless of income, have access to safe, decent, and affordable homes. This not only benefits the individuals and families who live in these homes, but also contributes to the overall health, diversity, and vibrancy of the city.

Streamlining the Permit Process for Affordable Housing Development

One of the obstacles that often delays the development of affordable housing units in high-cost urban areas is a slow and complicated permit process. The permit process can be time-consuming and expensive, posing an additional challenge for developers who are already grappling with high land and construction costs. For affordable housing projects, these delays and costs can be particularly problematic, undermining the viability of the project.

To make the permit process more efficient, local governments can consider several strategies. First, they can dedicate staff to expedite the review of affordable housing projects. Having staff who are knowledgeable about affordable housing and dedicated to these projects can significantly speed up the review process.

Second, local governments can streamline the permit process by reducing the number of approvals required for affordable housing projects. This could involve simplifying the process for obtaining building permits and reducing the need for discretionary reviews, which can add uncertainty and delay to the project.

Finally, local governments can offer "by-right" development for affordable housing. This means that if a proposed project meets the zoning and other regulatory standards, it can proceed without needing discretionary review. By-right development can greatly speed up the approval process and make it more predictable, making it easier for developers to plan and finance their projects.

Utilizing Inclusionary Zoning Policies Effectively

Inclusionary zoning is a tool that requires or encourages developers to include a certain percentage of affordable units in their projects. When implemented effectively, it can increase the supply of affordable housing in resource-rich areas and promote income diversity within neighbourhoods.

However, to get the most out of inclusionary zoning, local governments need to design these policies carefully. One important consideration is setting the right level of affordability requirements. If the requirements are too high, they could discourage development; if they’re too low, they might not produce enough affordable units to meet the demand.

Another critical aspect is ensuring long-term affordability. This can be achieved through deed restrictions or other legal means that keep the units affordable for a specified period, typically 30 years or more. This prevents the units from being converted into market-rate housing after a few years.

Lastly, local governments should consider providing flexibility and incentives to developers. This might include allowing developers to pay in-lieu fees or build off-site units when it’s not feasible to include affordable units in their projects. Offering density bonuses or other incentives can also help offset the cost of providing affordable units, making the policy more appealing to developers.


With the right policies and strategies, it is possible to provide affordable housing options in high-cost urban areas. This includes addressing restrictive zoning laws, leveraging public land, encouraging private developers, partnering with non-profit organisations, streamlining the permit process, and effectively implementing inclusionary zoning policies.

These measures can help ensure that low-income and middle-income families have access to safe and affordable homes in the cities where they work and live. Furthermore, by promoting housing affordability, cities can foster social and economic diversity, improve the quality of life for all residents, and create vibrant and inclusive communities.

While the path to affordable housing in high-cost cities is fraught with challenges, it’s a journey worth taking. After all, everyone deserves a place they can call home, regardless of their income. By making affordable housing a priority, cities can bridge the income divide and make urban living accessible and enjoyable for all.