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Learn how to encourage responsible building and improve the quality of housing for all.


The UN Habitat (United Nations Human Settlements Programme) states:

“By the beginning of the third millennium, it is estimated that 1.1 billion people live in inadequate housing conditions in urban areas alone. In many cities of developing countries, more than half of the population live in informal settlements, without security of tenure and in conditions that can be described as life and health threatening. Among an estimated 100 million homeless people around the world, available data suggest that increasing proportions are women and children.”

These statistics suggest the dire need for quality housing worldwide. Rapid urbanization is necessitating more access to housing—half of humanity now lives in cities. We need to examine how to improve the quality of housing for poor and working class families. This section is about improving the quality of housing. That means making sure that everyone can find safe, decent, affordable housing within reach of where they work, shop, study, and play. We’ll look at ways to make current housing affordable, at ways to build better low- and moderate-income housing, and at using existing buildings to help create a community where everyone has a good place to live.

This video describes neighborhood revitalization efforts in Greater Kansas City, including high-quality housing options, and how the revitalization efforts have improved community life:

What do we mean by improving the quality of housing?

In general, when affluent citizens need their housing improved they have the money to make repairs or renovations. Or, if they’re not satisfied with what they have, they can get themselves something better. Our discussion of improving the quality of housing is largely focused on improving it for those who can’t afford to build, buy, or rent homes that meet their basic needs and provide decent, adequate housing.

An exception to this rule involves environmental considerations, which should apply to all types and budgets of housing. Environmentally responsible construction benefits the community as well as the residents, regardless of its affordability. , Improving the building’s performance, reducing waste, reducing consumption (water, electricity, gas), and using environmentally minded materials in the architectural materials and finishes are several ways to improve the quality of housing as well as the health and wellness of the occupants and the community.


Affordable housing is defined by income.  Most agencies and experts agree that housing is affordable if it doesn’t cost more than 30% of household income.  As income goes down, however, the percentage of income spent on housing rises.  Low-income people often spend as much as 60% or more, and what they get for their money can still be poorly maintained, unhealthy, and unsafe.

Looking at some numbers, affordability becomes clearer.  Let’s look at a family of four with an annual income of $28,000.00.  That’s one person working full-time at about $13.50 an hour or, more likely, two people working (perhaps not both full-time) at $7.00 or $8.00 an hour.  30% of that will give that family $700.00 a month for rent.  In or anywhere near most large U.S. cities, it’s difficult to rent anything beyond substandard housing for that amount.  That means that the family will spend considerably more than 30% of its income for rent.  Buying a house is probably out of the question, even if the family is able to budget enough to regularly pay a mortgage, because no bank is likely to loan the money for a down-payment.

Most moderate-income families – those making something close to the median income for their area – find themselves in a similar bind.  Even if they can afford to buy a house, it’s likely to be much smaller than they need, and may have other drawbacks – on a busy street, in a dangerous neighborhood, far from public transportation, etc.  Because this is the case,  moderate- as well as low-income people are included in our examination of improving housing in the community.


Affordable housing shouldn’t only be inexpensive, however. All housing, regardless of cost, should meet some basic standards of livability.

It should be:

  • Decent, in good repair: no peeling paint or crumbling plaster, functioning plumbing and wiring, operational windows that open and close, sturdy stairs and railings, etc.  In the case of multi-unit buildings, it should also mean regular maintenance: clean hallways, no garbage, no graffiti, and shoveled walks in winter, etc.
  • Big enough for the number of people that live there.
  • Free of hazardous materials – asbestos, formaldehyde, substances high in volatile organic compounds (VOC’s: toxic chemicals given off by many paint products and solvents, cleaners, glues), lead paint, etc. – and other threats to health.
  • Safe.  Locks that work on doors and windows, a locking front door. In multi-apartment buildings, safety may include an intercom-and-buzzer system.  In elderly housing, there may be emergency switches or cords that can alert someone if a resident has fallen or had a medical emergency.
  • Accessible to residents, particularly seniors and people with disabilities.
  • In appropriate areas.  Affordable housing shouldn’t automatically be built in the least desirable areas of a city or community: the only residential building in an industrial area, for instance, or located next to a factory that belches toxic smoke into the air. It shouldn’t be located across the street from the dump, or in a neighborhood where drug dealers and drive-by shootings  are common.
  • With access to shopping, public transportation, recreation, and health and human services. In cities, basic shopping should be in walking distance.


The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) offers principles of affordable housing design on the web. (While these are aimed at affordable housing, they are, in fact, appropriate for housing at any level.)

There are four basic principles:

  • Housing should meet the needs of its users
  • Understand and respond to its context
  • Enhance its neighborhood
  • Be built to last

Housing should meet the needs of its users

Some of the criteria to be used for meeting needs are similar to those listed above, including:

  • Size: Units should be big enough for the number of people they’re intended for.
  • Layout: Space should be used efficiently (sufficient storage under and behind counters, closets, etc.), rooms or spaces should be arranged in a logical manner (dining area next to kitchen for example), traffic patterns should be easy and natural.  Units should be easy to get to and accessible.
  • Public spaces: Ideally, there should be outdoor space where kids can play safely and/or places to sit in sun and shade. If budgets allow indoor common space, it should be comfortable and adaptable. Hallways and walkways should be maintained and well-lit.
  • Location: Housing, as discussed above, should be near, or allow access to,  transportation, shopping, and recreation. Affordable housing should not be assigned specifically to areas where no one wants to live – next door to a chemical plant, or in a dangerous neighborhood.

Housing should understand and respond to its context

  • This is true for the physical, the historic, and the social context of its site and area. Guidelines below highlight some fundamental aspects of design.  Dwellings  should utilize  the site well. It should be built on dry land, should be oriented in the appropriate direction (toward the sun in cool climates, away from it in warm ones), and take advantage of features to create an attractive space and to minimize the effects of an extreme climate (trees that lose their leaves offer shade in summer and allow sun in winter; a line of evergreens on the north side of a lot can block the winter wind.)
  • Housing should fit in with other nearby buildings. It doesn’t have to look exactly the same as other buildings in the area, but using similar building materials, windows, roof heights, etc. will help it to blend in well, and to increase the appeal of the neighborhood.
  • It should reflect the history and style of its neighborhood or community. The architecture might mirror the historic use of the site.  An apartment block could be faced with the same red brick as the 19th Century textile mill that once occupied its site. A housing complex in a largely Hispanic neighborhood could be built in Spanish style, thus acknowledging the community’s character.

Housing should enhance its neighborhood

There are a number of ways in which housing can add to its neighborhood:

  • It can add to the neighborhood’s attractiveness. Well-designed housing, with colorful or particularly attractive details, can improve the feel of the whole neighborhood, especially if it echoes the interesting features and style of existing buildings.
  • New housing  can add to foot traffic and street life. Setting aside space at street level in an apartment block or other multi-unit development for retail and commercial use will increase the number of people using the street. Activities that draw people out to shop and socialize help to create a sense of community. The more people recognize and talk to one another on the street, the safer and more pleasant the street becomes.
  • It can change the desirability of the neighborhood. An interesting or particularly nice building will attract people to live in it. That, in turn, can make others aware of the existence and advantages of the neighborhood, and draw new residents to it.
  • It can change people’s attitudes. Those who don’t live in the new housing may start to see themselves and their neighborhood differently: Since a developer chose to put this really nice building here, this place must be OK. The result may be people paying more attention to keeping up their own buildings and houses, and a rise in property values and community pride.

Housing should be built to last

The expected life of many houses or apartment buildings in the U.S. is relatively short – not much more than 25 years or so – yet many houses over 100 or even over 200 years old are still lived in, and still solid. How do you build housing that can last for two centuries, rather than two decades?

  • Use good-quality, durable materials suited to the climate. Some materials rot or corrode in wet weather. Others may deteriorate in hot sunlight. Still others are likely to fail after a while under any conditions, simply because they’re not meant to last. Using the proper materials can make a huge difference as to how long a building will stand.
  • Choose materials and construction techniques that are low-maintenance. There are many procedures that will weatherproof various materials, but some are toxic (poisonous), and most have to be continually renewed, like varnish on a wood floor. Using materials that are naturally weather- and insect-resistant cuts down on the possibility of damage, and also on the expense of upkeep.

Although truly durable, low-maintenance materials may be more expensive to buy, they often save money in the long run because of low maintenance costs. Current technology has produced a number of different building materials and methods – often cheaper than traditional ones – that can keep buildings healthier longer. Care must be taken, however, to be sure that these materials don’t contain harmful chemicals. Treated wood, for instance, while it resists rot for decades, is injected with an arsenic compound that can be dangerous. For years, houses were insulated with urea formaldehyde, which turns out to be toxic and especially dangerous when it burns. Do your research: find out what materials are being used, and whether or not they’re safe.

  • Employ high-quality construction techniques. The more solidly and competently a building is put together, the more likely it is to be still standing in 50 or 100 years. It’s worth it not to skimp on construction in order to save money on repairs later.
  • Pay attention to the use of the building. If children use particular areas a lot, it may be worth it to reinforce floors, railings, or other elements of those areas. Corridors and other spaces that bear heavy traffic could have harder flooring surfaces than the rest. Careful planning and analysis when the building is being designed can add many years to its life.

Environmental responsibility

Environmentally responsible development uses resources carefully, preserves and safeguards the environment of the development site and surrounding areas, avoids unhealthy materials and practices, and promotes healthy and environmentally responsible behavior in residents.

There are literally hundreds of ways a building or development can respond to environmental concerns, including:

  • Using recycled, non-toxic building materials.
  • Taking advantage of the site and the climate. This might include installing large, sun-facing windows in cool climates or overhangs to block summer sun in warm climates; angling buildings to catch or avoid sun or wind; using natural features (hills, trees) to block sun or wind; or building partially into a hill or earth mound for insulation.
  • Where appropriate, using super-insulation and thermal windows (windows with two or three panes separated by air pockets, creating an efficient heat- and cold-barrier) to control indoor temperatures.

Super-insulated buildings can come with problems as well. They have to be completely tight, so that air doesn’t pass in and out quickly. In a standard, reasonably well-insulated house, the inside air is exchanged for outside air about once every two to four hours; in a super-insulated house, that exchange may occur only once every 12-24 hours. The result for residents can be exposure to substances in the air that would normally never build up to levels where they would be a concern – they’d cycle out as fresh air cycled in. In a super-insulated building addressing issues of condensation and moisture control is also a prime concern.

  • Installing windows that open and close for ventilation, along with ceiling fans to cut down on or eliminate the need for air conditioning.

A New England university library was built in the 1960’s with large plate-glass windows for passive heat gain, meant to cut down on heating costs in the winter. In fact, the combination of sun streaming in through the windows and the heat of the many bodies of students in the building made it necessary to run the air conditioning year-round.

  • Minimizing energy use by maximizing natural light and installing low-wattage, fluorescent lighting; installing Energy Star appliances; and generating energy on-site with solar hot water collectors and solar- or wind-generated electricity.
  • Installing a green roof – a flat roof covered with earth and planted with grass – that can control water runoff, insulate against heat and cold, and even provide space to plant a garden. If a green roof installation is not feasible, installing a white roof that reflects sunlight in a warm climate will also help to reduce energy coasts. A roof can also be used to harvest (collect) rainwater which can be used for cooling, irrigation, or other purposes.
  • Conserving and reusing water. This can be accomplished through the use of low-flow faucets and showers; the use of “gray water” (collecting waste water from sinks, bathtubs, etc., that can then be reused in toilets, for irrigation, cooling, and other similar uses); and xeriscaping or landscaping with plants native to the climate to minimize or eliminate the need for watering.
  • Locating near public transportation and/or providing shuttles to stations or shopping to discourage unnecessary driving.
  • Creating pedestrian- and bike-friendly spaces, bike and walking/running paths, etc. to encourage exercise and discourage unnecessary driving.
  • Using low-impact construction and land-forming methods (changing the site as little as possible, and minimizing or eliminating the use of heavy machinery). This includes respecting existing landscape features, especially those, such as streams and wetlands, that have an important place in the local ecology.
  • Being careful not to damage or threaten water supplies; not to use toxic materials in building, land-forming, or landscaping; and to dispose of construction waste properly, so that it doesn’t foul anyone else’s backyard, either.
  • Reclaiming brownfields. Brownfields are former industrial sites that are polluted, but cleanable. Using a brownfield site for development can be tricky, in that all the toxic material has to be either removed or cleaned in such a way that it will not endanger residents. If it’s done right, reclaiming a brownfield site has many advantages: it recycles an area that has already been built on rather than clearing new ground and eliminating more open space; it cleans up a polluted area, leaving a healthier environment by removing toxins and hazardous materials; and it turns an eyesore into a community asset.
  • Reclaiming old buildings. Turning an empty mill, warehouse, or vacant school building, for instance, into housing reuses resources, reduces the carbon footprint of a development, and preserves community history as well.
  • Rehabilitating derelict buildings. The structure and foundation of many old buildings are solid under their decaying exterior skin. Rather than being torn down, they can be repurposed into attractive and durable housing. This effort can also rehabilitate whole neighborhoods by eliminating abandoned buildings that may be misused as drug dens or squatter houses, or become dangerous places for children to play.
  • Infilling. This is the practice of building housing throughout a neighborhood on empty lots, rather than all in one place. This uses available space in an already-built area, thus helping to eliminate sprawl.
  • Preserving open space through cluster housing. With cluster housing, housing units are built close together on a large lot, with the rest of the lot left as common open space. Thus, rather than each unit having a small amount of open space, the development as a whole has a large amount to share.

Social effects

Improving housing, particularly affordable housing, can have far-reaching social consequences. If housing for low-income people is placed nowhere but in low-income neighborhoods, those neighborhoods can remain low-income – and ignored – indefinitely. If affordable or public housing is essentially racially segregated – either by design or by location or circumstance – that’s a lost opportunity for people of different races to get to know one another. Some of the ways in which communities and developers try to improve housing with social effects in mind:

  • Mixed-income development. A mixed-income development includes, rather apparently, residents of various income levels. While all the units in a development may be similar in design, a certain number may be subsidized (usually for residents at or below 150-200% of poverty level), others may be low- to moderate-income (with rent or purchase price based on income), and still others may be market-rate (full price for a comparable unit). The intent here is to create a diverse community that spans two or more income levels, with no distinctions made, where cross-cultural and cross-class socializing and friendships are possible. There is an assumption that lower-income people will raise their aspirations, and that the more affluent will gain more understanding of and empathy for those with less. In the ideal, the diversity of the residents removes the stigma and isolation of poverty that often goes with subsidized housing, and encourages all to take pride in maintaining their homes.
  • Mixed-use development. A mixed-use development includes both residential and commercial space, often one above the other. It may also be mixed-income, and/or include residence areas for both seniors and families with children. One advantage of mixed use is that it encourages street life, and creates a “village” feel to the development, making the area safer and more pleasant. It also makes access to shopping or other services easier for residents, especially seniors and people with disabilities, for whom public transportation may be difficult to manage.
  • Housing for seniors and/or people with disabilities. These provide a safe and secure environment for those with limited or impaired physical mobility, and who prefer to know that help is available in an emergency. Senior housing often includes planned activities, and may offer meals as well. It offers elders the chance to remain independent, while at the same time being in a protective and supportive environment.
  • Co-housing. This is a form of housing in which each household has its own living space (either an apartment or a detached house), but all share common open space and a common house. Residents usually help to plan the community, and run it by consensus once it’s established. The common house provides an opportunity for such activities as regular community meals (often once or twice a week), classes, community management meetings, and entertainment. When it works well, co-housing fosters a community where everyone knows her neighbors, where everyone has a say in the governance of the community, and where everyone contributes to maintaining both its physical and social character.
  • Location of housing. Putting affordable housing in a relatively affluent neighborhood, or locating a mixed-income development that includes market-rate units in a low-income one can have a profound effect on both residents and the neighborhood they find themselves in. A well-kept development that includes upscale residents can make both neighborhood residents and outsiders see the neighborhood more positively, as can the presence of rehabilitated houses in a blighted area. It often takes only one or two positive signs – brightly-painted houses, a new restaurant, a few artists’ studios – to start to turn a neighborhood around.

Finding the resources and support for getting it done

Improving the quality of housing often involves policy change, money, and cooperation of a large number of people. The basic ingredients, which we’ll discuss in much greater detail in the last part of this section, are the commitment of the community and government; incentives for and limitations on developers; advocacy; and the involvement of everyone concerned, from developers to potential or actual residents of improved housing.

Why improve the quality of housing?

It sounds like improving the quality of housing can be a big job, demanding a lot of organizing and advocacy in addition to the actual construction or rebuilding work. Why do it?

Most people would like to live in bigger or better housing. It’s the reason homeowners “buy up” as they become more affluent, and the reason renters think about becoming homeowners. Furthermore, improving housing is almost always seen as a positive by the community, and makes a huge difference in the lives of people who can move out of an unsafe, deteriorating apartment into a clean, safe, well-maintained one. There are, in fact, a large number of specific reasons for improving the quality of housing, a few of which are:

  • It adds to the physical and social attractiveness of the area. Better housing looks better, and makes people feel good about moving into the area.
  • It increases property values. This is good for homeowners – who typically have more of their net worth tied up in their home than anywhere else – for developers, who stand to gain more from their investment, and for the community, which increases its tax base, and can therefore offer more services.
  • Improved housing increases pride in the neighborhood for everyone. That attitude often leads to everyone taking better care of their property, whether they own or rent, and can change the character of the neighborhood for the better.
  • Well-built housing is kinder to the environment. If it’s planned and built in an environmentally responsible way, improved housing can conserve energy and resources, provide residents with a healthier and safer place to live, and last generations.
  • Improving the quality of housing is cheaper for both the developer and the community in the long run. Planning and building well will reduce maintenance and repair costs, saving the developer money over time. Improved, well-managed housing is also likely to have social consequences that save money for the community as well – lower violence and vandalism rates, and fewer social problems in general, as well as eventual neighborhood development and increased tax revenues.
  • Improved housing can increase the potential or actual workforce in the area. By providing housing close to area jobs, it increases the number of people available to fill those jobs.
  • It can preserve open space and/or reuse unused, previously-built space. With the use of cluster housing and other strategies, improved housing can preserve or create open space for residents, or even the whole neighborhood, to enjoy. In some cases, it can turn an eyesore into a community asset.

In Atlanta, the site of the defunct Atlantic Steelworks has been turned into a mixed-income, mixed-use housing and commercial development. The Atlantic Station project incorporates affordable housing, environmentally responsible building, brownfield cleanup, a healthy and pedestrian-friendly environment, and easy access to downtown. It also took a crumbling industrial site and transformed it into an attractive neighborhood.

  • It can replace or restore an aging housing stock. Buildings, like people, have a life span, and when it’s over, they need to be replaced. Some are simply in need of a makeover. Others really have reached the end of their useful lives and should be demolished. In either case, the building or site can be turned into improved housing, either via restoration or via rebuilding on or near the original site. This action creates housing that will last through several future generations.
  • Improving the quality of housing can be part of a plan for anticipating the growth of the community. Providing more quality housing will both hedge against and attract population growth. The character of the housing can guide that growth: the affordability, size, and location of housing can help determine who its residents will be.
  • Improving the quality of housing is the right thing to do. Everyone has a right to an adequate, weathertight, and safe place to live. In most developed countries, the free market will supply those places for people who can afford them. For those who can’t afford them, the society should provide basic housing that meets those criteria for all people.

When should you improve the quality of housing?

Improving the quality of housing, as with almost all the topics covered in the Community Tool Box, should be worked at continually. The lack of decent affordable housing is a problem in most mixed-income communities in the U.S., especially on the West Coast and in the Northeast. In those and most other areas of the country, there is enough housing for the population – vacancy rates in most places hover between five and fifteen percent – but affordable housing is another story.

Given that general statement, there are still times when it’s particularly appropriate to work for improved housing.

  • When there’s a community planning or development effort in progress. This is a perfect time for housing advocates and other interested parties to push for affordable housing, environmentally and otherwise responsible design, and positive social impact.
  • When there’s an outcry about the lack of decent housing. Newspaper or TV items about substandard housing or a building collapse or fire, for instance, can bring to the attention of a society the fact that too many people don’t have fit places to live. This awareness can fuel a movement to improve the quality of housing in the community.
  • When there’s a crisis. If people start to notice that there are many more homeless people on the streets, or learn that people are freezing to death in the winter, they’ll act. When elderly residents are dying of the heat or being assaulted in unsafe and poorly maintained apartments, it is time to work for better housing, both because the public is ready to support it, and because it’s desperately needed.

Unfortunately, it’s all too common that you have to wait until there’s a crisis for the public to notice – no matter how loudly and how long you and others may have been telling them – that housing (or anything else) in the community needs improvement. Most people unintentionally ignore problems because finding solutions can be hard and implementing them even more challenging; it takes lots of work and often financial support as well. However, once an issue is brought to attention, , people will feel compelled to address them. For that reason, it’s important to take advantage of the opportunities that arise as a tool to advocate for change. It may be a long while before you get another chance if you don't capitalize quickly on the one you have.

  • When there’s funding available from a federal, state, or foundation initiative. Such an initiative may accompany one of the circumstances above, or it may stand alone. In either case, it may be a great opportunity to build (or create through restoration or rehabilitation of existing buildings) better housing in your community.

Who should be involved in improving the quality of housing?

If it’s done properly, developing good-quality affordable (or environmentally responsible) housing takes a collaborative effort throughout the planning, design, and construction process. Certainly all those directly affected – developers, contractors, lenders or funders, potential residents – should participate, but there are others whose voices are important as well.

A possible list of collaborators:

  • The developer will need to be involved and may be an advocate for improvements, especially if he stands to gain by attending to community needs.
  • The business community, particularly lenders, will also be involved. They can impact who gets loans and may be able to adjust rates to make investing in a community improvement project more appealing. The question of low-interest loans to low- or moderate-income homebuyers may be an issue, as may the question of who is a reasonable borrowing risk and who is not.
  • Local and state officials can offer incentives and place restrictions on the developer to influence the project outcome. The permitting process has to go through local and state boards, there may be public funding involved, the housing will have to be connected to water and sewer lines – all these are reasons to have community officials involved from the very beginning, to eliminate misunderstandings, to get the development the community wants, and to make sure the process goes smoothly.
  • Funders. Given the amount of funding that even a small housing effort requires, funders will probably want to be involved in the process as well.
  • Neighbors. By becoming part of the process, neighbors can get their concerns addressed, and feel included. Furthermore, those who oppose the project can become supporters if they participate in planning, and can feel ownership of the final product.
  • Potential renters or buyers. By including people who are likely to be living in new housing, you can find out what their needs are, what features they consider important, how the buildings are likely to be used, what they like and don’t like about the proposed site, design, etc. In addition, if they take part in planning, they may become vested in the project and want to continue to be involved.
  • The media can help educate the community and persuade it to support an initiative to improve housing.

How do you improve the quality of housing?

Up to now, we’ve largely been discussing various aspects of building quality housing that’s affordable and beneficial to the community. The real work of improving housing in the community, however, is in making all the building and renovation possible: that’s what we’ll tackle in this section.

How do you convince developers – who are usually mainly concerned with profit – to build affordable and/or environmentally friendly housing? How do you get housing built where and how you want it, if you as a community are not paying for it directly? Probably the most effective action you can take is to offer the developer an incentive – i.e. something he wants – in return for something you want. If that isn’t an option you might try restrictions or regulations that get you at least some of what you’re looking for. There are a number of other steps a community can take as well, either alone or with developers, lenders, residents, and others, to power a high-quality housing effort..

The discussion in this section largely assumes that efforts will be conducted by one or more community groups, and that readers of this Tool Box section will be members of those groups. But what if you’re trying to start such a group, or are simply interested, as an individual, in helping to further the development of good-quality affordable housing in your community? There are some things you can do, at least to start with, that can make you an effective housing activist.

  • Learn all you can about the current housing situation, about quality housing in general, and about current and potential incentives and regulations that might relate to the improvement of the housing stock in your community. The more you know, the better you’ll understand the situation, and the more valuable you’ll be to any housing effort.
  • Get to know local and state officials (and their aides) who are responsible for, or who can help with, creating housing policy. Finding an influential champion for improving the quality of housing can go a long way toward helping you realize your goals.
  • Do what you can as an individual to highlight the issue and spur others to take action. Write letters to the Editor, contact the media in other ways, take photos of substandard housing, show officials examples of quality affordable housing, and enlist influential people you know or can meet with. All of these and similar actions can have an effect on the character of housing in the community.
  • Most important, find out what other individuals and groups are doing about improving housing. The chances are that you’ll be most effective if you join with others who have the same concerns. Joining an existing group is a great way to learn about housing issues, and gives you a chance to play a role in determining housing policy. If there isn’t an existing group, you could try to form one with others who want the same results you do.

We’ll begin with some general guidelines for improving community housing quality.

General guidelines

  • Conduct an assessment of community housing needs and assets. Where is housing particularly needed, or where does it need to be significantly improved? What are the drawbacks to that area (gang activity; truly unsalvageable, but still-standing, buildings; already overbuilt)? What are the assets available for improving housing (fundamentally solid, but deteriorating or abandoned buildings; working families; unused empty lots; etc.)? What are the needs of people in the area (elderly housing; housing for families with young children; single-occupancy units)? The first steps in improving housing are assessing the current housing situation and finding out what low- and moderate-income community members see as their needs.
  • Encourage participation. As we discussed above, housing efforts go better if as many of the affected people as possible are involved. If the planning process is a collaboration among officials, the developer, the architect, neighbors, and potential or actual residents, the community is much more likely to get housing that’s not only welcomed, but attractive, functional, livable, well-built, well-kept-up, and truly affordable. Neighbors, who may initially object to the project, will end up feeling ownership of it. A participatory process will also give potential residents a chance to meet and develop relationships with their neighbors before they move in, making it easier to integrate them into the neighborhood. Furthermore, the more people you can engage in the process, the more housing advocates there will be when you need them.
  • Consider diversity. Think carefully about the character of the neighborhood or area in which housing is located, and about the culture, class, and race or ethnicity of those who are likely to occupy it. What can the community do to encourage and support diversity? What will be the impact on the neighborhood of a diverse, or a different, population? What will be the impact on the residents of new housing of moving into a diverse, or homogeneous, situation? How can the community, the developer, neighbors, and residents best prepare for changes, and ensure interaction and comfort? (Here’s where a participatory process can pay huge dividends.)
  • Strive for equity. Plan, design, and build affordable housing with the same consideration that would be given to upscale development. Affordable houses or apartments may not be as big or as fancy as those aimed at the affluent, but there’s no reason that they can’t be as well-designed and livable. 
  • Address the impact, especially of a large development, on the area where it’s built. If it’s aimed at families, are there adequate school facilities available? Is there enough safe play space, and access to possibilities for family recreation – parks, sports fields, and movies? Is there shopping, or available space for new markets and retailers to move into? Is there transportation for elderly residents and people with disabilities? What will a jump in population mean to the character of the neighborhood, to vehicle and foot traffic, to the need for more public transportation?
  • Plan, design, and build housing around the needs of residents, not those of the contractor or developer (within reasonable cost limits). Especially where funds are limited, consultation with residents will help determine where to spend and what’s not necessary. If housing meets tenants’ needs, they’re more apt to stay, creating a stable community – good for maintenance and upkeep of the project and also for building social capital among residents and in the neighborhood in general.
  • Be creative. Turn buildings designed for other purposes into housing, for instance; scatter affordable housing throughout a neighborhood; put elders and families with children on different sides of a multi-unit building, with some common space where they can interact; build next to or over a transportation hub. Don’t be limited by the conventional view of housing.
  • Plan for recruiting tenants or buyers. Whom do you want to recruit? What communication channels will you use to reach potential residents? What kind of screening, if any, will there be? What kinds of help with applications, loans, etc. will you give people who are interested?

Provide incentives for developers

The kinds of incentives a community can offer are limited only by the law and the community’s and developer’s creativity:

  • Tax breaks. Many communities will offer a developer freedom from property taxes or a reduced property tax rate for a set number of years after the project is completed. A variation on this is increasing taxes by a small amount each year until they reach the full rate.

Federal and many state governments may offer tax breaks on environmentally-friendly features, such as solar water heaters, electricity-producing solar collectors, high-efficiency furnaces, and similar equipment.

  • Subsidies. Subsidies – payments used to help someone pay for something – can be offered in a number of ways. The most familiar to most of us is offering subsidies to renters, which actually get passed on to landlords. That is, the renter pays only part of the actual rent, and the subsidizer – generally, the local, state, or federal government – pays the rest. Another possibility is to offer subsidies to developers to help pay for projects that the community wants. Still others are to subsidize landlords (or developers) to fix up housing, a certain portion of which will be affordable; to subsidize land costs for developers; or to subsidize connections to local services, such as water and sewer.
  • Grant funding. A community might help a developer in obtaining a grant to pay for part of a project, or the two might jointly apply for a grant that would allow them to shape affordable housing in a particular way.
  • Free or low-cost public land. Developers can be offered land owned by the community, either solely as an incentive, or because the community wants housing in that particular place, or both.
  • Infrastructure support. The community may agree to provide roads, water, electricity, or other services at its own expense as a contribution to an affordable housing development.

The Georgia Department of Transportation constructed the 830-foot-long, bright yellow 17th Street bridge in Atlanta specifically to connect Atlantic Station – a mixed-income, mixed-use, environmentally-friendly development – to downtown.

  • A speed-up of the permit process. Typically, development requires a large number of permits from the community – not only building permits, but ones relating to zoning, water, sewer, roads or driveways, electric lines, etc. Speeding up the process of obtaining these permits can save the developer a great deal of time and some money as well.
  • Hand-holding. This term refers to the practice of a community guiding a developer through every step of the process necessary to get a project under way and built. It’s an extension of the incentive above, but may go as far, in a large city, as assigning an official to work directly with the developer throughout the life of the process, in order to make it as smooth as possible for both developer and community.
  • Waivers of some regulations. A community may grant a waiver – permission to do something other than what the regulation demands – for any number of things. One common waiver is for density: the developer would be allowed to go over the number of units per acre specified in the zoning regulations. Other waivers could be for building height, setback (how far the building has to be from the sidewalk or the edge of the lot), number of parking spaces, etc.
  • Enterprise zones. Enterprise zones are areas designated by the federal government in need of economic and other development. Developing affordable housing in those areas gives the developer a number of specified incentives, often including one or more of those above.

Require returns for incentives

In general, incentives come with strings attached. Sometimes, the only string is the completion of the project itself, if the developer’s plans already satisfy community needs. Often, however, incentives are granted in return for specific actions on the part of the developer.

A short list of possibilities:

  • A mixed-income development will set aside a specified percentage or number of units for low- and moderate-income residents.
  • The developer promises to meet LEED or other environmental standards.

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is the Green Building Rating System from the U.S. Green Building Council. LEED is not the only environmental rating system for buildings, but it is widely recognized and respected in the United States.

  • The project will meet agreed-upon construction specifications.
  • The developer will clean up a brownfield site as part of the development process.
  • The developer will abide by lower density requirements. This might be required on an environmentally sensitive site.
  • A developer enters into a covenant with the community that the units cannot be sold by the original buyer at a profit or rented at a higher rate (adjusted for inflation) by the developer for a certain length of time, or indefinitely. This requirement is designed to keep the units affordable for the life of the development.
  • A developer builds a certain number of units of affordable housing in one place in return for being allowed to build an upscale housing development in another. In some cases, the upscale development may be one that doesn’t comply with regulations, and the affordable development is the community’s reward for waivering those regulations.
  • A developer agrees to build in a certain neighborhood or area.
  • A developer agrees to provide, or provide a connection to, public transportation.
  • A developer agrees to provide improvements to the area – trees, parks, roadway upgrades, parking, sewer lines, bridges, etc.

Develop and enforce regulations and other limits on developers

Incentives are ideal – they’re generally a win-win proposition, and they make everyone happy. If they’re not possible, however, regulations and limits can be used to improve the quality of housing.

Many regulations relating to housing already exist in any community. There are usually requirements for minimum lot size, density (the number of units per acre), building height, construction quality, the number and types of permits required, waste disposal, etc.. We’ve already discussed how waivers of some of these regulations can be used as incentives. There are also ways that requirements in the regulations can be used to improve housing in the community.

  • Inclusionary zoning. This practice, used in more and more communities, requires that any new development include a certain percentage of affordable units. The level of affordability may be the same for all (say, 10% subsidized, 10% low-income, 10% moderate income), or may be adjusted depending on a number of factors (the location of the development, the median or maximum rent or price of units, etc.)
  • Housing linkage. The linkage here is between the number of units built and the projected cost to the community in increased services (school and other) to families occupying those units. The developer pays a fee per unit to help offset these costs. Another type of linkage regulation charges a fee to industrial, commercial, and office developments to help pay for the costs of new housing that these developments will require because of the workers they attract or bring with them. In some cases, these developers are directly required to supply a certain amount of housing, often at affordable rates. These linkage requirements may come with incentives as well, in order to make it easier for a developer to comply.
  • Taxes or fees on upscale development. A community might impose special taxes or fees on developers whose units are selling or renting above a certain rate. The money thus collected would then go toward improving or creating affordable housing.
  • Developers might be required to meet LEED or other environmentally responsible building standards.

Secure public financing and/or building of housing

There are a number of ways in which the community, state, or federal government can itself contribute to or build affordable housing.

  • Actual publicly-built and -maintained housing. Public housing exists in most large cities. Most was originally intended as mixed-income or veterans’ housing after World War II, but over the past three or four decades, it has largely been left to the poor. The problems with public housing are well-known – much of it is isolated, badly built and maintained, and dangerous. This doesn’t have to be the case, but the construction, management, and maintenance of new developments have to be monitored carefully to make sure they meet health and safety standards. In recent decades, the most successful public housing has been mixed-income, with middle-income residents more willing to hold management accountable for lapses.
  • Community land trusts. A community land trust can be a private non-profit, or can be operated by the community itself. Its purpose is to buy land for community purposes – often for open space protection, but many land trusts also purchase land for affordable housing. The land can then be held until an appropriate developer or adequate funding is found. The community may or may not act as its own developer in this situation.
  • Use of public land. Building on community-owned land can cut down the price of development. The community can use public land as an incentive for a developer (who will finance the project himself), or contract with a developer to have affordable housing built on a community-owned site.

Engage banks and work with low- and moderate-income renters and buyers

  • Engage banks to provide services to low-income people. Communities can use the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), which mandates that banks provide certain services to communities in which they operate, to obtain low-interest loans for low-income home buyers, or to persuade banks to make loans to developers for affordable housing.
  • Help consumers find affordable low-interest mortgages. Homebuyers may be eligible for Farmer’s Home Administration (FHA) or other low-interest loans.

The U.S. Consumer Credit Protection Act protects borrowers from banks and loan companies that fail to explain clearly all the costs involved in a mortgage or other housing loan. Some unscrupulous lenders intentionally make loans to low-income consumers that they know can’t be repaid. When the borrower defaults (fails to make a certain number of payments), the lender can then take the house, and sell it again. Community- or agency-run housing programs, as part of buyer education, often monitor loans to be sure they’re affordable for the borrower. If there seems to be deception on the part of the lending organization, it’s liable for prosecution under the Act.

  • Provide buyer/renter education. Some communities educate potential residents of affordable housing developments on how to use credit, how to decide what they can actually afford to pay for housing, understanding mortgage rates, what goes into the purchase of a home, etc. The purpose here is to make sure that once an individual or family takes up residence in an affordable house or apartment, they’ll be able to maintain payments and stay for a long period.

In some cases, this education can also include how to care for your home. Residents of Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Greene project who were chosen to move into the mixed-income development that replaced it were asked to attend classes that taught home maintenance, getting along with neighbors, conflict resolution, and other necessary skills.

  • Utilize sweat equity programs. The community can initiate, or work with existing housing agencies to initiate programs whereby low-income families can pay for part of the cost of a home with “sweat equity,” i.e., their labor. Many of these programs involve a construction supervisor provided and paid by the agency or community, who works with a team of prospective homeowners to collaboratively build houses for each of them. The houses are thus built for the cost of materials alone, except for work that has to be done by a licensed contractor (connecting the house to the electric grid, for instance) or that is simply impossible for the team to do on its own (digging a deep well).

Typically, houses built in this way follow a single or a small number of designs, with plans supplied by the agency or community. Rather than being built one at a time, the houses usually all go up at the same rate, with crews switching from one house to the next from week to week. This is to ensure that everyone helps with all the houses, rather than someone withdrawing when his own house is finished.

A variation here is cooperative housing, involving the rehabilitation or renovation of an existing building into multi-unit housing, which is then owned by the team that did the work. Unlike sweat equity programs, in which one team may build houses in several different locations, the cooperative housing team makes a commitment to live together, or at least in close proximity, when the job is done. Often, rather than each family owning its unit in the building, the whole building is owned by all the residents as a cooperative. In this case, there have to be clear agreements about what happens when a resident leaves, how new residents are selected, etc.

Join in a collaborative development process

We’ve talked about the need for the participation of all affected parties in the planning and development process. That’s necessary for political and social reasons – it leads to ownership and support of the project, creates a connected community, and it’s also practical. The ability to work directly with architects and one another throughout the design process, to work with contractors and suppliers to understand the short- and long-term costs of different methods and materials, and to work with developers and local officials to deal with permits and to resolve any problems that may arise are all beneficial collaborations likely to result in a much better end product, greater satisfaction on the part of residents, neighbors, and the community, and a more stable population over the long run.


Any affordable housing scheme takes both money and community support. On rare occasions, the funds are readily available in the form of a government initiative, a socially responsible developer, or a concerned foundation. Most of the time, someone has to put in much effort to raise money. Community support also takes work: it’s usually the result of public education and persuasion, articles in the media, many one-on-one conversations, and many other actions, events, and spreading of information over a long period.

Advocacy is the way you find public money and public support. Other funding might come through research into foundations and other private sources, but most housing funding, because of the large amounts involved, is public. And, a majority of the time, gaining public funding and support for housing initiatives takes advocacy.

Keep at it as long as people need shelter

Communities that have enough affordable housing are few. Unless the effort you’re involved in or about to start will solve the problem in your community for the foreseeable future, you’ll need to keep working on improving the quality of housing indefinitely. Keep at it, knowing that you are helping individuals and families obtain shelter that is safe, secure, and adequately supports a good quality of life.

In Summary

For the purposes of this section, improving the quality of housing refers to improving the quality of housing that’s affordable for low- and moderate-income people and encouraging environmentally responsible building and development. That means building housing that’s not only affordable, but livable, well-designed, suited to its location, socially and culturally responsive, and as “green” as possible.

Improving the quality of housing takes a collaborative effort (although there is much an individual can do to help move the process along), involving all those affected by a new development or renovation project. If done well, it can be both a financial and social benefit to its neighborhood and to the community as a whole, a profit-making investment for a developer, and a huge boon to those who occupy it. It won’t happen, however, without vigorous advocacy, and a long-term commitment to continuing the effort to create high-quality affordable housing in the community.

Bill Berkowitz
Tim Brownlee
Andrea Glinn

Online Resources

The mission of the Center for Community Change is to build the power and capacity of low-income people, especially low-income people of color, to have a significant impact in improving their communities and the policies and institutions that affect their lives.

The Curb-Cut Effect by Angela Glover Blackwell. Laws and programs designed to benefit vulnerable groups, such as the disabled or people of color, often end up benefiting all of society.

Development without Displacement Toolkit provides practical lessons, frameworks, and tools that advance equitable development without displacing residents and small businesses.

Healthy Neighborhoods Study, based in Boston, is the largest resident-driven, participatory action research project in the US about neighborhood change processes, like gentrification and climate change, and their impact on health.

Healthy, safe housing linked to healthier, longer lives: Housing a social determinant of health is an article by Lindsey Wahowiak from The Nation's Health about the health risks of Americans at home.

The Home Usability Network from the University of Montana's Research and Training Center on Disability in Rural Communities (RTC: Rural) is a group of individuals and organizations that bring together their knowledge, resources, and creativity to develop customized solutions to individual usability problems.

This ColorCode “Housing Is Health Care” podcast delves into how housing — and today’s housing crisis — intersects with health. It also explores how racial discrimination has played a part in causing this crisis, as well as present-day housing segregation on Long Island.

Improving Health through Equitable Economic Development and Strategic Partnerships from Roadmaps is a webinar that explores why housing matters to our health and what our Rankings data tells us about housing in your community.

The National Affordable Housing Network was founded to develop resources to provide highly credible research, evaluation, design, education, information and policy and program design assistance to those working to change the way low-cost housing is built for disadvantaged Americans.

Q&A: Mayor Lovely Warren on Rochester’s Leadership to Address Healthy Housing and a Call to Action from National League of Cities

Reason Foundation - New Approaches to Affordable Housing is an article on affordable housing, and how local governments often make the situation worse in trying to make it better. Written from a conservative point of view, contains interesting ideas.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Regulatory Barriers Clearinghouse database describes and links to ordinances and regulations from around the country that offer incentives or allow waivers to developers in order to encourage the construction of affordable housing.

Rethinking Local Affordable Housing Strategies: Lessons from 70 Years of Policy and Practice is a report that aims to help state and local leaders meet the modern realities of the affordable housing challenge by looking back at the lessons of the past 70 years of housing policies.

Rhode Island Housing and Mortgage Finance Corporation provides low-interest loans to income-eligible home buyers, assistance to developers of affordable housing, buyer education, etc. Includes a neighborhood revitalization program that provided money for neighborhood planning.

Smart Communities Network on how to optimize the safety, systems, livability, health, prosperity, and sustainability of your community.

The United Nations Human Settlements Programme, UN-HABITAT, is the United Nations agency for human settlements. It is mandated by the UN General Assembly to promote socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities with the goal of providing adequate shelter for all.

Visualizing Wellbeing: Humane Housing is an article exploring the state of wellbeing in the United States through a collection of data visualizations. Developed in partnership with the Well Being Legacy Initiative and Community Commons. 

EPA info on volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as well as links to information about other indoor pollutants.

Well Building Standard online resource to improving human health and well-building in buildings and communities across the global.