How Affordable Housing Efforts Can Make Cities Healthier

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This is an excerpt from our newest backgrounder, Affordable Housing and Health: City Roles and Strategies for Progress.

Cities nationwide are experiencing housing-related challenges, with a growing share of the population unable to afford to rent or own a home. Residents struggle to afford not just a place to live, but a stable home that supports their health and well-being.

As housing becomes better understood as a determinant of success in life — affecting health, access to education, and the opportunity for upward mobility — cities are now tasked with solving the affordable-and-healthy housing shortfall.

Fortunately, mayors and city leaders are taking action to increase the availability of healthy and affordable housing options for all residents, and local community development organizations are eager partners in this work. The responsibility is not only to ensure that city residents can afford a home, but also that everyone can afford to live in a place that supports their health and ability to thrive.

Many cities have leveraged land-use policies to incentivize or require developers to set aside a certain number or percentage of newly built units to rent below market rate.

In late 2018, Minneapolis became the first major U.S. city to promote affordable housing development and fight housing segregation by “up-zoning” the entire city. Previously, single-family residential zoning limited housing supply and inflated the cost of homeownership. These zoning requirements also effectively barred many lower-income and minority families from moving into certain areas.

The city’s new plan will permit three-family homes in formerly single-family residential neighborhoods, abolish parking minimums for all new construction, and allow high-density buildings along transit corridors. The city had also previously passed an ordinance to permit ADUs.

Though the plan faced substantial resident opposition, as zoning changes often do, three factors made the change possible: a dedicated city council; effective activist groups that vocalized and built support for the changes; and a multi-year effort to engage residents outside of typical venues, taking the conversation out of city planning meetings and into the community.

Minneapolis’ “up-zoning” efforts are just one piece of tackling the affordable and healthy housing crisis.

This backgrounder explores the factors that contribute to affordable housing and health, including examples of successful strategies used by cities to generate and preserve healthy and affordable housing.

Informed by community residents and community-based organizations, cities can work to develop comprehensive plans to address their healthy and affordable housing needs. This framework outlines four pillars of intervention: developing new dedicated affordable housing units; preserving and improving existing affordable housing stock; helping families access healthy homes; and protecting against displacement while improving housing and community infrastructure.

In addition to now being available for you, Affordable Housing and Health: City Roles and Strategies for Progress will be used by the six cities participating in the NLC Mayor’s Institute on Affordable Housing and Health in April as a starting point for their work.