Affordable Housing as Smart Growth

When you hear the term "smart growth" what comes to mind?  Anti-sprawl?  Open-space preservation? Transportation development?  These are, of course, all elements of smart growth, but at its heart, the purpose of smart growth policies is to create better-designed communities that improve our lives and decrease the destructive pressures of growth on the environment.  The low-density, single-use subdivisions that characterize sprawl consume open space, waste energy, and cause a range of environmental problems due to high rates of automobile dependence.

However, often overlooked in discussions of smart growth policies is the need for affordable housing as a key component of growth planning. Policies that undermined affordable housing in urban areas and inner-ring suburbs have driven many people out into undeveloped areas in an often fruitless search for lower-cost housing. Creating affordable housing is therefore a key step in ending sprawl and promoting higher-density, transit-friendly communities. 

And if we are serious about energy independence and stopping global warming, smart growth policies that promote higher-density urbanism are indispensible.  The average suburban household uses over 37% more energy than an urban household, significantly increasing greenhouse gas emissions because of the use of gasoline and greater electricity use.  Analysts estimate that creating more transit-efficient communities could save households roughly $2.3 trillion in energy costs over 10 years-- and slash the pollution that would otherwise have been generated.

As this Dispatch will emphasize, those energy savings from smarter growth will be impossible if we don't also create policies to increase housing affordability.

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Our house is a very very very expensive house

How bad is the affordable housing crunch? 

  • A 2006 study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that in order to afford a two-bedroom rental, the minimum wage would have to be set at $16.51.   In addition, the study found that there was not one county in the country where a full-time minimum wage worker could afford even a one-bedroom apartment at the fair market rate.  A family would have to earn $33,925 a year to be reasonably assured of finding an affordable two-bedroom rental unit. 
  • And we're not just talking about low-income workers.  According to the Center for Housing Policy's 2007 Paycheck to Paycheck: Wages and the Cost of Housing in America study, licensed practical nurses would not qualify to purchase the median priced home in 187 of the 202 metropolitan areas studied. Registered nurses were priced out of 115 metropolitan areas and nursing aides and home health aides are priced out of every metropolitan area studied. 

While many people think moving out to the suburbs and exurbs is a way to cut their housing costs, this ends up being largely a mirage with increased transit costs.  A Center for Housing Policy's report found that for every dollar a working family saves on housing by moving into less urban areas, they end up spending 77 cents more on transportation.    Once someone has to travel 12-15 miles, the increase in transportation costs usually outweighs the savings on housing, so sprawl ends up being an energy-guzzling loss even from a family budget perspective.

A National Neighborhood Coalition report states that the inability of many workers to live near their work is an increasing problem as a growing proportion of the population struggles with a rapidly decreasing supply of quality, affordable housing units.  Sprawl therefore not only has environmental consequences, it doesn't really save any money for families. 

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How Government Policies Created Sprawl

How did we develop such a economically and environmentally self-defeating pattern of development in the first place?  

Decades of government policies have encouraged sprawling housing tracts in the suburbs and exurbs, encouraging businesses and families to move farther from urban centers.  Inner-ring suburbs created in an earlier wave of growth are now losing ground to even newer, more distant exurbs.  Outer suburban areas are the population growth centers in the US, largely due to these decades of misguided policies:   

Subsidizing Sprawl: In the post-war period, highway subsidies and low levels of funding for mass transit made surburban transit costs look lower than they actually were -- until congestion and gridlock trapped many suburbanites into costly commutes.  Greenbelts have been developed cheaply, with the bills for schools and other infrastructure only coming due later-- and the environmental costs of losing undeveloped land is barely a factor.

Zoning Against Density: Making the problem worse are zoning policies, particularly in inner-ring suburbs, that actively block higher-density housing and therefore more affordable units.  Economists like Edward Glaeser (who heads the Taubman Center at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government) have shown that there is "a man-made scarcity of housing [because the] housing supply has been constrained by government regulation." This nearly doubles the price of housing in some areas due to restrictive zoning rules. For example, a Brookings Institution presentation highlighted that New Jersey has some of the highest housing prices in the country largely because it also has some of the most restrictive and exclusionary zoning rules in the country as well.

Greenbelts Without New Housing: Some areas have sought to deal with sprawl by creating "greenbelts" -- areas of undeveloped land that surround cities -- to create a hard geographic boundary for growth.  But without a focus on affordable housing, greenbelts in combination with often strict zoning limits to new building in existing areas can just limit the supply of housing, causing housing prices to skyrocket.  Construction then jumps to the other side of the greenbelt and people must commute even farther from the new development, through the greenbelt, and into the city. 

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Zoning our way to affordable housing

Instead of these failed past development policies, controlling housing costs needs to become a more central focus of smart growth initiatives, including: 

Relaxing Zoning Restrictions:  State and local regulations can shape housing markets in a big way.  Changing the traditional zoning structures to allow for denser, mixed-use zoning -that is, commercial and residential use in the same area- creates creates healthier communities by allowing residents to be closer to the services they use on a regular basis and emphasizes creating walkable communities:

  • The Rosslyn-Ballston Metro corridor in Arlington, Virgina places dense, mixed-use infill development at five metro stations.  Almost half of all corridor residents use transit to commute, contributing to significant reductions in emissions from single occupancy vehicles.   
  • Santa Cruz, CA is currently developing a mixed-use project which will create fifty to sixty residential units, ground floor commercial space, and two levels of parking to serve the residents.  The project will not only provide much needed housing, but will also revitalize downtown Santa Cruz.

Promoting Inclusionary Zoning: As we highlighted in our December dispatch, inclusionary zoning increases the availability of affordable housing by requiring developers to make a percentage of housing units in new residential developments available to low and moderate income households. Inclusionary zoning ordinances have produced over 11,000 affordable units in the greater Washington D.C. metropolitan region. Such programs and well-designed management policies can expand the supply of affordable housing while keeping administrative costs down. 

Transit Oriented Development: Transit Oriented Development (TOD) is another way to incorporate smart growth policies and create more affordable housing.  Transit oriented development creates towns and cities around public transportation stations.  Around a train station, for example, are a combination of residential, retail, and commercial buildings.  The cost of transportation is decreased.  Due to compact design, there is a greatly reduced incentive for sprawl and an increased incentive for compact design, resulting in more affordable housing.  Also, transit oriented development can revitalize previously dying town centers, further adding to the amount of affordable housing.


  • The Fruitvale BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) transit village, for instance, is a mixed-used development that will promote transit usage, revitalize an East Oakland inner city neighborhood and provide jobs, affordable housing, and accessible health and human services around the BART transit station.  The plan was developed with participation from local community members and partners various interests ranging from the City of Oakland to advocacy groups to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.



  • In St. Clair County, IL, near St. Louis,  a transit oriented development project is underway to create a transit oriented village around Emerson Park station.  All the completed units are already leased, over 400 units of affordable housing are for sale.  A new park has opened in the area and a small commercial area is beginning to develop around the station  The project is helping to revitalize East St. Louis, an area that has been economically depressed for years.


Revitalizing Existing Urban Areas:  Reviving old urban centers, such as downtowns, is a key to providing affordable housing and smart growth. Maryland's smart growth policy supports existing communities and revitalizing them. In addition to providing the actual housing, smart growth and affordable housing advocates need to look at creating whole communities to nurture healthy and vibrant community development. A great example is in Pennsylvania, where the Fresh Food Financing Initiative provides grants and loans to help supermarkets locate in under-served communities, working to revitalize dying neighborhoods.

Ending Stereotypes: The key step towards promoting affordable housing is to erase its negative stereotypes, often tied to our history of racial segregation. Instead, advocates need to highlight that affordable housing is not an issue exclusively for the poor, but effects all families struggling with housing costs, transportation and sprawl. As the suburbs become more racially diverse, studies are showing that these populations are more receptive to a smart growth message.

Affordable housing and smart growth advocates are beginning to join hands in curbing sprawl at the periphery of cities and promoting reinvestment in older, "inner-ring" suburbs.  With literally trillions of dollars in energy savings at stake, affordable housing needs to be a key part of creating more rationally planned and energy-efficient development.

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