Many current development policies and planning practices favour more expensive housing and transport modes over more affordable options. For example, restrictions on compact housing types in residential neighborhoods favour more expensive housing, minimum parking requirements subsidize automobile travel, and current transport planning practices favour automobile improvements over improvements to walking, cycling and public transit. An affordability agenda corrects these distortions: it ensures that basic, inexpensive housing and affordable mobility options are available to people who want them.
There are many possible ways to increase affordability. Some provide large benefits to small number of households that qualify for special services (often those with the greatest needs, such as people with disabilities or very low incomes), while others provide smaller benefits to a larger number of low- and moderate-income households. Some policies depend on subsidies, others reduce the costs of developing moderate-priced housing. Even if the additional housing units are initially too expensive for lower-income households, but by increasing overall housing supply this tends to drive down market prices, and such housing becomes more affordable over time as it ages.
Transportation affordability is also important. An inexpensive house is not really affordable if located in a sprawled, automobile-dependent area with high transportation costs. Walking, cycling, ridesharing and public transit are affordable modes – improving them allows households to reduce their vehicle costs and save money.
The following policy reforms can increase housing and transportation affordability.
- Establish affordable housing programs which identify affordable housing needs, establish affordable housing development targets with identified ways to achieve those targets, and support efficient future management of social housing.
- Establish affordable infill housing development targets, such as the 1.5% Neighborhood Affordability Solution. Victoria’s population currently grows about 1.5% annually. To become more affordable and diverse we must increase our housing supply faster than that rate. A reasonable target is for residential neighbourhoods to increase housing supply at least 1.5% annually. Most of these new houses should be moderately priced ($300,000-600,000), so they are initially affordable to middle-income households and becomes affordable to the lower-income households as they depreciate.
These need not be “hard” targets, not every neighbourhood must add 1.5% housing every year, but they are a useful reference for policy and planning decisions that affect the amount of new housing built in an area. For example, if residents oppose a particular townhouse or apartment they should identify where in their neighbourhood additional affordable housing should be built.
- Remove barriers to the development of low- and moderated-priced infill housing, such as unjustified minimum parcel and unit sizes, limits on building heights, restrictions on multi-family housing and secondary suites, setback requirements, and unjustified fees and impact studies.
- Increase allowable housing densities and heights. There are incremental ways to allow more infill:
- Change “single-family” into “residential” zoning to allow multi-plexes, townhouses and low-rise apartments in neighborhoods that currently only allow detached single-family houses.
- Increase allowable densities, building heights, floor area ratios (FARs), suites, and uses in certain areas or for certain land use categories, based on a time schedule (e.g., a 10% annual increase), when affordable housing supply is below, or housing prices exceed, defined targets.
- Allow taller buildings and higher densities on corner and larger lots, which minimizes impacts on neighbours. For example, in Traditional Neighbourhoods that currently only allow two-story homes, allow three stories on corner lots, plus one additional story for each 10,000 square feet (approximately one-quarter acre), so a 8,000 square meter corner lot may be up to three stories, and a 1,000 square meter corner lot may be up to four stories.
- Allow new buildings to be up to 1.5 times higher than existing adjacent buildings. For example, if existing homes are two stories, new homes may be three.
- Allow taller buildings along collectors (typically up to four stories) and arterials (typically up to six stories).
- Automatically increase the allowable heights of single-family parcels adjacent to a commercial development by one story, and allow conversion to multi-family on these parcels after a time period, such as ten years.
- Significantly reduce or eliminate minimum parking requirements for lower-priced housing in walkable urban neighbourhoods. Develop parking management programs to encourage more efficient use of parking facilities and address potential spillover problems (motorists parking where they should not). Require landlords to unbundle parking (rent parking separately from housing) so occupants are not forced to pay for parking spaces they do not need.
- Allow higher densities and greater heights in exchange for more affordable housing units. It some cases municipal governments can require minimum building density and height in accessible locations, for example, at least three stories along minor arterials and four stories along major arterials.
- Subsidize development of housing for people with special needs, including those with disabilities and very low incomes.
- Improve affordable housing design. Municipal governments can support contests, planning charrettes and workshops to encourage better design. Websites such as the Affordable Housing Design Advisor, , the Missing Middle and Portland’s Infill Design Project provide resources for improving lower-priced housing design.
- In areas with affordable housing shortages and rapid housing development, apply inclusionary zoning, in which developers must sell or rent a portion of units (usually 5-15%) below market prices. However, excessive inclusionary zoning requirements can reduce total new housing development and so should not apply to smaller (fewer than 10 units) and lower-priced (less than $500,000 per unit) projects.
- Where there is a shortage of rental housing, support rental housing development, and reform policies that favour home ownership over renting.
- Expedite development approvals and reduce development fees for smaller and lower-priced projects. For example, reduce the number of public hearings, and eliminate traffic impact study requirements, for projects with fewer than 20 units, at least half of which are affordable to median-income households.
- Adjust development impact fees to recognize the lower costs of providing public infrastructure and services, and the lower vehicle trip generation rates of affordable housing in walkable urban neighbourhoods, compared with urban fringe housing development.
- Improve sidewalks, crosswalks, paths and bike lanes, and reduce traffic speeds where needed to ensure that walking and cycling are comfortable and safe.
- Support local carsharing, bikesharing, and ridesharing services.
- Improve public transit services, particularly in lower-income neighbourhoods and other areas with many car-free households.
- Establish “complete streets” policies, so all streets are designed to accommodate diverse uses and users.
- Support Smart Growth development policies that increase the supply of affordable housing in walkable urban neighbourhoods.
- Provide adequate social assistance to ensure that people with special needs and low incomes can afford safe and comfortable housing in walkable urban neighbourhoods.
- Support and subsidize social housing development, including special housing to accommodate people with disabilities, and housing cooperatives that provide moderate-priced “workforce” housing.
- Support rental housing development, and reform policies that favour home ownership over renting.
- Establish and effectively enforce renter/tenant rules and rights.
- Where foreign investors significantly drive up housing prices, apply targeted taxes or regulations to discourage speculation.
- Provide adequate support and funding for affordable transport modes, including walking, cycling, ridesharing and public transportation; reform transportation agencies and funding practices to become more multi-modal.
- Support affordable carsharing, vehicle rental services and bikesharing in urban areas.
Risks and Trade Offs
Some affordable housing strategies may have unintended consequences: they may increase affordability for some households but reduce affordability for others, or in other ways, fail to achieve their goals.
For example, a rent subsidy for a particular group, such as people with disabilities or seniors, will increase affordability for recipients, but can cause rent inflation by allowing some households to pay more for desirable units, and so displace households that do not qualify. Only if the total supply of the desired housing increases, such as more lower-priced apartments in walkable urban neighbourhoods, can all households find suitable housing.
Subsidies and inclusionary zoning policies may increase affordability for the households selected to receive below-market housing, but such programs can usually only serve a small portion of affordable housing demands, and they can reduce total housing development, particularly moderate-price housing.
Inclusionary zoning can be successful in areas with very strong housing demand so developers always build as many units as regulations allow, but if demand is weaker they build fewer units, particularly moderate priced units, resulting in less affordable future housing supply. For example, if basic housing units costs $200,000 to build, and regulations require 10% be priced at $100,000, each of the nine market-priced units bears an additional $11,111 ($100,000/9) cost, which adds about $20,000 to their final price, including additional overhead and financing costs. This is a small increase for high-priced housing (2% for a million dollar house) but a large increase for lower-priced housing (11% for a $200,000 condominium). In this way, inclusionary zoning can reduce housing affordability, particularly over the long run, by reducing construction of moderately-priced housing that contributes to future affordable housing stock.
Similarly, regulations that limit rent increases can increase existing residents’ affordability, but by reducing profitability discourage new rental housing development which will reduce the future supply of affordable rental housing.
The strategies that tend to provide the greatest total affordable benefits reduce infill development construction costs. These increase the affordability of both for-profit housing and the number of units that can be built by non-profit development agencies. For example, a million dollar subsidy could only create about five affordable single-family suburban houses, but ten to twenty affordable urban apartment units with unbundled parking.
For more information
Affordability and Choice Today (ACT) Program, by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, removes barriers to the development of affordable housing by promoting practical local solutions.
ACT (2009), Housing In My Backyard: A Municipal Guide For Responding To NIMBY, Federation of Canadian Municipalities.
Alex Cecchini (2015), Barriers to Small Scale Infill Development, Streets MN.
Cities for Everyone (2018), Victoria Affordability Backgrounder
Deborah Curran and Tim Wake (2008), Creating Market and Non-Market: Affordable Housing. A Smart Growth Toolkit for BC Municipalities, Smart Growth BC.
Generation Squeeze (2017), Solving the #Code Red Affordability Crisis – Gen Squeeze Policy Priorities.
Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda is a City of Seattle program to create more affordable and inclusive neighborhoods.
Legalizing Inexpensive Housing is a Sightline Institute series which examines how public policies can support more affordable housing development.
Todd Litman (2017), Affordable Accessible Housing in a Dynamic City, Victoria Transport Policy Institute.
Making Room Vancouver is the City of Vancouver’s program to create more affordable and inclusive neighborhoods.
Sara Maxana (2016), YIMBY Keynote Speech, Yes In My Backyard Conference.
PHSA (2014), Healthy Built Environment (HBE) Linkages Toolkit, Provincial Health Services Authority.
CitySpaces Consulting (2014), Toward More Inclusive Neighbourhoods, BC Housing Ministry.
Mac Taylor (2016), Perspectives on Helping Low-Income Californians Afford Housing, Legislative Analyst’s Office.