When Andrew DeFranza pitches plans for new affordable housing developments, he often faces resistance from local officials and neighbors and in some cases, threats of lawsuits and even physical violence.
DeFranza, executive director of the Massachusetts nonprofit Harborlight Community Partners, says despite the demand for affordable housing, developers face myriad obstacles to expanding the number of homes, especially in suburban communities that are often reluctant to build non-market rate housing.
He said cities and towns have for decades used restrictive zoning and pretexts about the local impact to reject new projects.
“They come up with convenient excuses to deny projects,” said DeFranza, who has worked on dozens of affordable housing projects over the years. “Things like two-acre minimum zoning, excessive height and set-back limits and intentional limitations on infrastructure such as water and wastewater treatment.”
It’s a similar situation across the nation, housing advocates say, as a shrinking inventory of housing — for both market-priced and affordable homes — is driving up prices and putting the dream of homeownership out of reach for many first-time buyers.
Over the past month, reporters from CNHI News nationwide have sought to examine the issues surrounding affordable housing, who is most impacted by a lack of it and what solutions states and communities have implemented in this multipart special report.
Long-time zoning issues
Despite efforts to ease them, zoning restrictions are widespread in all 50 states, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which cites a 2019 analysis that found up to 75% of residential land across major U.S. cities is zoned exclusively for detached single-family homes.
Between 2006 and 2018, the share of suburban municipalities with minimum lot size requirements increased from 83% to 96%, according to the nonprofit advocacy group.
The problem is partly rooted in exclusionary zoning practices fueled by racial discrimination, housing advocates say, with white communities using local zoning laws to keep out Black, Hispanic and other minority residents.
“A lot of zoning restrictions were put in place to prevent low-income people and people of color from entering those neighborhoods,” said Sarah Saadian, senior vice president of public policy and field organizing for the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. “It stems in large part from structural racism and discrimination.”
In the Deep South, exclusionary housing policies grew out of Jim Crow laws that contributed to a residential pattern with largely white single-family neighborhoods and few denser communities where many Black residents live.
But discriminatory housing policies have been used across the country to preserve whites-only communities, author Richard Rothstein notes in his book, “The Color of Law,” which explores how housing programs that started under the Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal were essentially a “state-sponsored system of segregation.”
Rothstein said the Federal Housing Administration, which was established in 1934, helped push the segregation efforts by refusing to insure mortgages in and near Black neighborhoods. The policy became known as “redlining.”
Juana Matias, New England’s regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said the legacy of “redlining” and other discriminatory zoning practices are at the core of the nation’s housing crisis, and must be dealt with as part of any solution.
“A combination of redlining, discriminatory housing policies and practices have led to our present-day housing instability and are a direct cause of the growing racial wealth gap,” Matias said. “It is a hard truth to swallow, but one we must confront.”
Limits a problem
Housing advocates say zoning that favors the development of single-family homes and limits high-density housing, along with other restrictions such as minimum lot sizes and parking requirements, severely limit the amount and types of new housing that can be built.
“Our system of zoning laws intentionally depressed production for so many decades,” DeFranza said. “It’s resulted in a situation where there is still massive levels of racial segregation across the country, and tremendous economic pressure to fix the problem.”
Another factor is that the share of federal funding devoted to affordable housing in the form of subsidies and building incentives has dwindled, meaning less money in the pipeline for projects.
HUD’s budget alone has declined by 40% between 1976 and 2002, and still only accounts for a sliver of federal spending, advocates point out.
“There just aren’t enough federal subsidies available right now to make housing affordable for people at lower income levels,” said Rachel Bratt, a professor emerita at the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University, who has written extensively about housing issues.
Recent reports have highlighted that extremely low-income renters likely have even fewer housing options now than they did before the pandemic.
Between 2019 and 2021, the shortage of affordable and available rental homes for households with incomes at or below the federal poverty guideline increased by 8%, from 6.8 million to 7.3 million, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Sabine Brown, a senior policy analyst with the Oklahoma Policy Institute who specializes in affordable housing access, said the cost of housing is beyond what most people are earning in the state, even those in good-paying professions.
“That’s people like teaching assistants and daycare workers and medical assistants, so a lot of people in good full-time jobs that are still struggling to afford housing,” Brown said. “Right now, there just really aren’t enough good options for those folks.”
As federal subsidies for affordable housing have dwindled, inflation and supply chain issues have driven up the cost of land, construction materials and labor, Bratt said, making it less affordable to build affordable housing.
“The numbers simply don’t work,” she said. “You can’t afford paying 30% of your income to cover the cost of building a housing unit at this point in time. So right there, you have a mathematical no-win situation.”
DeFranza said the cost of building housing has “skyrocketed,” putting the squeeze on developers and further complicating efforts to build affordable units.
“It’s been very painful the past few years,” he said. “We’ve never seen anything like it. There was a dramatic increase in a very short period of time.”
Bratt said although the roots of the housing crisis are deep and complicated, the solution isn’t, but it will require the “political will” to solve it.
“This isn’t rocket science. We know how to build good housing in this country,” she said. “We just have to figure out where to put it and how to pay for it.”
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