Overcoming Barriers to Affordable Housing Development

Some state governments in the USA have set a framework to encourage or require local authorities to provide for affordable housing development, by mandating the preparation of plans which accommodate sufficient opportunities for low-cost housing across a metropolitan or regional area (Cowan, 2006; Basolo and Scally 2008). The approaches used in Massachusetts, New Jersey and California highlight different models and an evolving policy struggle over the legitimacy and value of supporting affordable housing through the planning process in the USA.

Massachusetts Chapter 774 Anti-snob Zoning Act

The State of Massachusetts in the northeast was enjoying vibrant economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s. This growth in the economy brought growth in wages and demand for housing, pushing up prices. The out-migration of families from the older central cities of the state (Boston, Worcester and Springfield) to their surrounding suburbs was exacerbating the income segregation of the state. Increasingly, the metropolitan areas were becoming highly stratified by income with the poor relegated to the central cities with the high-income households living in the suburbs. The high-income households recognised the financial advantages of living in the suburbs and used restrictive zoning practices to prevent diverse and lower-cost housing opportunities that would serve larger and more diverse populations.

In response, in 1969 the state of Massachusetts introduced a law to make all communities accept their fair share of affordable housing (known as ‘Chapter 40B’). The intent was simple, that each city in the state should have a housing stock that offers at least 10 % of that stock at prices deemed affordable to low- and moderate-income households. The workings of the law were designed to make it easier to build affordable housing in all communities. If a developer sought permission to develop affordable housing from a community that did not meet the 10 % requirement and the developer was denied permission to develop by the community, then the developer could appeal to the Housing Appeals Commission (HAC) of the state. The HAC was a set of state officials obligated to hear such appeals and to act quickly unless a community could demonstrate that the denial was based upon good planning principles and not motivated by a desire to exclude the poor or minorities.

If the project was either denied or approved with prohibitive conditions, the HAC was able to grant a building permit to the developer, overriding local objections. However, a community could contest the approval in the federal civil court, which is notoriously slow. The community could invest a very small amount of money in the legal costs of pursuing a case against the HAC, knowing that a lengthy delay may cause the developer to abandon the project as unwinnable.

The results seemed unimpressive in the early years. In the first ten years of operation, over 14,000 units of low- or moderate-income housing was proposed by developers under the law and appealed to the HAC, but only 3600 were built. The factor limiting the impact of the law was the persistent resistance to it by the suburbanites who wanted to protect their exclusionary communities from the influx of families poorer than themselves (Kneteiz 1979) and nearly all permits issued by the HAC resulted in court battles. However, in later years, the anti-snob process became a negotiated process. The HAC, or more correctly its staff, entered into the role of a negotiator to broker a deal between the community and the developer that would be acceptable to both parties and would keep the process out of court. This approach has been found to work much better (Bratt and Vladeck 2014; Karki 2015) and similar provisions were subsequently adopted in the adjacent states of Connecticut and Rhode Island (Cowan 2006). By December 2014, 250,863 affordable housing units had been created as a result of Chapter 40B, or around 9 % of the entire housing stock in Massachusetts (Department of Housing and Community Development 2014). The model has been extended to incorporate an incentive option as well, focussing on affordable housing inclusion as part of the densification process surrounding transit oriented development projects (Verrilli and Raitt, 2009).

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