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A multi-dimensional approach to affordable housing policy: Learning from climate change policy

Karen Chapple, Professor, City and Regional Planning | February 11, 2016

A consensus is emerging that we have to do everything in our power to slow the course of global warming. The list of tools includes long-term measures such as greater energy efficiencies in buildings, industry, appliances; carbon cap-and-trade systems and taxes; new standards for fuel economy and the reduction of CO2 emissions from new passenger cars; reduction of emissions from landfills and manufacturers; and use of renewable energy technologies such as wind, solar power and bio-fuels. It also means mitigations and adaptations in the short-term, such as reduction in deforestation, zoning for more compact development, congestion and parking pricing, and a new structure for disaster insurance rates.

Yet, in the arena of affordable housing, the debate over what to do tends to take an either/or form: Should we focus on producing more housing or should we focus on preserve affordability and preventing displacement?

diagram of housing types

The “missing middle” refers to a range of multi-unit or clustered housing types compatible in scale with single-family homes.

This debate is not limited to developers vs. advocates. There are philosophical disagreements between market-rate and nonprofit developers about whether the benefits of luxury housing trickle down to the needy, or whether we should simply build more affordable units.

There are also battles between those that build big buildings and those that build small. (I remember when I first started making the case for accessory dwelling units, several affordable housing developers gently asked me to stop, since it was distracting from what they saw as more effective production mechanisms).

And within the advocacy camp, some push for tenants’ rights, while others spend their energy on the preservation of affordable buildings.

What’s clear here is that no single standpoint is going to solve the problem; we need a multi-dimensional approach. Researchers, policymakers, and advocates working to address climate change can provide valuable lessons. They have their own battles, but few would disagree that we need to employ multiple strategies simultaneously if we are to win, or even make progress.  First and foremost, we need to broaden our approach to housing to address both production and policy.

aerial view of tract housing

Tract housing near LAX airport (Alfred Twu via Wikimedia Commons)

For almost a hundred years, developers – first in the cities, then in the suburbs – have mass-produced housing subdivisions. There was institutional support for this homogenization of the urban landscape in the form of subdivision zoning and the federal home mortgage interest deduction.

Yet the proponents of subdivisions (including the building industry) failed to recognize the diversity of the population and their preferences. The new suburbia catered to nuclear families with a head of household commuting to the city.

At least in California, the more recent push for compact development has disrupted this homogeneity. Increasingly, mid-rise buildings – typically of 4-6 stories, sometimes more – are getting built. Making this shift required not just a significant push by smart-growth advocates, but also support from financial institutions, which had to overcome their initial reluctance to lend for this building type.

But this is still not enough diversity of housing to meet the diversity of needs and preferences in the housing market. We are neglecting opportunities to build triplexes, fourplexes, and multiplexes – the so-called Missing Middle in housing types. And for single-person households and seniors, we need to take a serious look at micro-units and backyard cottages. To support this kind of diversity will require a hard look at barriers presented by institutional structures, particularly planning, zoning, and finance policy. And where land costs are too high to build out the middle, we will need to create incentives. But if we fail to build for our diverse households, their market demand will force the prices of our existing housing stock even higher.

Even more varied is the menu of policy and planning actions we can take to preserve and produce housing. We need to act quickly to leverage the legal channels that can support tenants staying in place. We must enact a number of different measures, from affordable housing impact fees to landlord taxes, to build up our housing trust funds. And we need to ensure that our plans provide for sufficient density and diversity of housing, reduce onerous requirements, and capture value where we are creating it through public investment.

policy slide


backyard cottage

backyard cottage

It is not easy to act simultaneously in both short- and long-term frameworks, each with their own set of actors and institutional constraints. And there are undeniable tradeoffs and opportunity costs associated with this work that need to be understood. But as we have seen with climate change advocacy, possibilities for real progress exist.

This will require leadership from all levels of government, including and especially, our cities. San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Berkeley, and others should send a clear signal that they understand the need for a more comprehensive approach.

While the debate can get tangled in nuance, we all – from tenants’ rights advocates to the building industry – share a broad interest in alleviating the pressure on the housing market by supporting production, while proactively stabilizing communities to prevent any displacement that may occur. Whether the crisis is climate change or housing, we need to use all the tools we have.

Comment to “A multi-dimensional approach to affordable housing policy: Learning from climate change policy

  1. Prototype neighbourhoods needed also.

    This article gives me a glimmer of hope. It shows that low-cost, environmentally sustainable homes might be built and get through zoning regulation. (Is “zoning regulation” the correct term for what we call planning permission in the UK?). I like the look of Professor Chapple’s backyard cottage but hope the $98,000 could be reduced production volumes were higher – there was a piece in the UK press reporting a family in Arkansas moving into a $20,000 “shotgun shack” with satisfactory results.

    What price level could actually be achieved for a tiny home with a very low carbon footprint?

    Measurement of the carbon emissions from the buildings, when in use, is not the only consideration: Measurement should also include embodied carbon – based on the greenhouse emissions from constructing the buildings (including the embodied carbon in solar panels, etc.). Embodied carbon is usually ignored.

    Embodied carbon in conventional building is very large and often large in “sustainable developments”: Some flats in the Beddington Zero Energy Development in South London had embodied carbon calculated as 67.5 tonnes of CO2e. Compare this to the “remaining carbon budget” from the recent IPCC report. This is only 115 tonnes CO2 per person – and that might not keep us below 2°C of global warming.

    Aside from the cost and environmental performance of individual buildings, who is looking at the performance of neighbourhoods as a whole? There are “sustainable developments,” where the residents have high-carbon footprints because their savings on biomass boilers are blown on increased travel. This is the case in Derwenthorpe, York – and is likely the case for the “eco-town” at Bicester, near Oxford. Oddly, the UK Department of Communities and Local Government’s definition of an “eco-town” did not include “embodied carbon or carbon emissions related to transport.”

    The inhabitants of the Bicester “eco-town” can be heated by their combined heat and power plant before driving to the new motorway junction to commute to Oxford. Prototype buildings are a good start, but where are the prototype neighbourhoods which can show that the total carbon footprints of its inhabitants are zero carbon – or even close?

    As well as prototype buildings, prototype neighbourhoods are needed.

    That is neighbourhoods in which the average carbon footprint of the residents can be shown to be sustainable.

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