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Affordable housing

Affordable housing is a term used to describe dwelling units whose total housing costs for either rented or purchased unit, are deemed affordable to those that have a median household income."[1] In Australia, the National Affordable Housing Summit Group developed their definition of affordable housing as housing which is "reasonably adequate in standard and location for lower or middle income households and does not cost so much that a household is unlikely to be able to meet other basic needs on a sustainable basis."[2] In the United Kingdom affordable housing includes "social rented and intermediate housing, provided to specified eligible households whose needs are not met by the market."[3] Most of the literature on affordable housing refers to a number of forms that exist along a continuum - from emergency shelters, to transitional housing, to non-market rental (also known as social or subsidized housing), to formal and informal rental, indigenous housing and ending with affordable home ownership.[4][5][6][7]

The usage of the term housing affordability became widespread in the 1980s in Europe and North America. A growing body of literature found the term problematic.[8][9][10][11][12][13] cited in Hulchanski (1995).[14] Notably, the shift in UK housing policy away from housing need to the more market-oriented analyses of affordability was challenged by Whitehead (1991).[15] This article discusses the principles that lie behind the concepts of need and affordability and the ways in which they have been defined.

This article focuses on the affordability of owner-occupied and private rental housing as social housing is a specialised tenure.

Housing choice is a response to an extremely complex set of economic, social, and psychological impulses.[14] For example, some households may choose to spend more on housing because they feel they can afford to, while others may not have a choice.[16] In the United States[17] and Canada,[18] a commonly accepted guideline for housing affordability is a housing cost that does not exceed 30% of a household's gross income. When the monthly carrying costs of a home exceed 30 35% of household income, then the housing is considered unaffordable for that household. Determining housing affordability is complex and the commonly used housing-expenditure-to-income-ratio tool has been challenged. Canada, for example, switched to a 25% rule from a 20% rule in the 1950s. In the 1980s this was replaced by a 30% rule. (Bacher, 1993; Hulchanski, 1994b)[14] India uses a 40% rule.


Measuring housing affordability

A perfectly balanced housing market

"A common measure of community-wide affordability is the number of homes that a household with a certain percentage of median income can afford. For example, in a perfectly balanced housing market, the median household (and the half of the households which are wealthier) could officially afford the median housing option, while those poorer than the median home could not afford the median home. 50% affordability for the median home indicates a balanced market."[19]

A community might track the percentage of its housing that is affordable to households earning 60% of median income.

Housing expenditure to income ratio tool

Determining housing affordability is complex and the commonly used housing-expenditure-to-income ratio tool has been challenged. Canada, for example, switched to a 25% rule from a 20% rule in the 1950s. In the 1980s this was replaced by a 30% rule. (Bacher, 1993; Hulchanski, 1994b)[14]

Housing Affordability Index (HAI)

One of its greatest strengths of the HAI developed by MIT is its ability to capture the Total Cost of Ownership of individuals housing choices. In computing the index the obvious cost of rents and mortgage payments are modified by the hidden costs of those choices.[20]

Household income and wealth

Income is the primary factor not price and availability, that determines housing affordability.[21] In a market economy the distribution of income is the key determinant of the quantity and quality of housing obtained. Therefore in order to understand challenges of making housing affordable, it is essential to understand trends and disparities in income and wealth. Housing is often the single biggest expenditure of low and middle income families. For low and middle income families, their house is also the greatest source of wealth.[22]

The most common approach to measure the affordability of housing has been to consider the percentage of income that a household spends on housing expenditures.

Another method of studying affordability looks at the regular hourly wage of full-time workers who are paid only the minimum wage (as set by their local, regional, or national government). The hope is that a full-time worker will be able to afford at least a small apartment in the area that he or she works in.

Other countries look at those living in relative poverty, which is usually defined as making less than 60% of the median household income. In their policy reports, they consider the presence or absence of housing for people making 60% of the median income.

Housing expenditures

Housing affordability can be measured by the changing relationships between house prices and rents, and between house prices and incomes (The Economist 2011-11-15).[23] There has been an increase among policy makers in affordable housing as the price of housing has increased dramatically creating a crisis in affordable housing.[24]

Since 2000 the "world experienced an unprecedented house price boom in terms of magnitude and duration, but also of synchronisation across countries (Andr 2010-01-28)."[25] "Never before had house prices risen so fast, for so long, in so many countries (The Economist 2011-11-15)."[23] Prices doubled in many countries and nearly tripled in Ireland.

The bursting of the biggest financial bubble in history in 2008 wreaked havoc globally on the housing market. By 2011 home prices in Ireland had plunged by 45% from their peak in 2007. In the United States prices fell by 34% while foreclosures increased exponentially. In Spain and Denmark home prices dropped by 15%. However, in spite of the bust, home prices continue to be overvalued by about 25% or more in Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, New Zealand, Britain, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden.[23]

Causes and consequences of rise in house prices

Costs are being driven by a number of factors including:

  • demographics shifts
    • the declining number of people per dwelling
    • Growing Density Convergence, Regional Urbanization
    • solid population growth (for example sky-high prices in Australia and Canada a rising population pushes up demand).[23]
  • supply and demand
    • a shortfall in the number of dwellings to the number of households
      • smaller family size
      • the strong psychological desire for home ownership,[26]
  • shifts in economic policies and innovations in financial instruments
    • reduced profitability of other forms of investment
    • availability of housing finance[25]
    • low interest rates[25]
    • mortgage market innovations[25]
  • public policy
    • deregulation
    • land use zoning

Other housing expenditures

In measuring affordability of housing there are various expenditures beyond the price of the actual housing stock itself, that are considered depending on the index being used.

Some organizations and agencies consider the cost of purchasing a single-family home; others look exclusively at the cost of renting an apartment.

Many U.S. studies, for example, focus primarily on the median cost of renting a two-bedroom apartment in a large apartment complex for a new tenant. These studies often lump together luxury apartments and slums, as well as desirable and undesirable neighborhoods. While this practice is known to distort the true costs, it is difficult to provide accurate information for the wide variety of situations without the report being unwieldy.

Normally, only legal, permitted, separate housing is considered when calculating the cost of housing. The low rent costs for a room in a single family home, or an illegal garage conversion, or a college dormitory are generally excluded from the calculation, no matter how many people in an area live in such situations. Because of this study methodology, median housing costs tend to be slightly inflated.

Costs are generally considered on a cash (not accrual) basis. Thus a person making the last payment on a large home mortgage might live in officially unaffordable housing one month, and very affordable housing the following month, when the mortgage is paid off. This distortion can be significant in areas where real estate costs are high, even if incomes are similarly high, because a high income allows a higher proportion of the income to be dedicated towards buying an expensive home without endangering the household's ability to buy food or other basic necessities.

Growing density convergence and regional urbanization

The majority of the more than six billion people on earth now live in cities (UN). There are more than 500 city regions of more than one million inhabitants in the world. Cities become megacities become megalopolitan city regions and even "galaxies" of more than 60 million inhabitants. The Yangtze Delta-Greater Shanghai region now surpasses 80 million. Tokyo-Yokohoma adjacent to Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto have a combined population of 100 million. Rapid population growth leads to increased need for affordable housing in most cities.

The availability of affordable housing in proximity of mass transit and linked to job distribution, has become severely imbalanced in this period of rapid regional urbanization and growing density convergence.

"In addition to the distress it causes families who cannot find a place to live, lack of affordable housing is considered by many urban planners to have negative effects on a community's overall health."[27]

Affordable housing challenges in inner cities range from the homeless who are forced to live on the street, to the relative deprivation of vital workers like police officers, firefighters, teachers and nurses unable to find affordable accommodation near their place of work. These workers are forced to live in suburbia commuting up to two hours each way to work.[28] Lack of affordable housing can make low-cost labour scarcer (as workers travel longer distances) (Pollard and Stanley 2007).[27]


Lack of affordable housing places a particular burden on local economies.

As well, individual consumers are faced with mortgage arrears and excessive debt and therefore cut back on consumption. A combination of high housing costs and high debt levels contributes to a reduction in savings.

These factors can lead to decreased investment in sectors that are essential to the long-term growth of the economy.

Supply and demand

The market has been unable to meet the growing demand to supply housing stock at affordable prices. Although demand for affordable housing, particularly rental housing that is affordable for low and middle income earners, has increased, the supply has not.[29][30][31][32] Potential home buyers are forced to turn to the rental market, which is also under pressure.[33] An inadequate supply of housing stock increases demand on the private and social rented sector, and in worse case scenarios, homelessness.[24]

Factors that affect the overall volume of housing stock

  • Demographic and behavioural factors
  • Migration (to cities and potential employment)
  • Increased life expectancy
  • A greater propensity for people to live alone
  • Young adults delaying forming their own household (in advanced economies).

Factors that affect tenure choices (ex. owner occupier, private rented, social rented)

  • Employment rates
    • Rising unemployment rates increase demand for market rentals, social housing and homelessness.
  • Real household incomes
    • Household incomes have not kept up with rising housing prices
  • Affordability of rents and owner occupation
  • Interest rates
  • Availability of mortgages
  • Levels of confidence in the economy and housing market
    • Low confidence decreases demand for owner occupation[24]

Labour market performance

In both large metropolitan areas and regional towns where housing prices are high, a lack of affordable housing places local firms at a competitive disadvantage. They are placed under wage pressures as they attempt to decrease the income/housing price gap. Key workers have fewer housing choices if prices rise to non-affordable levels. Variations in affordability of housing between areas may create labour market impediments.

Potential workers are discouraged from moving to employment in areas of low affordability. They are also discouraged from migrating to areas of high affordability as the low house prices and rents indicate low capital gain potential and poor employment prospects.[34]

Social costs of lack of affordable housing

Housing affordability is more than just a personal trouble experienced by individual households who cannot easily find a place to live. Lack of affordable housing is considered by many urban planners to have negative effects on a community's overall health.[35]

Jobs, transportation, and affordable housing

Lack of affordable housing can make low-cost labor more scarce, and increase demands on transportation systems (as workers travel longer distances between jobs and affordable housing). Housing cost increases in U.S. cities[36] have been linked to declines in enrollment at local schools.[37]

"Faced with few affordable options, many people attempt to find less expensive housing by buying or renting farther out, but long commutes often result in higher transportation costs that erase any savings on shelter." Pollard (2010) called this the "drive 'til you qualify" approach which causes far-flung development and forces people to drive longer distances to get to work, to get groceries, to take children to school, or to engage in other activities.[38] A well located dwelling might save significant household travel costs and therefore improve overall family economics, even if the rent is higher than a dwelling in a poorer location.[2] A household's inhabitants must decide whether to pay more for housing to keep commuting time and expense low, or to accept a long and/or expensive commute in order to obtain "better" housing. The absolute availability of housing is not generally considered in the calculation of affordable housing. In a depressed or sparsely settled rural area, for example, the predicted price of the canonical median two-bedroom apartment may be quite easily affordable even to a minimum-wage worker if only any apartments had ever been built.

Affordable housing and public policy

Policy makers at all levels - global, national, regional, municipal, community associations - are attempting to respond to the issue of affordable housing, a highly complex crisis of global proportions, with a myriad of policy instruments. These responses range from stop-gap financing tools to long-term intergovernmental[39] infrastructural changes.

In the simplest of terms, affordability of housing refers to the amount of capital one has available in relation to the price of the goods to be obtained. Public policies are informed by underlying assumptions about the nature of housing itself. Is housing a basic need, a right,[40][41] an entitlement, a public good or even as in the case of home purchasing in the United States a civic duty? Or is just another household-level consumer choice, a commodity and/or an investment within the free market system? "Housing Policies provide a remarkable litmus test for the values of politicians at every level of office and of the varied communities that influence them. Often this test measures simply the warmth or coldness of heart of the more affluent and secure towards families of a lower socio-economic status (Bacher 1993:16)."[42]

Affordable housing needs can be addressed through public policy instruments focussed towards the demand side of the market where households are assisted in reaching financial benchmarks without which housing is not affordable. This can include approaches that simply promote economic growth in general, in the hope that a stronger economy, higher employment rates and higher wages will increase the ability of households to acquire housing at market prices. Federal government policies define banking and mortgage lending practices, tax and regulatory measures affecting building materials, professional practices (ex. real estate transactions)(Hulchanski 2006:222).[39] The purchasing power of individual households can be enhanced through tax and fiscal policies that result in reducing the cost of mortgages and the cost of borrowing. Public policies may include the implementation of subsidy programs and incentive patterns for average households.(Hulchanski 2006:222)[39] For the most vulnerable groups, such as seniors, single-parent families, the disabled, etc. some form of publicly-funded allowance strategy can be implemented providing individual households with adequate income to afford housing.

Or policy instruments may focus on production strategies which facilitate increased production on the supply side of affordable housing which can include refurbished older stock and/or the construction of new housing units. China's housing policy during the period of central planning prior to the reform, included constructing and allocating virtually free and unsustainable publicly-funded housing.

Currently some of the policies that facilitate production on the supply side include favorable land use policies such as inclusionary zoning, relaxation of environmental regulations, and the enforcement of affordable housing quotas in new developments.

In some countries, such as Canada, municipal governments began to play a greater role in developing and implementing policies regarding form and density of municipal housing in residential districts, as early as the 1950s.[39] At the municipal level recently promoted policy tools include relaxation of prohibitions against accessory dwelling units, and reduction of the amount of parking that must be built for a new structure.

Affordable housing is a controversial reality of contemporary life, for gains in affordability often result from expanding land available for housing or increasing the density of housing units in a given area. Ensuring a steady supply of affordable housing means ensuring that communities weigh real and perceived livability impacts against the sheer necessity of affordability. The process of weighing the impacts of locating affordable housing is quite contentious, and is laden with race and class implications.

The growing gap between rich and poor since the 1980s manifests itself in a housing system where public policy decisions privilege the ownership sector to the disadvantage of the rental sector (Hulchanski 2006:226).[39]

Right to build

An article in the November 2007 issue of Atlantic Monthly reported on a study of the cost of obtaining the "right to build" (i.e. a building permit, red tape, bureaucracy, etc.) in different U.S. cities. The "right to build" cost does not include the cost of the land or the cost of constructing the house. The study was conducted by Harvard economists Edward Glaeser and Kristina Tobio. According to the chart accompanying the article, the cost of obtaining the "right to build" adds approximately $600,000 to the cost of each new house that is built in San Francisco.[43]

Affordable housing by country


Australians in receipt of many social security benefits from Centrelink who rent housing from a private landlord are eligible for rent assistance. Rent assistance is a subsidy paid directly to the tenant in addition to the basic Centrelink benefit such as the Age Pension or the Disability Pension. The amount of rent assistance paid depends on the amount of rent payable, whether the tenant has dependents and how many dependents there are. Tenants who live in public housing in Australia are not eligible for rent assistance.[44]

Australians buying a home for the first time are eligible for a first home owner grant. These grants were introduced on 1 July 2000 and are jointly funded by the Commonwealth government and the state and territory governments. First home buyers are currently eligible for a grant of A$7000 to alleviate the costs of entering the housing market.[45]

The Commonwealth government in 2008 introduced first home saver accounts, whereby those saving for a new home are eligible for government contributions to their savings account, subject to conditions.[46]

Western Australia Department of Housing Affordable Homes Scheme

The long-term goal of the Department is to deliver at least 20,000 more affordable homes by 2020 for low to moderate income earners, through the Opening Doors Scheme[47] Opening Doors offers two ways for Western Australians to own their own home.

Shared Home Ownership

The Shared Home Ownership[47] is the only scheme of its kind in Australia. Western Australians can purchase their own home with help from the Department of Housing with a SharedStart loan through Keystart, the Governments lending provider. With shared ownership, the initial cost of buying a home is reduced, as the Department will retain up to 30% of the property. The Department's share will depend on your borrowing capacity, household size, and the location and type of property to be purchased. In the future, the buyer may have the option to purchase the full amount or sell the home back to the Department. With a ShareStart loan you can purchase newly-built homes and off-the plan properties offered by the Department of Housing.

Affordable House Sales

The Department of Housing (the Housing Authority), through the Housing Authority, now offers Affordable House Sales[47] to the general public. There properties are available to anyone interested in purchasing a home. The Department works closely with industry to ensure that properties being developed for sale will be affordable for those on low-to-moderate incomes.


In Canada affordability is one of three elements (adequacy, suitability) used to determine core housing needs.[18]

CMHC deemed that 20% of Canadian households (1.7 million households) were in core housing need. These households could not find adequate and suitable housing without spending 30% or more of their pre-tax income. CMHC found that a disturbing 656,000 households (7%) spent at least half of their before-tax income on shelter in 1996, up from 422,000 households, or 5%, in 1991. While accounting for only 35% of all households, almost 70% of those in core need were renters.[48][49]

Armine Yalnizyan (2006) pointed out that 1.7 million Canadians of a total population of 31 million were underhoused or non-housed (Canadian Housing and Renewal Association). That s 5.5% of the Canadian population without safe, decent and affordable housing.

One of the major causes of the affordable housing problem is the number of low-income households in Canada who are also subject to provincial and federal claw backs and taxbacks, for example, on back to work and the federal-provincial National Child Benefit (NCB).[50]

There has been an emphasis on increasing the overall rental supply through expensive, publicly-funded expenditure-based or tax-based incentives which do not increase the number of affordable rental units. households. Provincial governments need to step up their efforts and become a leading contributor within the Affordable Housing Framework agreement.[50]

Canada is one of the few countries in the world that lacks a National Housing Strategy and the only G-8 country without a National Housing Strategy[51] There is no coordinated strategy on affordable housing either. Housing initiatives have been introduced and funded by the federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments, along with civil society organizations (including the charitable sector).[52]

There has been a devolution of new responsibilities, including affordable housing, from provincial governments to municipal governments without adequate revenue tools. Municipalities need a more sustainable funding arrangement, and provinces need to play a more active role in affordable housing.[50] By 1996 the federal government had further removed itself from affordable housing supply by transferring responsibility for most existing federal social housing to the provinces.

Canada alone "holds the dubious distinction of having received the strongest rebuke ever delivered by the United Nations for inactivity on homelessness and other poverty issues. In 1998, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights maintained that Canada s failure to implement policies for the poorest members of the population in the previous 5 years had exacerbated homelessness among vulnerable groups during a time of strong economic growth and increasing affluence (p. 15). The irony was that this rebuke was given in the midst of Canada having been named for several years in a row as the best country in the world in which to live. Thus, what we are seeing is a disturbing situation where a steadily increasing level of homelessness exists in the very heartland of prosperity and comfort."

The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights issued a highly critical and detailed report on the Canada s social policies in its 1998 review of Canada s compliance with these rights (United Nations, 1998) particularly about disastrous levels of homelessness (CESCR 1998, paras. 24, 34, 35, 46) and resulting damaging effects, including damage to health (CESCR 1998, paras. 24, 34, 35, 46) and resulting damaging effects, including damage to health (CCPR 1999, para. 12), lack of adequate housing, especially for children and youth (CESCR 1998, para. 35, CRC 1995, para. 17), Aboriginal peoples (CRC 1995, para. 17).

The mayors of Canada s largest cities, declared the lack of affordable housing a national housing disaster in 1998. The federal government responded by announcing cost-shared conditional federal-provincial initiatives to construct affordable housing, worth $1 billion. However, during this period of tax cutting and debt reduction initiatives, the devolution of federal responsibilities to the provinces, without an accompanying transfer of funds, made it impossible for the provinces to contribute their share for affordable housing projects. Provinces were focused on reducing government size and increasing provincial tax cuts.[53]

The Government of Canada provides financial assistance for the supply of new affordable rental housing under the Affordable Housing Program. Then, in November 2001, after almost a decade of withdrawal from assistance for affordable housing, the federal government committed $680 million towards rental housing (to be spent over five years).[54] In September 2008 the Government of Canada announced $1.9 billion, over five years, for housing and homelessness programs for low-income Canadians. As part of this investment, the Affordable Housing Initiative (AHI) was extended until March 31, 2011. By the end of 2007-2008, the Federal Government's investment in this program will total CAD$1 billion, an amount that will be matched by provincial and territorial governments.

Following two consecutive quarters of deterioration, affordability improved modestly across Canada in the third quarter of 2011 due to lower mortgage rates which contributed to lessening the costs of owning a home in Canada.[55]


In 2002 the Social Housing Services Corporation (SHSC) was created by Province of Ontario to provide group services for social housing providers (public, non-profit and co-op housing) following the downloading of responsibility for over 270,000 social housing units to local municipalities. It is a non-profit corporation governed by a board of municipal, non-profit and co-op housing representatives. Its mandate is to provide Ontario housing providers and service managers with bulk purchasing, insurance, investment and information services that add significant value to their operations.

With an annual budget of $4.5 million, SHSC and its two subsidiaries, SOHO and SHSC Financial Inc. offers a dedicated insurance program for social housing providers, bulk gas purchasing and an innovative energy efficiency retrofit program which coordinates energy audits, expertise, funding, bulk purchasing of energy-efficient goods, training and education, and data evaluation. SHSC manages and provides investment advice to housing providers on capital reserves valued at more than $390 million. Working closely with other housing sector organizations and non-governmental organizations, SHSC also supports and develops independent housing-related research, including a new Housing Internship program for graduate-level researchers.

British Columbia

Recently there has been a move toward the integration of affordable social housing with market housing and other uses, such as the 2006-10 redevelopment of the Woodward's building site in Vancouver.


China is also experiencing a gap between housing price and affordability as it moves away from an in-kind welfare benefit system to a market-oriented allocation system (Hui et al. 2007). Most urban housing prior to 1978 in the planned-economy era consisted of nearly free dwellings which were produced and allocated by the unsustainable single-channel state-funded system.[32]

Challenges in providing affordable housing in China through the free market system are similar to difficulties in many Western countries. Potential purchasers lack wealth to purchase dwelling units and lack income to make regular mortgage payments. In response China introduced the Housing Provident Fund (HPF) program nationwide in 1995. It is similar to housing fund programs in other countries such as Thailand and Singapore. The Housing Provident Fund (HPF), provides a mechanism allowing potential purchasers who have an income to save for and eventually purchase a unit dwelling (which may be a formerly public housing unit). The HPF includes a sunsidized savings program linked to a retirement account, subsidized mortgage rates and price discounts. The Chinese government has embarked upon an effort to reduce the number of tenants living in publicly owned housing. In the second system, individuals privately own housing and trade it within a free market. During the past two decades the Chinese government has implemented a series of policies designed to privatize government owned housing.[56]

In 1998 China accelerated its urban housing reform further moving away from an in-kind welfare benefit system to a market-oriented allocation system, with the state reducing its role in housing provision. As a result, in cities like Shanghai for example, with housing construction lagging behind the demand, houses prices increased significantly widening the gap between housing price and affordability (Hui et al. 2007).[32] Acute situation of housing supply in rapidly increasing urban areas like Shanghai did not improve with growth in income.[57] Following the skyrocketing of real estate prices major cities in China in early 2005, the Chinese cabinet cracked down on speculation and issued regulations regarding down payments while raising mortgage rates and the Central Bank interest rates to cool the over-heated market.[57]

China's leading industrial centre is Shanghai. With a population of 13 million [2005], it is the largest city in China. The real estate market value accounts for 22% of China's total real estate market making and also the most expensive housing market in China (Chen 2007).[57]


In India, it is estimated that in 2009-10, approximately 32% of the population was living below the poverty line[58] and there is huge demand for affordable housing. Some developers are developing low cost and affordable housing for this population. The Government of India has taken up various initiatives for developing properties in low cost and affordable segment.They have also looked at PPP model for development of these properties.

United Kingdom

The British housing market in the late 1980s and early 1990s experienced an almost unprecedented set of changes and pressures. A combination of circumstances produced the crisis, including changes in demography, income distribution, housing supply and tenure, but financial deregulation was particularly important. Housing affordability became a significant policy issue when the impact on the normal functioning of the owner occupied market became severe and when macro-economic feedback effects were perceived as serious. A number of specific policy changes resulted from this crisis, some of which may prove to be enduring. Many of these revolves around the ability or otherwise of people to afford housing, whether as would-be buyers priced out of the boom, recent buyers losing their home through mortgage default or trapped by 'negative equity', or tenants affected by deregulation and much higher rent levels.[59]

A tradition of social housing in the United Kingdom

The United Kingdom has a long tradition of promoting affordable social rented housing. This may be owned by local councils or housing associations. There are also a range of affordable home ownership options, including shared ownership (where a tenant rents part share in the property from a social landlord, and owns the remainder). The government has also attempted to promote the supply of owner occupied affordable stock for purchase, principally by using the land-use planning system to require that housing developers provide a proportion of lower cost housing within new developments.[60] This approach is commonly known as inclusionary zoning and the current mechanism for securing the provision of affordable housing as part of a planning application for new housing development is through the use of a S.106 Agreement. In Scotland the equivalent is a Section 75 planning agreement (Section 75 of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1997).

Council houses

A high proportion of homes in the UK were previously council-owned, but the numbers have been reduced since the early 1980s due to initiatives of the Thatcher government that restricted council housing construction and provided financial and policy support to other forms social housing. In 1980, the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher introduced the Right to Buy scheme, offering council tenants the opportunity to purchase their housing at a discount of up to 60% (70% on leasehold homes such as flats). Alongside Right to Buy, council-owned stock was further diminished as properties were transferred to housing associations. Council Tenants in some instances have chosen to transfer management of the properties to arms-length non-profit organisations. The tenants still remained Council tenants, and the housing stock still remained the property of the Council. This change in management was encouraged by extra funding from central government to invest in the housing stock under the Decent Homes Programme. The program required council housing to be brought up to a set standard was combined with restrictions on the amounts that councils could borrow and led to an increase in such arms length management organisations being set up. In some areas, significant numbers of council houses were demolished as part of urban regeneration programmes, due to the poor quality of stock, low levels of demand and social problems.

In rural areas where local wages are low and house prices are higher (especially in regions with holiday homes) there are special problems. Planning restrictions severely limit rural development. but if there is evidence of need then Exception sites can be used for people with a local connection. This evidence is normally provided by a housing Needs survey carried out by a Rural Housing Enabler working for the local Rural Community Council.

Housing associations are not-for-profit organisations with a history that goes back before the start of the 20th century. The number of homes under their ownership grew significantly from the 1980s as successive governments sought to make them the principal form of social housing, in preference to local authorities. Many of the homes previously under the ownership of local authorities have been transferred to newly established housing associations, including some of the largest in the country. Despite being not-for-profit organisations, housing association rents are typically higher than for council housing. Renting a home through a housing association can in some circumstances prove costlier than purchasing a similar property through a mortgage.

All major housing associations are registered with the Homes and Communities Agency who are responsible for the regulation of social housing from 1 April 2012.[61] Housing associations that are registered were known as Registered Social Landlords from 1996, but in the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 the official term became Registered Providers; the latter also covers council housing as well as developers and other bodies which may receive grants for development.[62] The Department for Communities and Local Government sets the policy for housing in England. In Scotland policy is set by the Scottish Parliament; inspecting and regulating activites falls to the Scottish Housing Regulator.[63] Social housing in Northern Ireland is regulated by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, which was established to take on ownership of former council stock and prevent sectarian allocation of housing to people from one religion.

United States

U.S. Federal Housing Budget 1976-2007
U.S. Federal Housing Budget 1976-2007

The federal government in the U.S. provides subsidies to make housing more affordable. Financial assistance is provided for homeowners through the mortgage interest tax deduction and for lower income households through housing subsidy programs. In the 1970s the federal government spent similar amounts on tax reductions for homeowners as it did on subsidies for low-income housing. However, by 2005, tax reductions had risen to $120 billion per year, representing nearly 80 percent of all federal housing assistance.[64] The Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform for President Bush proposed reducing the home mortgage interest deduction in a 2005 report.[65]

Housing assistance from the federal government for lower income households can be divided into three parts:

  • Tenant based subsidies given to an individual household, known as the Section 8 program
  • Project based subsidies given to the owner of housing units that must be rented to lower income households at affordable rates, and
  • Public Housing, which is usually owned and operated by the government. (Some public housing projects are managed by subcontracted private agencies.)

Project based subsidies are also known by their section of the U.S. Housing Act or the Housing Act of 1949, and include Section 8, Section 236, Section 221(d)(3), Section 202 for elderly households, Section 515 for rural renters, Section 514/516 for farmworkers and Section 811 for people with disabilities. There are also housing subsidies through the Section 8 program that are project based. The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and USDA Rural Development administer these programs. HUD and USDA Rural Development programs have ceased to produce large numbers of units since the 1980s. Since 1986, the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program has been the primary federal program to produce affordable units; however, the housing produced in this program is less affordable than the former HUD programs.

One of the most unique US public housing initiatives was the development of subsidized middle-class housing during the late New Deal (1940 42) under the auspices of the Mutual Ownership Defense Housing Division of the Federal Works Agency under the direction of Colonel Lawrence Westbrook. These eight projects were purchased by the residents after the Second World War and as of 2009 seven of the projects continue to operate as mutual housing corporations owned by their residents. These projects are among the very few definitive success stories in the history of the US public housing effort.

In the U.S., households are commonly defined in terms of the amount of realized income they earn relative to the Area Median Income or AMI.[66] Localized AMI figures are calculated annually based on a survey of comparably-sized households within geographic ranges known as metropolitan statistical areas, as defined by the US Office of Management and Budget.[67] For U.S. housing subsidies, households are categorized by federal law as follows:[68]

  • Moderate income households earn between 80% and 120% of AMI.
  • Low income households earn between 50% and 80% of AMI.
  • Very low income households earn no more than 50% of AMI.

Some states and cities in the United States operate a variety of affordable housing programs, including supportive housing programs, transitional housing programs and rent subsidies as part of public assistance programs. Local and state governments can adapt these income limits when administering local affordable housing programs; however, U.S. federal programs must adhere to the definitions above. For the Section 8 voucher program, the maximum household contribution to rent can be as high as 40% gross income.[69]

Distribution of U.S. Median Home Values
Distribution of U.S. Median Home Values
Comprehensive data for the most affordable and least affordable places in the U.S. is published each year by an affordable housing non-profit organization, the National Low Income Housing Coalition.[70] The NLIHC promotes a guideline of 30% of household income as the upper limit of affordability.

Under this definition, most people in the United States have secured affordable housing arrangements. In 2001, the median household paid $658 per month in total housing costs.[71] A total of 20% of households are deemed to be living in unaffordable housing: Nine percent of all households are renters in unaffordable housing,[72] and eleven percent of all households are homeowners with high housing costs.[73]

In the 2000 U.S. Census, the median homeowner with a mortgage (70% of homeowners and 48% of census respondents) spent $1,088 each month, or 21.7% of household income, on housing costs.[74] The median homeowner without a mortgage (30% of all homeowners (80% of elderly homeowners) and 20% of respondents) spent $295 per month, or 10.5% of household income, on housing costs.[74] Renters in 2001 (32% of respondents) spent $633 each month, or 29% of household income, on housing costs.[75]

Governmental and quasi-governmental agencies that contribute to the work of ensuring the existence of a steady supply of affordable housing in the United States are the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), USDA Rural Development, the Federal Home Loan Bank, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac. Important private sector institutions worth consulting are the National Association of Home Builders, the National Affordable Housing Management Association (NAHMA), the Council for Affordable and Rural Housing (CARH) and the National Association of Realtors. Valuable research institutions with staff dedicated to the analysis of "affordable housing" includes: The Center for Housing Policy, Brookings Institution, the Urban Institute and the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University and the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at New York University, and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Several of these institutions (the Fannie Mae Foundation, Urban Institute, Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, Enterprise Community Partners, LISC, the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, and others)[76] partnered to create KnowledgePlex, an online information resource devoted to affordable housing and community development issues.

New York City

New York City suffers from a shortage of affordable housing. New York City is a highly desirable place to live, attracting thousands of new residents each year, and faces water and public transportation constraints. As a result, housing prices continue to climb. Finding affordable housing in New York City is a struggle for a large portion of the city s population including low-income, moderate-income, and even median income families.[77] Since 1970, income has remained stagnant while rent has nearly doubled for New Yorkers.[77] Consequently, 48.7% of householders spend more than 30% of their income on rent.[77] Several federal and state initiatives have targeted this problem, but have failed to provide enough affordable, inclusive, and sustainable housing for New York City residents.

New York City continues to be a racially and economically segregated city. While the poverty rate for White-Non Hispanics is below the national average at 11.0%, the poverty rate for minority groups is significantly higher. The poverty rate for African Americans is 20.8% and the poverty rate for Asians is 18.1%.[78] The poverty rate for Hispanics is the highest at 28.1% of the population.[78] Historically, public housing was assigned by race and ethnicity and neighborhoods in New York still remain segregated.[79] More than 60% of White-Non Hispanics live in areas characterized as having high access to economic opportunities with low transit accessibility.[79] In contrast, more Hispanics, African Americans, and Asians live in areas that are transit accessible but have low opportunity.[79] Similarly, most of the federally subsidized housing in New York City tends to be located in areas that are transit accessible, but lack access to stable jobs and educational opportunities.[79]

Sustainability is a large portion of what constitutes a neighborhood s overall feel. Sustainable housing characteristics include green building techniques that promote energy efficiency, successful recycling practices, and the walkability of a neighborhood.[79] Affordable housing in New York City tends to be highly walkable, with easy access to public transit.2 However, green building practices are eschewed in affordable housing with the belief that the upfront costs are too expensive.[79]

One of the primary characteristics of neighborhoods with concentrated affordable housing in New York City is a lack of access to economic opportunities.[79] The neighborhoods that have the highest concentration of public housing also fall into the category of the neighborhoods that have the lowest number of locally employed residents.[77] These neighborhoods fail to provide quality schools and stable jobs. Scholars have coined this idea as the uneven geography of opportunity. [80] Residents of concentrated low- income communities are more likely to lead a life with poor outcomes including bad health, unstable low wages, and achieving below average levels of education.4 One of the primary causes of this is that these communities and residents are disconnected from the resources more affluent neighboring communities may have, such as better schools and job opportunities.[80]

The issue of affordable housing concerns New Yorkers as a community overall, with more than 90% believing that everyone has a right to shelter. With the recent recession and increasing housing costs, it is not surprising that more than 30% of New York City residents fear they may one day be homeless.[81] In fact, it is in the best interest of residents to work towards solving the issue of affordable housing in New York as the loss of lower-income residents may be detrimental to a neighborhood s economic vitality.

Affordable housing is a major urban problem facing New York City. Poverty concentrated neighborhoods tend to have poor quality housing stock, higher crime rates, higher dropout rates, and inadequate access to economic opportunities.[80] For residents earning below the 50% median income, only 18% of all rental units and just 4% of market rate rental units were considered affordable in 2009.[77] New York City must address its declining amount of affordable housing as well as increase its sustainability and access to opportunity.

Ultimately, politicians and policymakers must determine the most optimal policy solution to the affordable housing problem in New York City. Part of this process includes educating the public, homeowners, business owners, and other stakeholders about the true costs and outcomes of affordable housing. Many of these groups base their views on unfounded fears. In reality, affordable housing actually serves to revitalize neighborhoods. Older, blighted buildings are torn down or renovated to create new structures that architecturally match the neighborhood. This brings in stable residents, builds the neighborhood, and works to revitalize the area.[82] Additionally, the general public perceives environmentally friendly construction in affordable housing to have significantly higher up-front costs and little return on investment. However, the average building premium for an environmentally sustainable affordable housing development is just 2.4% more than standard development costs. Sustainable development in affordable houses also results in lower operational costs and utility bills, better air quality, and an overall improvement in health.[83]

During his first term, Mayor Bloomberg successfully introduced and later expanded the New Housing Marketplace Plan, an innovative plan to create 165,000 units of affordable housing by 2013. In his prior post as the Commissioner of New York City Housing and Preservation Development, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary, Shaun Donovan worked to implement this initiative, the largest affordable housing plan for a city in U.S. history. Donovan also started his work to promote affordable housing that is sustainable and accessible to economic opportunities during his tenure working for New York City. Since 2000, the median monthly rent has risen by 18% while median wage rates have not changed.[77] Additionally, despite the economic recession and downturn in housing prices recently, in 2010 only 6% of home sales were affordable to New Yorkers earning the median income.[77]


Key criteria in evaluating policy alternatives for affordable housing in New York City include effectiveness, political feasibility and economic feasibility. To be considered affordable housing, rent must not exceed 30% of residents' income.[77] In creating or maintaining affordable units, an alternative must also provide sustainable housing with access to economic opportunities. Affordable housing units should be within reasonable walking distance to public transportation, maximize residents opportunity for quality education and employment opportunities and maximize use of sustainable building elements.

Affordable housing has inherent costs that come with it in addition to construction and maintenance costs. Depending on where alternatives plan to situate affordable housing units, communities may be revitalized or destabilized. While revitalized communities would see increasing property values and additional businesses, creating jobs, destabilized neighborhoods might experience increasing crime and lowering property values. In terms of market outcomes, the chosen alternative for affordable housing should work to stabilize and revitalize neighborhoods.

One of the key differences in the alternatives is whether the alternative is based on federal or local support. Many alternatives rely on federal funding in the form of grants or other resources to provide affordable housing. Full support of the federal government is necessary if an alternative is based on federal funding. Additionally, public opinion regarding affordable housing will impact the decision of politicians. Politicians and policy makers must work to educate the public on the potential results of affordable housing alternatives and garner support. Politicians must also balance the interests of powerful market developers who might oppose policies promoting sustainable affordable housing that might drive up costs of development. The selected alternative should have widespread support to ensure it will be carried out swiftly and as intended.

Some policy alternatives for consideration regarding affordable housing in New York City include:

Header text Status Quo Inclusionary Zoning Choice Neighborhoods Initiative Housing Vouchers
Effectiveness Fair- growth efforts are steady Good- will rapidly increase growth of affordable housing, can promote access to economic opportunities and sustainability Fair- enables people to continue living in the same neighborhood, encourages economic development and can implement sustainable practices. Growth of affordable housing may be slow Good- provides immediate growth of affordable housing, access to economic opportunities, and sustainable housing
Political feasibility Good- minimal opposition Fair- may face opposition Fair- local and federal government community development goals currently align but my change. Competition between neighborhoods may be fierce. Fair- may face opposition, NIMBY
Economic feasibility Good- budget is already approved Very good- does not cost more Very good- utilizes outside money to invest and revitalize neighborhoods Fair- long term expenditure
Evaluation Fair- Good Good Fair- Good Fair

Status quo

The status quo will analyze current affordable housing policy against the criteria to see if it aligns with the objective. Current policy is determined by Mayor Bloomberg, the New York City Housing Authority, and the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development.[77] It provides for the creation and preservation of affordable housing through a mix of funding sources and means, including Federal Housing Authority and HUD financing and insurance programs, HUD project based rental assistance, New York State and New York City s Mitchell Lama program, and low income housing tax credits.[77]

Inclusionary Zoning

Inclusionary zoning is a technique to develop diverse mixed-income housing. These laws would require that a set percentage of units in each new or markably renovated building be used for affordable housing.[84] In exchange, developers receive a bonus density, allowing them to build more units than would normally be allowed. Inclusionary zoning seeks to promote mixed income communities and equitable growth for all residents.[84]

Choice Neighborhoods Initiative

The Choice Neighborhoods Initiative is a program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Planning.[79] It represents the idea of investing more into low to moderate income neighborhoods, seeking to bring economic revitalization to the area. The goal of this initiative is to bring economic opportunities to areas that already have a high concentration affordable housing and have access to public transportation.[79] Neighborhoods with a high concentration of public housing can compete for funding for urban revitalization. Neighborhoods submit proposals strategizing the use of funding to create lasting results that improve the quality of life in the area.[79] This funding is targeted for demolition and to create new housing and developments, but can also be used to invest in schools, infrastructure, and commercial developments.[79]

Housing Vouchers

Housing vouchers are provided to low-income residents to pay to private landlords to supplement rent.[79] Residents may pay up to 30% of their income in rent. The difference between this amount and market rate is provided to the landlord through the voucher.[79] These vouchers provide increased mobility and choice in location for low-income residents, enabling them to live in areas with increased access to economic opportunities and transportation.[79] Along with housing vouchers, it is most effective to provide search assistance and landlord outreach.


Further reading


External links


United Kingdom

  • ''UK Housing Review'', University of York, England.
  • The authors study the effect of rent subsidies in England on mobility and unemployment.

United States


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