Affordable housing

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Affordable housing is housing which is deemed affordable to those with a household income at or below the median[1] as rated by the national government or a local government by a recognized housing affordability index. Most of the literature on affordable housing refers to mortgages and a number of forms that exist along a continuum – from emergency homeless 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.[2][3][4][5]

In Australia, the National Affordable Housing Summit Group developed their definition of affordable housing as housing that 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."[6] Affordable housing in the United Kingdom includes "social rented and intermediate housing, provided to specified eligible households whose needs are not met by the market."[7]

Housing choice is a response to an extremely complex set of economic, social, and psychological impulses.[8] 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.[9]
Legends Park West Mixed-Income and Affordable Housing Redevelopment in Memphis Tennessee, USA

Definition and measurement[edit]

There are several means of defining and measuring affordable housing. The definition and measurement may change in different nations, cities, or for specific policy goals.[10][11][12][13] Several common means of measuring and defining affordable housing are found below.

Median multiple approaches[edit]

The median multiple indicator, recommended by the World Bank and the United Nations, rates affordability of housing by dividing the median house price by gross (before tax) annual median household income).

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 (the wealthier half of households) could officially afford the median housing option, while those poorer than the median income could not afford the median home. 50% affordability for the median home indicates a balanced market.[1]

Some 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 costs as percentage of gross income[edit]

Determining housing affordability is complex and the commonly used housing-expenditure-to-income-ratio tool has been challenged. In the United States[14] and Canada,[15] a commonly accepted guideline for housing affordability is a housing cost, including utilities, that does not exceed 30% of a household's gross income.[16] Some definitions include maintenance costs as part of housing costs.[17] 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.[8] India uses a 40% rule.

Housing affordability index approaches[edit]

There are several types of housing affordability indexes that take a number of factors, not just income, into account when measuring housing affordability.[18][19]

The American National Association of Realtors and other groups measure market housing through a housing affordability index which measures whether or not a typical family could qualify for a mortgage loan on a typical home. This index calculates affordability based on the national median-priced single family home, the typical family median income, and the prevailing mortgage interest rate to determine if the median income family can qualify for a mortgage on a typical home.[20] To interpret the indices, a value of 100 means that a family with the median income has exactly enough income to qualify for a mortgage on a median-priced home.[20] An index over 100 signifies that family earning the median income has more than enough income for a mortgage loan on the median-priced home (assuming they have a 20 percent down payment).[20] For example, a composite HAI of 120.0 means a family earning the median family income has 120% of the income necessary to qualify for a conventional loan covering 80 percent of a median-priced existing single-family home.[20] An increase in the HAI shows that this family is more able to afford the median-priced home.[20]

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) developed a housing affordability index that attempts to capture the total cost of housing by several factors include employment accessibility, amenities, transportation costs and transit access, quality of schools, etc. In computing the index the obvious cost of rents and mortgage payments are modified by the hidden costs of those choices.[21] Other groups have also created amenity based housing affordability indexes.[22]

The Center for Neighborhood Technology developed the Housing + Transportation (H+T) Affordability Index provides a comprehensive view of affordability that includes both the cost of housing and the cost of transportation at the neighborhood level.[23] CNT notes that the 30% of household income affordability measurementment results in little over half (55%) of U.S. neighborhoods being considered “affordable” for the typical household.[23] They note that such a measurement fails to take into account transportation costs (such as multiple cars, gas, maintenance), which are usually a household’s second-largest expenditure.[23] When transportation costs are factored into the measurement, the number of affordable neighborhoods nationally drops to 26%, resulting in a net loss of 59,768 neighborhoods that Americans can truly afford.[23] Per CNT's measurement, people who live in location-efficient neighborhoods that are compact, mixed-use, and have convenient access to jobs, services, transit and amenities tend to have lower transportation costs.[23][24]

Household income and wealth approaches[edit]

Some analysts believe income is the primary factor – not price and availability, that determines housing affordability.[25] In a market economy the distribution of income is the key determinant of the quantity and quality of housing obtained. Therefore, understanding affordable housing challenges requires understanding 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.[26]

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).[27] This methods attempts to determine if workers at that income can afford adequate housing.

Differing parameters and limitations in approaches[edit]

Housing affordability can be measured by the changing relationships between house prices and rents, and between house prices and incomes.[28] Housing affordability may be measured by 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.[citation needed]

Often, 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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]


Affordable housing, or low income housing, at the St. James Town neighborhood in Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Causes and consequences of rises in housing prices[edit]

Costs are being driven by a number of factors including:

  • demographic shifts
    • the declining number of people per dwelling
    • growing density convergence and regional urbanization
    • solid population growth (for example high prices in Australia and Canada as a rising population pushes up demand)[28]
  • supply and demand
    • a shortfall in the number of dwellings to the number of households
      • smaller family size
      • strong psychological desire for home ownership[29]
  • shifts in economic policies and innovations in financial instruments
    • reduced profitability of other forms of investment
    • availability of housing finance[30]
    • low interest rates[30]
    • mortgage market innovations[30]
  • public policy
    • regulation
    • land use zoning
    • significant taxes, levies and fees by government on new housing (especially in Australia)

Supply and demand[edit]

In some countries, 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.[31][32][33][34] Potential home buyers are forced to turn to the rental market, which is also under pressure.[35] An inadequate supply of housing stock increases demand on the private and social rented sector, and in worse case scenarios, homelessness.[36]

Factors that affect supply and demand of housing stock[edit]

  • Demographic and behavioral factors
  • Migration (to cities and potential employment)
  • Increased life expectancy
  • Building codes[37]
  • A greater propensity for people to live alone
  • Young adults delaying forming their own household (in advanced economies)
  • Exclusionary zoning

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

  • 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.[36]

Labour market performance[edit]

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.[38]

Inequality and housing[edit]

A number of researchers argue that a shortage of affordable housing – at least in the US – is caused in part by income inequality.[39][40][41] David Rodda noted that from 1984 and 1991, the number of quality rental units decreased as the demand for higher quality housing increased.[39]: 148  Through gentrification of older neighbourhoods, for example, in East New York, rental prices increased rapidly as landlords found new residents willing to pay higher market rate for housing and left lower income families without rental units. The ad valorem property tax policy combined with rising prices made it difficult or impossible for low income residents to keep pace.[42]

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.[citation needed]

Affordable housing and urbanization[edit]

The majority of the more than seven 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-Yokohama 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."[43]

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.[44] Lack of affordable housing can make low-cost labour scarcer (as workers travel longer distances) (Pollard and Stanley 2007).[43]

Social and environmental impacts[edit]

Housing affordability is more than just a personal trouble experienced by individual households who cannot easily find a place to live.[45] Lack of affordable housing is considered by many urban planners to have negative effects on a community's overall health.[46]

Jobs, transportation, and affordable housing[edit]

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[47] have been linked to declines in enrollment at local schools.[48] "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.[49] 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.[6]

A household's inhabitants must decide whether to pay more for housing to keep commuting time and expense low, or to accept a long or expensive commute 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. Some affordable housing prototypes include Nano House and Affordable Green Tiny House Project.[citation needed]

Improving thermal comfort at home especially for houses without adequate warmth and for tenants with chronic respiratory disease may lead to improved health and promote social relationships.[50]

Affordable housing and public policy[edit]


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.[45] These responses range from stop-gap financing tools to long-term intergovernmental[51] infrastructural changes. 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.[36]

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,[52][53] an entitlement, or a public good? Or is just another household-level consumer choice, a commodity 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."[54]

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.[51] The notion of housing affordability became widespread in the 1980s in Europe and North America. In the words of Alain Bertaud, of New York University and former principal planner at the World Bank,

It is time for planners to abandon abstract objectives and to focus their efforts on two measurable outcomes that have always mattered since the growth of large cities during the 19th century’s industrial revolution: workers' spatial mobility and housing affordability.[55]

Ann Owen wonders if the housing market helped reduced poverty concentration in the National longitudinal data between the years of 1977–2008 with the concentration of the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the United States. Data information is to compare or intertwine with the differences of national housing subsidies, the entry, exit, and enhancement of low-income housing.[56]

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.[citation needed] 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. Recent research, however, suggests that proximity to low-income housing developments generally has a positive impact on neighborhood property conditions.[57]

To combat slums, homelessness, and other social and economic impacts of a housing unaffordability, many groups have argued for a "right to housing". Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes the right to housing as part of the right to an adequate standard of living.[58] Article 11(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) also guarantees the right to housing as part of the right to an adequate standard of living.[58] Many housing rights groups also attempt to combat social and political issues which relate to access to quality affordable housing such as housing discrimination, redlining, and lack of access to amenities in areas with affordable housing including food deserts and transit deserts.[59][60][61][62][63][64]

Market-based approaches[edit]

Affordable housing needs can be addressed through public policy instruments that focus on the demand side of the market, programs that help households reach financial benchmarks that make housing 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).[51] 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.[51] 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.

Currently, 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.[citation needed]

In some countries, such as Canada and the United States, 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.[51] At the municipal level, promoted policy tools include zoning permissions for diverse housing types or missing middle housing types such as duplexes, cottages, rowhomes, fourplexes, and accessory dwelling units.[65][66][67][68] Some municipalities have also reduced the of the amount of parking that must be built for a new structure in order to reduce land acquisition and construction costs.[69][70][71][72][73][74][75] Other common strategies include reducing permitting costs and wait times for new housing, permitting small-lot development, multi-family tax exemptions, density bonuses, preserving existing affordable housing, and transit-oriented development.[76][77][78][79]

Existing housing that is affordable may be used, instead of building new structures. This is called "Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing", or NOAH.[80]

In a housing cooperative people join on a democratic basis to own or manage the housing facility in which they live. Generally these housing units are owned and controlled collectively by a corporation which is owned and controlled jointly by a group of individuals who have equal shares in that corporation.[81][82] In market rate cooperatives owners can accumulate equity and sell their share of the corporation at market rate. In a limited-equity housing cooperative there are restrictions on the profits members can earn from selling their share (such as caps on sale price) to meant to maintain affordable housing.[81]

Community land trusts are nonprofit corporation that holds land, housing, or other assets on behalf of a neighborhood or community. A community land trust acquires and maintains ownership of the land through a non-for-profit that holds the land in a trust.[83][84] Homeowners then purchase or build a home on land trust property but do not purchase the land thus reducing costs. If the homeowner sells, they may be limited on what they may sell the home for or the family may earn only a portion of the increased property value with the remainder kept by the trust to preserve affordable housing[84][85] There are over 225 community land trusts in the United States.[86]

Right to build[edit]

An article by libertarian writer Virginia Postrel 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. The study, cited, published by Ed Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko, reached its conclusion about the value of the right to build in different localities based on a methodology of comparing the cost of single-family homes on quarter-acre versus half-acre lots to get a marginal land price and then comparing the selling price of homes to construction costs to get a price for the land plus other costs, with the difference between the two being attributed to the cost of zoning and other local government permitting and regulations.[87]

Government restrictions on affordable housing[edit]

Many governments put restrictions on the size or cost of a dwelling that people can live in,[citation needed] making it essentially illegal to live permanently in a house that is too small, low-cost or not compliant with other government-defined requirements. Generally, these laws are implemented in an attempt to raise the perceived "standard" of housing across the country. This can lead to thousands of houses across a country being left empty for much of the year even when there is a great need for more affordable housing; such is the case in countries like Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark, where there is a common tradition to have a summer house. This sometimes raises concerns for the respect of rights such as the right to utilize one's property.

As of 2013, in the United States, most cities have zoning codes that set the minimum size for a housing unit (often 400 square feet) as well as the number of non-related persons who can live together in one unit, resulting in having "outlawed the bottom end of the private housing market, driving up rents on everything above it."[88]

In California in 2021, researchers estimated that parking requirements increase the cost of building affordable housing by up to $36,000 per unit, and up to $75,000 per unit in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco.[89]

Until 2018, in Los Angeles, for an affordable housing development to be allowed to be built, it required a "letter of acknowledgement" from the city councilperson in whose district it would be constructed. This allowed city council members to block affordable housing developments in their district without having to give any reason.[90][91]

Subsidy-based approaches[edit]

Subsidized housing is government or non-for-profit sponsored economic assistance aimed towards alleviating housing costs and expenses, generally for people with low to moderate incomes. Subsidy-based approaches may take the form of government sponsored rental subsidies, government sponsored rental supplements, tax credits, or housing provided by a non-for-profit.[92][93]

In a mutual-aid housing cooperative, a group of families forms a cooperative to collectively build, own, and manage land by participating in the process of constructing the housing for the cooperative.[94][95] Each family is responsible for contributing labor towards the construction of the housing complex to reduce costs and members take on responsibilities before, during, and after the construction. The Uruguayan Federation of Mutual Aid Housing Cooperatives (FUCVAM) has completed nearly 500 housing cooperatives housing more than 25,000 families.[96][97]

The George-Washington-Hof is protected public housing in Vienna

Public, state, or social housing approaches[edit]

Public housing is a form of housing tenure in which the property is usually built and owned by a government authority, either central or local. In some countries, public housing is focused on providing affordable housing for low-income earners while in others, such as Singapore, citizens across a wide range of incomes live in public housing.[98][99] In Vienna, Austria, social housing may be completely government built and run or include a mixture of public land and private-sector construction and management.[100][101] Combined, the two types of housing represent about 46 percent of the city’s housing stock (26% government owned and managed and 20% a public/private partnership) and house people with a wide variety of incomes.[100][101] In South Korea the public Korea Land & Housing Corporation has provided homes to 2.9 million households which is 15% of the national total of 19.56 million households. This includes 2.7 million newly-built public housing units and 1.03 million rental homes of which 260,000 were purchased or rented by the Land and Housing Corporation.[102][103]

Affordable housing by country[edit]

The challenges of promoting affordable housing varies by location.

See also[edit]


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