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Local Government Roles in Housing Accessibility and Affordability

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Agustin Leon-Moreta and Silvia Saenz-Montenegro
December 19, 2020

This article analyzes housing accessibility in urban areas and the critical role of local government. In both global cities and many American cities, housing often is not affordable or broadly accessible, especially for lower-income families. This problem has enduring consequences for the quality of life in communities. Today, housing challenges are pressing due to their role in the pandemic. Policy experts have noted that home crowding, for example, exacerbates the rate of coronavirus infection in communities. In this article, we will analyze the role of local government in making housing more affordable and accessible.

Housing is a critical area for policy analysis because of the positive and negative consequences of housing inequalities. Housing accessibility and affordability are a persistent challenge in large metropolitan areas. The obvious consequences are home crowding and homelessness that large cities are experiencing. Our discussion will place municipal governments at center stage in housing decisionmaking.

Cities have a critical role in housing policies through their land regulation and zoning power. This policy power generally derives from state delegation of authority to municipal governments. The first way in which cities affect housing accessibility is by permitting or restricting home and housing development projects. Cities differ dramatically, however; many cities have restrictive zoning policies, while other cities have rather lenient land use practices. Houston is a prominent example of a city that does not explicitly use zoning within its boundaries. Most cities in the United States, however, employ zoning and land use regulations to some degree or another.

Municipal approval is generally required for the development of single-family homes, multifamily housing or mixed developments. Most cities allow for single-family homes; however, some cities vehemently oppose any form of multifamily housing. This latter type of housing is often associated with a higher presence of low-income families that some cities do not welcome within their borders. As a result, home and housing in cities is unevenly accessible or differentiated by income level. Multifamily housing is usually, but not always, more prevalent in inner cities. By contrast, new single-family homes are often developed more rapidly in recently formed subdivisions distant from the central city.

Cities have various options, however, for making homes and housing available. One important option is working with housing agencies. Housing agencies or authorities are usually public agencies specifically responsible for housing and community development programs in the locality or wider region. Housing authorities in some regions operate low-income housing programs on behalf of cities. Municipal government still has an important role in those programs by designing development plans that accommodate or consider the programs delivered by housing agencies. Some cities also support housing programs by transferring fiscal resources to those agencies. Housing authorities and city governments are accordingly partners in potential solutions to urban housing problems.

There are two classes of federal programs for housing assistance. A first group of programs includes direct assistance to families, for example, public housing and voucher systems. The second group of programs includes tax incentives to developers. The low-income housing tax credit program is the most prominent program of its kind in the United States. This federal program offers developers tax benefits when they make housing units available to low-income families. Cities should therefore consider the impact of federal programs as cities develop land use plans. Housing is certainly an area where all levels of government are involved. Municipal governments nevertheless have much control over the use of undeveloped land by permitting or restricting housing development projects.

A related challenge deals with the impact of land conservation plans. Decisions for land conservation directly affect the feasibility of home and housing development. Land conservation, by definition, restricts the extent of land that is available for development. In addition to restricting the extent of developable land, conservation actions could increase land prices. Researchers show that certain conservation actions lead to gentrification—that is, the displacement of low-income families from neighborhoods where land prices are increasing. For this reason, cities should jointly evaluate their conservation plans and housing development policies in order to avoid unintended exclusionary effects of land conservation plans.

Optimal housing policies are critical today to mitigate the impact of the pandemic and to advance greater social and economic equity in American communities. Access to housing broadly affects other socioeconomic outcomes, such as access to schools and a variety of local services. For this reason, housing accessibility should be a high policy priority of the newly elected administrations at federal, state and local levels of government. By promoting more accessible and affordable housing, governments may mitigate the historical patterns of housing inequality in urban areas and enhance quality of life more broadly.


Agustin Leon-Moreta is Assistant Professor at the University of New Mexico School of Public Administration. He received a Ph.D. in Public Administration and Policy from the Askew School at Florida State University. His research has appeared in Public Administration Review, the American Review of Public Administration, Urban Studies, State and Local Government Review, and Public Administration Quarterly.

Silvia Saenz-Montenegro has over fifteen years of working experience in the private sector. She received a Master’s degree in Organization, Information and Learning Sciences from the University of New Mexico. She is interested in evaluating how to use distance learning in the workplace effectively. Her research interests additionally include barriers to distance training and distance education.

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