Partners (Summer 2002)

Making The Connection: Addressing Smart Growth and Affordable Housing in the Sixth District
By Janet Hamer

Many communities and regions throughout the Sixth District are struggling with the challenges of population growth. Negative effects to rapid growth include threats to farmland and the environment, inadequate public infrastructure, and affordable housing shortages.

The smart growth movement and growth management initiatives are part of the response of many communities to the increasing awareness that current development patterns are not sustainable or adequate to meet the needs of a growing, changing population.

Urban Sprawl and Neighborhood Decline

Twentieth century urban sprawl was brought about by public policies and market economies. Many cities in the 1920s, when faced with deteriorating neighborhoods near their downtown centers, rezoned these residential areas for commercial uses thinking that this would impede the decline of the neighborhoods. Instead, it hastened the decline by allowing once stable single-family, owner-occupied neighborhoods, both modest and grand, to be converted to rooming houses and substandard apartments.

The era when the automobile became the primary means of transportation also accelerated the flight to suburbia, and public transportation systems such as trolley cars faltered. In-town convenience was no longer an appeal when people had new transportation options and new choices in housing.

Urban vacant land became a cheap commodity for inappropriate and often environmentally unsound uses. Thus, once-thriving urban neighborhoods in which families lived and worked declined, exacerbated further when jobs began to follow residents to more suburban locations. Many of the families who remained in the old neighborhoods did so because they had limited options.

Smart Growth and Affordability Issues

The issue of affordable housing has been noticeably absent from many smart growth discussions. The “back to the city” movement has not often addressed the families who have remained in their neighborhoods, particularly low-income and minority families.

Creating a connection between smart growth, affordable housing, and racial and social equity may help foster a more sustainable and equitable approach to growth and development. This connection presents an opportunity to bring the issues of affordability and the importance of housing into the broader public discussion currently underway about land use, traffic congestion and mass transit, and preservation of farmland and open space.

According to the National Association of Home Builders, the housing industry estimates that an additional 1.3 to 1.5 million units of housing will be needed every year for the next 10 years to accommodate a population that is expected to grow by 30 million people during that period.

Changing Demographics, Changing Needs

The Sixth District continues to experience rapid growth in most of its geographic areas with a population that is both aging and increasingly diverse. These changing demographics mean that the standard post-World War II approach — one that emphasized the construction of single family detached homes — may no longer adequately meet America’s changing housing needs.

The share of households made up of two parents and their children is diminishing, while the number of single adult households and households without children are growing. Estimates show that by 2030, for the first time in the United States, one in five Americans will be over 65 — double the proportion compared with 1990.

While the single-family, detached home will remain the housing product of choice for many; demand is growing for greater alternatives in housing. Housing that is constructed to accommodate the needs of some for better walkability, access to transit, proximity to publicly maintained parks and civic spaces, or smaller housing units in familiar neighborhoods, for example, helps communities achieve smart growth and creates more options from which households can choose. These choices should include all types and affordability ranges of housing including manufactured housing, accessory apartments (“granny flats”), multifamily housing, and special needs housing.

Local Zoning and Building Codes

This will require local governments to rethink existing zoning and building codes. Traditional setback requirements, regulations restricting the number of units within a building, and lot size standards advance the concept of traditional suburban growth but are not well suited to helping communities reap the benefits that smart growth can yield and providing access to affordable housing to an increasingly diverse population.

For example, Atlanta’s city planners have sent its Council a radical plan to replace restrictive zoning codes that has long separated land uses with four new-urbanist categories that would shape entire mixed-used city neighborhoods and make them a viable alternative to similar pedestrian oriented communities emerging in the suburbs.

Impact of Smart Growth on Low-Income Households

A comprehensive approach to smart growth includes appreciation for the potential impact on low-income households. The Fannie Mae Foundation uses the term “fair growth” to refer to strategies for curbing urban sprawl without endangering housing affordability and access to jobs for minorities and low-income residents.

Freddie Mac has created an “Alliance Communities” program in which a collaborative approach is utilized to bring together cities, lending institutions, and neighborhood-based nonprofit organizations to address the housing needs of low- and moderate-income families as an integral part of the larger community.

One of these Alliance Communities, the City of Jacksonville, Florida, adopted the theme of “Smart Growth to Homeownership,” linking housing opportunities to employment opportunities. Lending institutions, along with Freddie Mac, partner with local government, nonprofit organizations, and private businesses to provide access to homeownership opportunities for homebuyers of all income levels near their employment. Central to this effort is a second mortgage assistance program offered by major employers in the central city area and city funded second mortgage subsidies for low- and moderate-income homebuyers.

Another example in the Sixth District of linking housing to employment and reducing the dependency on automobiles is a pilot low-interest mortgage program set up through Hibernia National Bank and Fannie Mae to boost Louisiana teacher homeownership. This program was so popular that the total $10 million loan fund was committed within three days.

Additionally, the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee created the Homeownership for Metro Employees (HoME) program to encourage employees to live in Davidson County. Metro employees, whose household income is at or below 80% of the area median, can qualify for assistance if they purchase homes in the metropolitan Nashville area. Programs such as these foster smart growth by guiding homebuyers to purchase in neighborhoods close to employment centers and offer the added benefit of stabilizing neighborhoods and promoting diversity.

Mixed-Use and Mixed-Income Communities

Central to revitalizing inner-city neighborhoods in tandem with preserving diversity and limiting displacement is attracting mixed-income homebuyers and renters back to a neighborhood. Birmingham, Alabama recently began work on transforming the city’s oldest public housing project to a mixed-use community with housing opportunities for all levels of income. With the assistance of the HUD HOPE VI program, this $70 million public/private partnership will include office space, educational facilities and an athletic and community center in addition to mixed-income housing.

Another tool to assist in creating and retaining mixed-income housing in blighted neighborhoods is real estate tax abatements. For example, to encourage conversion of Jackson, Mississippi’s worst “eyesores” into much needed housing, the City Council is offering a tax exemption for up to 10 years to renovate and convert old commercial buildings larger than 5,000 square feet into residential use.

Smart growth strategies provide cities and regions with the opportunity to revitalize urban core areas. A comprehensive approach to this effort must include an affordable housing component with effective implementation strategies in order to prevent displacement. Diversity has been and remains one of the important strengths of our communities, and affordable housing is vital to any smart growth strategy.


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