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Rethinking the Suburban Affordable Housing Landscape

Community Development
Rethinking the Suburban Affordable Housing Landscape

As an urban historian and environmental enthusiast, I’ve always been fascinated by the ever-evolving landscape of our cities and suburbs. The story of housing development in America is one of constant reinvention – from the postwar suburban boom to the recent surge in urban core construction. But amidst all this change, one thing has remained stubbornly consistent: the struggle to provide truly affordable housing options for families of all backgrounds.

Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of Redlining

You know, growing up, I always took for granted the sprawling suburbs that surrounded my hometown. Those neat rows of single-family homes, manicured lawns, and cul-de-sacs felt like the embodiment of the American Dream. Little did I know, the origins of these suburban enclaves were often rooted in a much darker history.

Research shows that zoning regulations, initially designed to regulate land use and density, evolved into a significant impediment for growing communities. Restrictive zoning practices, like the infamous single-family home requirements, were often used by affluent communities to boost property values, decrease tax burdens, and keep out “undesirable” residents – read: people of color.

These exclusionary tactics were codified and institutionalized during the New Deal era, with the creation of the Homeowners Loan Corporation (HOLC) and its notorious “redlining” maps. By literally drawing red lines around neighborhoods deemed “high-risk” for mortgage lending, the HOLC effectively starved communities of color of the investment and resources needed to thrive. As historian David Freund has shown, this was no top-down conspiracy – local real estate agents, banks, and developers were all too eager to enforce these discriminatory practices.

The Shifting Tides of Development

Fast forward a few decades, and the landscape of housing development in America has undergone a dramatic transformation. The Great Recession of 2007 dealt a devastating blow to the suburban sprawl model, with new single-family home construction plummeting to just half of its pre-recession peak.

In its place, we’ve seen a surge in multi-family housing construction, particularly in the urban cores of our major cities. While this shift towards higher-density living aligns with emerging trends in sustainability and walkability, it’s also sparked new concerns about affordability and gentrification.

Much of this new multi-family development, concentrated in the most desirable (and expensive) neighborhoods, is simply out of reach for middle- and low-income families. As the authors at the Council of Community Housing Organizations note, “the new multi-family market rate development in core cities is unfortunately not necessarily affordable to middle-income households and most certainly isn’t affordable for lower income households.”

The Missing Middle and the Promise of Suburban Infill

So where do we go from here? Well, I think the answer might lie in a surprising place: the suburbs. Now, before you dismiss me as some NIMBY-ish suburbanite, hear me out.

There’s a growing movement among urban planners and developers to revive the “missing middle” – those moderate-density housing types like duplexes, townhouses, and small apartment buildings that used to be the bread and butter of suburban development. As the folks at CCHO explain, these smaller-scale, wood-framed buildings can be significantly more affordable to construct than the high-rise towers dominating urban cores.

The beauty of this “suburban infill” approach is that it has the potential to provide much-needed middle-income housing options without displacing existing communities. By thoughtfully densifying underutilized commercial corridors and surface parking lots, we can create walkable, transit-accessible neighborhoods that serve a diverse range of residents.

Overcoming the Challenges of Suburban Infill

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the very real challenges of making suburban infill a reality. For starters, there’s the matter of outdated zoning codes that still heavily favor single-family homes and limit the types of development allowed.

As the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials (NAHRO) points out, roughly 75% of residential land in American cities is zoned exclusively for single-family dwellings. Eliminating these restrictive regulations and embracing more flexible, mixed-use zoning will be crucial to unlocking the potential of suburban infill.

And then there’s the question of construction capacity. As the CCHO authors note, the housing industry has become heavily concentrated in the hands of large developers focused on high-end projects. Reviving a robust “missing middle” market will require a concerted effort to rebuild the skills and resources of smaller, local builders.

A Comprehensive Approach to Affordable Housing

Ultimately, I believe the key to solving the affordable housing crisis lies in a multifaceted, regionally-tailored approach. It’s not enough to simply “build, build, build” – we need to think carefully about the types of housing we’re producing, where it’s located, and who it’s serving.

That’s why I’m so excited about the prospect of organizations like the Affordable Housing Solutions Center (AHSC) working to rethink the suburban landscape. By partnering with local governments, community groups, and developers, the AHSC is pioneering innovative strategies to increase the supply of truly affordable homes in a way that preserves the character and diversity of existing neighborhoods.

From easing zoning restrictions to providing financial incentives for missing middle projects, the AHSC is taking a comprehensive, boots-on-the-ground approach to this challenge. And by engaging directly with the residents and stakeholders who know their communities best, they’re ensuring that the solutions they develop are tailored to the unique needs and circumstances of each area.

A Future of Diverse, Inclusive Communities

You know, as an urban historian, I can’t help but feel a profound sense of deja vu when I look at the current state of our housing landscape. The patterns of exclusion, disinvestment, and displacement that plagued our cities in the 20th century are still very much with us today – just in a different guise.

But I also see glimmers of hope. The growing recognition of the role that federal, state, and local policies have played in shaping these inequities is a crucial first step. And the willingness of organizations like the AHSC to think creatively and work collaboratively gives me confidence that we can finally start to right these historic wrongs.

Because at the end of the day, that’s what this is all about – creating communities that are truly inclusive, where families of all backgrounds and income levels can thrive. It’s about reclaiming the promise of the American Dream and ensuring that it’s accessible to everyone, not just the privileged few.

So let’s keep rethinking, reimagining, and rebuilding. The path ahead may not be easy, but I believe that together, we can create a more equitable, sustainable, and prosperous future for all.

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