A recent analysis conducted by the Urban Institute and the NYU Furman Center suggests a better approach to siting affordable housing. The report, Building Environmentally Sustainable Communities: A Framework for Inclusivity, combines opportunity metrics with access to transit and walkability to show how low-income families can benefit from smart growth policies without being further marginalized. The UI/Furman report seeks to include fair housing principles in the “sustainability” frame:
There is growing concern from advocates and key stakeholders that communities that are sustainable in the narrower, environmental sense will not necessarily be inclusive, and that efforts to promote environmental sustainability may come at the expense of efforts to improve those households’ access to better social and economic opportunities…. But environmental sustainability and inclusion can also be complementary, and an argument can be made that to fully achieve their environmental goals, sustainable communities must be inclusive.
The report goes on to state, “HUD should effectively disqualify tools that increase environmental sustainability without attending to housing affordability or racial/ethnic inclusion. For example, zoning or regulatory changes that focus private sector development around transportation hubs, or restrict development elsewhere without addressing housing affordability, will likely further exclude low- and moderate-income households from desirable, opportunity-rich communities.”
The report considers metrics based on three factors, “walkability and transit accessibility,” “opportunity” (defined as richness of educational, employment, and quality of life opportunities), and an analysis of where low-income households and people of color already live. Applying these metrics to potential housing locations in New York and Seattle, the report finds a significant number of locations that simultaneously deliver smart growth, opportunity, and social inclusion for low-income families. The report also notes the need to prioritize preservation efforts for existing affordable housing in these neighborhoods.
The report also recommends that low-income families not be excluded by siting policies from high-opportunity communities that are not yet fully sustainable, but rather that efforts should be focused on making these communities more sustainable over time, to accommodate a more inclusive population.
State and local housing agencies engaged in siting new affordable housing should weigh these social costs and benefits (as well as their legal obligations under the Fair Housing Act to avoid segregation) rather than relying solely on the “combined costs” of rent and transportation. We also hope that the Center for Neighborhood Technology will consider amending its helpful H+T index to address the special case of low-income housing location.