Five questions for an affordable housing expert

Five questions for an affordable housing expert

David Plazas
Publication Year: 2015

2. Some advocates have conflated affordable and workforce housing — that is combining homelessness, low-income and middle class needs together. Does such an approach sufficiently address the complexities of the debate or are cities more successful when they address these issues separately?

In a place that is growing rapidly, there is a need for a multifaceted approach, since different groups in the population face affordable housing barriers for different reasons. Strategies like workforce housing usually focus on specific groups that fall through the cracks in tight housing markets — teachers, police officers, firefighters, etc. — who can’t afford to live in the place they work due to their salaries being too low.

So, affordable housing, down payment assistance, mortgage interest write downs or other policies are put in place to help them find housing. But, those types of programs don’t address the needs of other groups struggling to find affordable housing, like the elderly, students or the poor in general. They need a variety of other fair and affordable housing options. Even if things get conflated in the short term, the long-term needs of all constituencies will eventually surface and have to be addressed.

3. Are there cities that have best practices on managing housing needs for changing and growing populations?

People point to places like New Jersey as a model for regional affordable housing development. A lot has been written about the Mount Laurel case where affordable housing was part of the state’s regional fair share approach. Illinois, particularly in the Greater Chicago area, is also cited a lot for its use of inclusionary zoning and mixed-income development.

4. Can government be effective when a booming market is bringing together willing buyers and sellers even at the expense of existing residents, i.e., because they live in public housing that will be torn down, because renters will be charged more every year, and because property value increases will lead to an increase in taxes?

Local government can do some of the things I mention above to protect long-term residents from speculation and housing inflation. The most direct ways to protect existing residents are tools like rent control and various forms of property tax and assessment relief. But, local government can also be more aggressive about building more affordable housing.

Today a lot of that activity takes place with nonprofit developers using tools like the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) and by creating low-income housing trust funds. Trust funds are typically funded with fees applied to market-rate developments, payments for increased density that are part of incentive-based inclusionary zoning, and fees for deed transfers, etc.

5. Are there other factors I’m not taking into consideration that I should be on this issue?

Another tool that is being used more to provide for affordable housing are community benefits agreements (CBAs), which are negotiated with developers of large projects like hospital and university expansions, stadium development, etc. Part of those agreements can include set-asides for affordable housing development that are linked to larger projects receiving public subsidies.

David Plazas is the opinion engagement editor of The Tennessean. Call him at 615-259-8063, email him at or tweet to him @davidplazas.