Land Use and Affordability

“The equal right of all men to the use of land is as clear as their equal right to breathe the air – it is a right proclaimed by the fact of their existence. For we cannot suppose that some men have a right to be in this world, and others no right.”

~ Henry George

Historic Injustices

The United States of America has not succeeded in creating equal opportunity regarding access to land. Painful reminders that much remedial work is needed abound. The unresolved consequences of early transactions with Native Americans are a prime example. America’s reneging on our promise of forty acres and a mule to freed African American slaves is yet another. 

National and local public policies following World War II including racially and economically discriminatory Federal Housing Authority, Federal Highway Administration and Tax Code policies resulted in increased racial and economic segregation as well as a voracious consumption of land. This trend continues with the recent lack of implementation of the court-ordered remedies by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Pigford vs. Glickman. This lawsuit addressed USDA’s admitted disparate lending policies, charging that the consequence of their omission was significant harm to black farmers (including seven Delawareans).

“Security of tenure, affordability, adequacy, accessibility, proximity to services, availability of infrastructure, and cultural adequacy…”

from Article 11, UN Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, 1951

Models That Work

There are examples of alternative affirmative public policy and private efforts which take into account the need to use our land wisely and to ensure that Americans fulfill the goal of safe decent and affordable housing for all. 

A description follows of efforts recognizing both environmental and housing goals as interdependent. They include:

  • smart growth,
  • inclusionary zoning, and
  • shared equity home ownership models.

Smart Growth

Smart Growth is development aimed at taking the community and environment into account, along with the economy, creating practices. It connects neighborhood-level development to wider considerations such as infrastructure, transportation, healthy lifestyle, zoning practices, and regional development plans. 

Smart Growth can incorporate a wide variety of public policy tools to address affordable housing needs. They fall under the categories of:

  1. Tools designed to increase the supply of affordable housing by creating new stock and spreading affordable housing to communities and neighborhoods where it has traditionally been excluded;
  2. Tools focused on preventing the displacement of existing low (and sometimes moderate) income residents from gentrifying neighborhoods;
  3. Tools focused on reinvestment in existing communities;
  4. Funding tools; 5) Creation of a regional framework of housing affordability / permanent affordability requirements for all government-mandated programs or funded affordable housing.

Inclusionary Zoning

Across the country, jurisdictions of all sizes are facing a serious chronic lack of affordable housing even for the not-so-very poor. Inclusionary Zoning is a tool available to municipalities which allows them to invite or mandate that a certain percentage of low-/moderately-priced housing be included in new developments along with market-rate houses. 

Typically, inclusionary zoning does not reach the lowest incomes, i.e. extremely low and very low incomes, these programs are targeted more toward the moderate– low and moderate area income levels. It is estimated that over 100 municipalities have adopted such ordinances throughout the US which have resulted in over 17,000 moderately-priced dwelling (housing) units being built. 

Ordinances typically include the following components:

  • minimum project size (number of housing units) that triggers program participation;
  • density bonuses and other incentives as at least partial compensation for producing affordable units;
  • definition of an “affordable” level of housing prices or rents;
  • income limits to determine households eligible for affordable units (usually a range of the regional median household income);
  • establishment of a period during which resale prices or rental increases are controlled to maintain the supply of affordable housing;
  • provide guidelines for the location and design of affordable units within market-rate development;
  • identify an agency or other entity that will be responsible for managing the program and monitoring the condition and turnover of units developed under the program.
  • substitution for affordable units. Developers are also allowed to contribute to the locality’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund in lieu of building units.

In Delaware, New Castle County proposed a mandatory inclusionary zoning program which has subsequently become a voluntary “workforce housing” ordinance, which does not provide for multifamily development. 

Sussex County has created a voluntary Moderately Priced Housing Unit (MPHU) program that encourages both single family homeownership and rental housing.

Shared Equity Homeownership

In Delaware, as land is developing at accelerating rates– primarily for upper-income households’ vacation or retirement homes at the same time that area low to moderate income wages are stagnating, the American Dream is quickly receding for many working Delawareans. It is also becoming clear that other models of housing and land ownership need to be seriously considered if there is any chance at balancing the use of land yet available with the basic human right to affordable, decent housing. 

Many researchers conclude that the only way to seriously address this crisis is by implementing models which separate the ownership of the land from the housing unit. 

Cooperatives, mutual housing associations and community land trusts are models of limited equity home ownership. Detailed below is a discussion of the community land trust (CLT) model. 

The Institute for Community Economics (ICE) has been working to establish, strengthen and maintain community land trusts throughout the US for over 35 years. Key features of a “classic“ community land trust are: non profit, tax-exempt organization; dual ownership; leased land. The CLT acquires the land, while the structures on the CLT land are purchased by the household with a long-term (e.g. 99 year) lease on the land on which the house sits; Perpetual Affordability- the CLT retains the option to repurchase any residence if the owner wants to sell. By setting a resale formula which limits the profit by the homeowner from receiving a full market rate return on investment, future modest income homeowners are also assured access to affordable housing. 

The primary objectives are 1) to make home ownership affordable to a households of modest means, 2) to allow families the chance to participate in a community that pulls together, and 3) to provide opportunity for creating wealth that can be realized by the household, or be passed onto their heirs. 

In Delaware, the West Rehoboth Community Land Trust has been established by leaders in that Sussex County community. The WRCLT will purchase land and build houses which will stay perpetually affordable in an area where in recent years, the price of land and housing has soared well beyond working families’ means. 

A second, regional CLT , the Diamond State Community Land Trust, has being established as a statewide CLT, focusing its initial efforts on Kent and Sussex Counties. 

The three efforts described above are exemplary methods, demonstrating that access to affordable housing and equitable, efficient use of land can be achieved. As with any other model, their progress needs to be studied and adjusted for local implementation. Other models such as land conservancy, conservation easements and cooperatives can support or complement these goals.