Equitable Adaptation Legal & Policy Toolkit

 

Resilient Affordable Housing, Anti-Displacement & Gentrification

Introduction

Hurricane Katrina led to the largest internal migration in the United States since the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.See footnote 1 An estimated 1.5 million residents in the Gulf Coast,See footnote 2 including 400,000 in New Orleans, fled or were evacuated. Thousands remain permanently displaced; of those displaced, black residents were the least likely to return.See footnote 3

A green house and a white house with broken or empty windows and debris around them. Two people in hard hats and construction vests examine the area.
Damaged homes in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2006. (Credit: Gregory Varnum, Wikimedia Commons)

In the aftermath of Katrina, the lack of affordable housing remains one of the primary and lingering barriers to residents returning to New Orleans, which —like the rest of the country —had already been experiencing severe housing shortages before the levees broke and destroyed much of the city’s affordable housing stock. Home prices and rental rates for the remaining housing skyrocketed, and low-income residents in New Orleans were significantly less likely to have access to affordable housing than elsewhere in the United States.See footnote 4 Ten years after Katrina, the availability of public housing for low-income residents in New Orleans still numbered at 40% of where it was before the hurricane.See footnote 5 Building new, affordable housing remains a challenge, particularly in areas like the Lower Ninth Ward, which saw declines in homeownership in a neighborhood that had previously held one of the highest rates of African-American homeownership in the country.See footnote 6 

Hurricane Katrina led to sizeable demographic shifts in the Gulf Coast region,See footnote 7 a phenomenon repeated again and again in communities hard-hit by hurricanes, wildfires, and other climate disasters.See footnote 8 These experiences exemplify the mounting climate threat to housing options for low-income residents. Even prior to the current COVID-19 health and economic crisis, the United States faced a nationwide shortage of seven million affordable and available homes for the lowest income renters, a problem that is exacerbated by natural disasters as they increase in intensity and frequency.See footnote 9 The combined forces of climate change and the housing crisis are felt most acutely by low-income residents, communities of color, the elderly, and disabled people.  These frontline communities are more likely to live in flood-prone areas or in neighborhoods that require the most resilience investments but have limited resources to recover physically, economically, and socially from extreme weather events.

Even without climate disasters and sudden, large-scale dislocations, sea-level rise and extreme weather pose threats to the availability of safe, secure, and affordable housing for frontline communities. In Miami, homes in historically segregated and underinvested-in neighborhoods — frequently located on higher ground — are seeing faster rates of appreciation than homes in wealthier neighborhoods that are located at lower elevations and more physically exposed.See footnote 10 In neighborhoods like Little Haiti and Liberty City, black and Latinx residents are facing development pressures that increase the cost of living and housing, which contributes to the eventual displacement of entire communities as wealthier residents move in.See footnote 11

The need for climate-resilient, affordable housing is critical to frontline communities in cities across the country as they recover from and prepare for extreme weather. Households with lower rent burdens have more adaptive capacity to bounce back and stay in place after a natural disaster. Meanwhile, cost-burdened households — or those that spend over 30% of income on housing — are more likely to face poor health and underemployment and less likely than other households to access educational opportunities or increase wealth.See footnote 12 Housing stability is also integral to community resilience, helping to enhance social cohesion, build community ties, and enable residents to stay better connected — particularly during extreme weather or other emergencies when neighbors often become each others’ first responders.See footnote 13

As the need for climate-resilient, affordable housing becomes more pressing, cities will need to consider a multi-pronged strategy with solutions that address the full scope of climate threats to frontline communities — physical, economic, and social. Legal and policy tools should focus not only on increasing the availability of affordable housing, but also strengthening the resilience of housing to climate change impacts through measures that counter, rather than exacerbate, displacement and gentrification. Importantly, effective tools that promote resilience and equity in equal measure must also be guided by an explicit understanding of the reinforcing nature of social inequity and housing inequity. Accordingly, as highlighted in many of the case studies discussed in this chapter, city initiatives to increase resilient, affordable housing should be accompanied by meaningful community engagement through the entire lifecycle of the program, from development to implementation.

Goals for Resilient Affordable Housing

This chapter describes equitable approaches to enhancing the resilience of affordable housing options, including approaches designed to accomplish the following goals:

  • Preserve and create affordable housing;
  • Increase sustainability and resilience of new and existing housing; and
  • Minimize displacement.

Background

Several converging factors have contributed to the chronic, nationwide housing shortage and its acute impact on communities of color. The legacies of discriminatory housing policies continue to restrict access to affordable housing for low-income households and communities of color. Policies like exclusionary zoning have segregated the most disenfranchised communities into high-density areas, creating a physical divide from higher-income areas that have greater access to community resources. Meanwhile, the practice of redlining discouraged investments in communities of color and limited access to financial resources for securing housing that is affordable and stable, posing a significant barrier to wealth generation and upward mobility.

Since the 1980s, federal funding has also been redirected from projects creating public and subsidized housing to those that leverage the private market through tax incentives. However, in recent years, federal funding of affordable housing through the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program – one of primary incentives for producing affordable housing in the private market –  has diminished significantly.  With decreased funding and increased demand, existing programs administered under the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) have failed to keep pace with modern affordable housing needs, spurring a housing affordability crisis in many cities and regions across the United States. Accordingly, cities are now playing an increasingly larger role in the creation and preservation of affordable housing, such as by encouraging inclusionary zoning to trigger private development of affordable homes.

Climate hazards like urban heat and flooding can exacerbate housing insecurity, most directly when extreme weather events or disasters decrease the availability of housing stock and displace residents. However, the very process of enhancing resilience to climate change impacts —for example through building retrofits— can increase the cost of construction and market value of a home and, replicated across a neighborhood, render entire communities less affordable for both renters and homeowners. Additionally, climate change can also increase the total cost of housing for residents, for example, when energy costs are increased due to the need for additional cooling during heat waves, or when insurance rates increase for homeowners living in flood-prone or wildfire-prone areas. An equitable process for increasing resilient, affordable housing must therefore consider a full array of community needs, which could include factors that affect: the natural environment (e.g., percent of tree cover, green space, impervious surfaces); livelihoods and mobility (e.g., access to public transit, job access, education); social connection and well-being (e.g., public safety, cultural connections); and community power (e.g., governance structures, methods of decision making and consensus building), to name a few.

Key Players

Implementing solutions for climate resilient affordable housing requires the collaboration of multiple stakeholders from diverse sectors. Many of the case studies in this chapter illustrate the potential for public-private partnerships, as well as collaborations with nonprofits and community development organizations, to develop housing solutions in cities. Key players in efforts to support resilient affordable housing include:

  • City agencies (e.g., Public Housing Agencies (PHAs), Departments of Housing and Community Development) – City agencies are authorized to oversee housing programs, administer federal funding for affordable housing development, and allocate tax credits to support projects that create or preserve resilient affordable housing.
  • Community organizations and nonprofits (e.g., land trusts) – Community organizations aggregate funding, personnel, and legal resources to aid local efforts to support resilient affordable housing.
  • Financial institutions and nonprofit developers (e.g., Community development financial institutions (CDFIs), Community Development Corporations (CDCs)) – Nonprofit developers can utilize their skills in navigating disjointed funding sources to drive the development and preservation of resilient affordable housing.
  • Resident and tenant associations – Resident and tenant associations enable residents to prevent existing affordable housing from entering the private market through programs that support tenant purchase programs (e.g., Washington, D.C.’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Assistance, or TOPA) or demand resilient design improvements be made to the existing buildings.

This chapter provides an overview of five tools that cities can use to support resilient affordable housing: 1) planning tools that can help city governments prioritize resilience and housing needs within a community; 2) regulatory tools; 3) funding tools to support housing retrofits or enhance resilience features in new housing; 4) community protections and agreements; and 5) community land trusts, a community-led housing tool that promotes community land ownership and control.

Tools

Planning Tools for Housing

City governments are increasingly paying special attention to the resilience needs of the affordable housing community within their broader adaptation strategies and planning processes. Many cities already provide important information, including future climate hazard data and information on populations at greatest risk. This information can help owners and developers of affordable housing protect their assets. By developing specific assessment tools to determine the probability that a climate hazard may occur — in conjunction with evaluating the adaptive capacity of at-risk populations — cities can enable property owners and developers to better prioritize resilience strategies to protect residents, buildings, and communities from extreme weather. This section includes tools to inform planning and design for resilient affordable housing, including vulnerability and risk assessments and design guidelines and manuals for affordable housing.

Regulatory Tools for Housing

Regulatory tools like zoning ordinances and building codes, which govern uses of the land and regulate the building of structures, can form part of a comprehensive affordable housing and climate resilience strategy. This section focuses on two categories of regulatory tools for resilient affordable housing: inclusionary zoning; and zoning ordinances and building codes. Inclusionary zoning generates affordable housing through the private market by requiring or incentivizing developers to designate a percentage of units in new housing projects at below-market rate. Cities can also incorporate climate resilience measures in zoning ordinances and building codes to increase the flood-resilience of new housing or retrofitted buildings, for example by requiring additional freeboard for construction in the floodplain or preventing development altogether in flood-prone areas.

Funding Tools for Housing

Funding tools can be deployed to build new as well as retrofit or preserve existing affordable housing. However, multiple factors present challenges funding resilience investments in affordable. Foremost, funding to support housing needs is already low, leaving few resources for retrofits or resilience upgrades that prepare existing and new housing for climate change impacts. 

Community Protections and Agreements

Low-income populations, people of color, and the elderly are more likely than other groups to be affected by climate gentrification, which refers to the displacement of existing urban populations as a result of climate change impacts, attributed to both the geographic exposure of one’s home (e.g., whether an apartment building is located in the floodplain) or its degree of resilience to those impacts (e.g., whether the building is elevated). As homeowners and developers increasingly turn to weather-proofing measures and other resilience upgrades, the use of community benefit agreements (CBAs) and certain tenant and renter protections can help reduce the rate of displacement, even if not reversing the process of gentrification.

Community Land Ownership: Community Land Trusts

Community land trusts can be helpful partners to cities in advancing affordable, sustainable, and resilient housing options and combating gentrification and displacement. Community land trusts (CLTs) are nonprofit organizations designed to enable community control and stewardship of land for uses that benefit the public. CLTs have been particularly successful at preserving affordable housing by removing land from the speculative market.

  Funding Tools for Economic Resilience Planning Tools for Housing