Optimizing land use for affordable homes

map of the U.S. with green dots

Check out our interactive map to see areas where local and state Habitat organizations have successfully changed housing policies to optimize land use for affordable homes.

Zoning restrictions and high land prices make it prohibitively difficult to optimize land use for building or preserving affordable homes in opportunity-connected communities. That’s why the Cost of Home campaign includes advocacy for policies related to land acquisition, use and development.

Approaches to creating more equitable access to land:

  • Reforming zoning ordinances and design manuals to allow for a greater variety of housing types.
  • Streamlining discretionary land use approvals to reduce the time, risk and cost of building affordable homes.
  • Mandating or incentivizing the inclusion of affordable homes in new market-rate development.
  • Using public land for affordable homes.
  • Fostering community land trusts and other shared-equity models to help land remain available for affordable homes over the long term.
  • Creating land banks that facilitate redevelopment of abandoned properties with affordable housing.

In this video, see how Habitat’s advocacy work in diverse areas — Charlottesville, Virginia; Gaithersburg, Maryland; Los Angeles; Milwaukee; Seattle; Spokane, Washington — is reshaping land policies that lead to more affordable homes and more equitable opportunities for all residents.

How does restrictive zoning and land price limit land use for affordable homes?  

  • In some towns and city neighborhoods, zoning ordinances ban small-lot homes, cottages or multi-family housing. 
  • In other communities, strict zoning limits and discretionary approval processes can drive up the time, risk and cost of building affordable homes to the point that their development is not viable
  • In redeveloping and strong-market neighborhoods, high land prices can pose an even bigger barrier to affordable homes, as intense competitions heat up land costs and makes viable development opportunities scarce.

Solutions for equitable access to land use

The solutions lie in large part with local governments, says J. Ronald Terwilliger, former national managing partner of Trammell Crow Residential. 

“Land use decisions are principally made at the local level. We have to convince the mayors and city councils and county councils that we have a terrible crisis. There are a lot of things they can do.”

J. Ronald Terwilliger, former national managing partner of Trammell Crow Residential

The solutions can be many and overlapping, says Emily Thaden, director of national policy and sector strategy for Grounded Solutions Network, a national nonprofit that includes other nonprofits and local governments committed to creating affordable homes for rent and ownership. “When you’re talking about equitable land use and increasing the supply of affordable housing, you really need to explore the quilting together of different tools and policies.”

The solutions involve recognizing that every person and every household has meaningful neighborhood preferences, says Maya Brennan, Urban Institute senior policy associate. “Sometimes having a community land trust for rental housing is important or having ways to help high renter communities have affordable homeownership opportunities in that community as land values are rising — things like that can be important parts of equitable access to land.”

Solutions must also incorporate awareness of racially disparate barriers to housing and unequal levels of susceptibility to displacement. Habitat for Humanity International’s affiliate-inspired report on making land use policy more racially equitable illustrates how this awareness can lead to zoning and other land use reforms that are more inclusive and fair for people of color.

Local and state Habitat organizations are working across the country to bring down the cost of building and stimulate the production and preservation of affordable housing, to promote fair housing, and to fully reflect community needs.

Our impact

With still one more year of the campaign to go, check out our solutions in action:

Join us

Add your voice as Habitat advocates for policies related to land acquisition, use and development.

  • Aerial view of houses in a neighborhood

    Discover the ongoing impact the Cost of Home campaign on improving home affordability: explore policy successes supported by local and state Habitat organizations, strategies for advocacy practitioners to effect policy change and a policy assessment report by the Urban Institute.

  • Woman with sticker that says, "I enrolled!"

    Achieving policy solutions in the four areas laid out by our platform will enable families to have greater access to homes they can afford — and to all the opportunities that follow.