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Breakthroughs: Successful Local Strategies for Affordable Housing
Volume 3 Issue 5        

African-American female college graduate standing in front of building with white columns

Aiming to Reduce Opposition to Affordable Housing


Regulatory barriers to affordable housing often arise out of negative views and attitudes toward such housing. Local government regulations, such as one-acre minimum lot sizes and restrictions on multi-family housing densities, can often be traced back to a collective fear of the unknown. Several states and communities have recently undertaken campaigns to combat these misconceptions and increase support for affordable housing. In so doing, they hope to reduce opposition and the Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) worldview, thereby reducing the tendency to create regulatory barriers. In this article, we’ll look at two efforts in the ‘reality check’ school of public opinion making: a long-term program in Minnesota and a more recent effort in Phoenix, Arizona.


Most communities that create affordable housing marketing campaigns have a reason for undertaking the activity. In Minnesota, there was no specific event that prompted state officials to take action, but rather, a general impression that many residents were opposed to affordable housing developments. In Phoenix, officials had the overarching goal of reducing NIMBYism, but it was being driven by a specific objective of generating support for an upcoming affordable housing bond issue.

Communication Strategy

One of the most important aspects to consider when developing an information campaign is to identify the audience and consider how best to deliver the message to that audience. According to Chip Hallbach, Executive Director of HousingMinnesota, the Minnesota effort used a number of communication methods to highlight the issue. According to Hallbach, “A variety of audiences were targeted, including the general public, with messages and images that highlighted the importance of housing for family stability and community vitality.” HousingMinnesota created a brochure, radio advertisements, advertisements on public transportation vehicles, and about 25 billboards that were strategically placed in four or five communities. As part of the effort, Governor Jesse Ventura recorded a message of support that was broadcast in several markets. According to Manny González, Director of the City of Phoenix Housing Department, Phoenix is focusing on six similarly worded messages that are being placed on 12 billboards strategically placed in high traffic areas throughout the City. Phoenix has also created posters for display in public buildings, nonprofit agencies, and campaign partner businesses.

Partners/Funding Sources

Working with the Family Housing Fund, the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund, and the state housing finance agency, the Minneapolis Foundation secured the services of a professional marketing firm to develop a viable outreach campaign. The state housing agency and HUD funded a portion of this project. The Foundation also enlisted a number of highly regarded business professionals to serve as trustees. The overall campaign cost approximately $400,000 over an 18-month period. Meanwhile, the City of Phoenix launched its campaign with funding through HUD’s Community Development Block Grant. Other sponsors included a consortium of seven organizations: Bank of America, Bank One, Fannie Mae Foundation, Harris Bank, Local Initiatives Support Corporation, the Phoenix Industrial Development Authority, and Wells Fargo Bank. To keep a lid on costs, Phoenix used city staff to create the text and the city public information office to create the layout of the billboards. When completed, the cost of the Phoenix campaign will run to approximately $155,000.

Bringing the Message Home

Minnesota featured young teachers, firefighters, police officers, seniors, cooks, day-care workers, and health-care attendants who serve the community in many important ways, but can’t afford to live there. One advertisement depicts a teacher with the tag line, “Meet another member of your community who needs an affordable place to live.” Phoenix’s advertisements featured photos of a recent college graduate, a city bus driver, a teacher, an elderly man, a disabled office worker, and a daycare provider.

Successful marketing campaigns usually employ at least two complementary strategies. They are not isolated activities, but are part of an overall program to promote affordable housing. In Minnesota, a public relations campaign was just one of three phases devised to increase awareness of the issue. In another phase, the outreach efforts were aimed at rallying businesses and faith-based organizations to support the affordable housing concept. One measure of their success is that more than 1,300 people attended a state conference promoting the development of affordable housing. HousingMinnesota is currently working with a research firm to develop indicators of housing success for a new housing program. They’re also looking for innovative ways to invest in affordable housing and are supporting a state tax credit for charitable donations that support housing.

In Phoenix, the initial goal was simply to raise awareness that those who need affordable housing include people from all economic strata. Mr. González said that Arizona State University, the State of Arizona, the City of Phoenix, U.S. HUD, and other public, private, and nonprofit partners have launched the Affordable Housing Initiative (AHI); a regional effort to promote support for affordable housing. On June 14, 2004, the AHI sponsored a day-long ‘Housing Summit 2004’ for the Governor’s Office. The Summit’s report describes affordable housing as “quality housing for Arizona’s workforce,” and presents a strong economic-based statement on the need for affordable housing.

Another important aspect of successful marketing campaigns is that advertisements must suggest action on part of the viewer. In the Minnesota campaign, the advertisements directed readers to the HousingMinnesota website for information on how to assist in the effort. The Phoenix billboard advertisements also contain a link to the City’s affordable housing website.

For More Information

Information is also available on a similar program in Maine. To view efforts being undertaken on a national scale, visit The Campaign for Affordable Housing.

Close-up of no parking sign that reads, "Violators Towed At Owner's Risk and Expense"

Parking Requirements and Infill Development


As hard as this may be for some of our younger readers to believe, many inner-city properties were developed in the days before mass production led to widespread use of the automobile. As a result, many core city properties have little if any parking for residents or guests. If owners do not enlarge or remodel these structures, or if they maintain their intended use as residential properties, most communities don’t force owners to meet current parking requirements. However, that tolerance ends when owners wish to convert, enlarge, or reconstruct these buildings. In such cases, local governments often require owners to meet existing parking requirements. More parking may be great news for auto enthusiasts, but it also tends to drive up the cost of housing. This is particularly true in urban areas, where land costs are already at a premium.

In many communities, modern parking requirements often discourage infill development by requiring the removal of landscaping, the purchase of additional nearby land, or in the most severe cases, a reduction in the number of units, in order to satisfy the regulatory requirement. Many local governments have noticed that these requirements are impeding revitalization efforts. In response, they’ve been developing alternatives that encourage redevelopment by easing the demand for parking when the objective is to promote or maintain affordability.

Requirements for Rehabilitation

Rehabilitation, conversion, and reconstruction are three widely used methods that owners and developers use to create new or repair old, affordable, single- and multi-family housing in urban neighborhoods. In an effort to minimize on-street parking demand, local governments often require that these improvements include parking for those who will occupy the new or rehabbed structures. Spokane requires that owners who increase the number of units in a residence or other structure containing sleeping rooms must provide parking spaces for all additional units. In addition, should developers wish to move a building to a new location, they must provide all required parking spaces. Las Vegas; Allentown, Pennsylvania; and Memphis only require owners of residential structures undergoing rehabilitation to provide parking for the increased demand that results from the rehabilitation. In Nashville, the rules are slightly different. If an expansion or change will increase the parking requirement by less than 25 percent, then the owner only has to provide the number of parking spaces required by the expansion or change. If the change increases the parking requirement by 25 percent or more, then the owner must provide all of the required parking. Since strict enforcement of these regs would discourage rehabilitation, many cities create options that owners and developers can use to meet the spirit of the requirements.

Proximate Parking Alternatives

Recognizing that many housing sites cannot provide adequate parking, Hartford, Memphis and Spokane offer a number of alternatives that strike a balance between parking and affordability. These cities each allow developers to secure space on other properties when certain criteria are met. Allentown requires that off-street parking must be on the same lot or on a lot directly abutting the proposed use. In Hartford, the other property must be within 500 feet of the development. The maximum distance in Memphis and Spokane is 300 and 600 feet, respectively. Most of these cities have multiple requirements for these alternative sites. Memphis and Hartford specifically require that the owner document in writing that the space will be available for the duration (as long as the project’s intended use remains the same). Hartford’s ordinance also requires that the parking cannot be used to satisfy other parking requirements.

Shared Parking Alternatives

Some communities also allow parking requirements to be met by sharing parking with other land uses. In Spokane, the statute allows a 20 percent reduction in the parking requirement if the owner shows that shared parking arrangements will reduce demand for parking. In Dayton, Ohio, the authors of a recent study recommend that the city consider allowing shared parking arrangements, because they recognize that various uses have different peak operating hours.


Many communities have opted to waive parking requirements for any type of housing, including affordable housing, where the new units are close to public transit facilities. Nashville, for example, allows the owner or developer to reduce the required parking by 10 percent if the development is within 660 feet of a transit facility.

Other Parking Alternatives and Issues

Spokane exempts any new building or addition with less than 3000 square feet from the parking requirement. Memphis addresses situations where nonconforming buildings are damaged and need to be repaired. In cases where the destruction does not exceed 75 percent of the value of the building, current parking requirements do not apply. Where damage exceeds 75 percent, the current requirements are brought into play. In the Dayton study, the author suggests that developers be allowed to pay an in-lieu fee that would be used to pay for city-provided public parking facilities. The author also recommends that the city consider deferring construction of required parking spaces if the applicant anticipates the demand for parking will be less than the city’s minimum requirement.

Level of Review

In addition to the statutory requirements, local governments have created a number of devices to streamline the permission process for adjusting parking requirements. In Hartford, the City Council must vote to allow the reduction or elimination of required parking, while Allentown lets the Zoning Hearing Board waive some of the parking requirements. Spokane gives the planning director authority to grant exemptions, while Memphis provides the building official with authority to make such decisions.


With the demand for both parking and affordable housing growing each year, local governments are often faced with tough decisions about which need is most important. Many communities are working to balance these often-conflicting demands through innovative programs that allow for some flexible parking options that minimize any negative effects on affordable development and rehabilitation. If your community has an interesting story to tell about parking and affordable housing, please let us know so that it can be included as a resource in our searchable database.


Three workers repairing a road in front of new townhouses

Affordable Housing Task Forces and Regulatory Reform

As communities across the nation face increasingly high housing costs, many have responded by establishing task forces to examine affordability issues and identify what local governments can do to help. This article is the first of a three-part series that examines how local bodies have responded to the challenge of providing affordable housing. In this first article, we’ll look at administrative streamlining, building codes, infill, and development fee reform efforts in Burlington, Vermont; Pasadena, California; Columbus, Ohio; Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota; and Dallas, Texas. A second article, to be published in December, will study these same communities’ efforts to reform zoning regulations, tax policies, and state policies. The third article will examine how the task forces propose to measure success in implementing their respective approaches to regulatory reform.

Administrative Streamlining

Each of the task force reports we’ve examined recognizes that lengthy processing time increases the cost of developing affordable housing and needs to be addressed. The Burlington task force suggests that zoning permit hearings be ‘on the record’, so that any appeals would not have to restart the entire permit application process from scratch. They also recommend that the City not attempt to redesign projects under review.

The Pasadena and Columbus task forces suggest that their cities create a single body to approve affordable housing applications. Authorities in Columbus further recommend that the City provide technical assistance to developers and suggest that the City consider on-line plan review. They also recommend that the City provide developers with technical assistance and create a database of information on affordable housing resources.

Meanwhile, the task force in Dallas is encouraging the City to publish standard timelines for development reviews and to establish a process for tracking all types of development projects during the review process. Another suggestion is that the City create a web-based tracking tool for permitting information. Further, they say that Dallas should establish a single point of contact between the City and the developer during both the review and construction phases of development. They also encourage acceptance of third-party engineering work without extensive review, or perhaps eliminate outside reviews and take the work in-house. For affordable housing developments, they urge the adoption of a fast-track permitting process for affordable housing similar to the SMART process in Austin, Texas.

Building Codes

Many of the local task forces examine the role that building codes and the inspection process play in determining housing affordability. After a hard look at the way things have been, most recommend the adoption of various reform strategies. Burlington officials argue that the City should adopt a flexible rehabilitation sub-code. They also observed that the Fire Marshall’s approval of the initial plans indicates that substantive issues have been resolved and that the City Engineer be the final arbiter of any lingering differences. The Burlington task force further recommends that the City not enforce its life safety code until the City Council conducts an analysis on the impact of such enforcement on housing affordability.

The Minneapolis-St Paul regional study comes out in favor of easing the process of accepting new building technologies. They support the idea that the state and member governments streamline the review process to encourage the adoption of new technologies. (New building technologies often run up against established code, despite the fact that they often yield reduced construction times and materials costs, as well as improved energy performance cost efficiencies to the eventual occupants.) Two specific means for implementing this recommendation include developing model ordinances for the approval process and establishing a statewide uniform approval process for building codes. They also suggest that member governments seek input from trade associations as to the most effective incentives.

Rehabilitation and Infill

In most of the reports and plans reviewed, the task force members agreed that reducing the time and effort to secure land is a key strategy in any effort to redevelop deteriorating neighborhoods. Authorities in Columbus suggest that the City process properties that are tax delinquent or have been taken over through the nuisance abatement process more quickly, so they can be used to create affordable housing. They also suggest that the City actively support owners who agree to build affordable housing on infill properties. Further, they say that the City may want to act as the applicant to secure the necessary approvals for developing properties. The task force also recommends that the City attempt to obtain release of a tax delinquency collection account and use the money to secure tax delinquent property on Columbus’ behalf.

Further south, the Dallas report recommends that the City enter into an agreement where they could sell tax delinquent properties for less than market value, or for less than the judgments in place against the properties in certain designated areas. The report also proposes that affordable housing properties in a redevelopment plan area be sold to qualified buyers without having to conduct a sheriff’s sale.

Fees and Exactions

Several of the task forces examined the issue of fees and their impact on the cost of affordable housing. Those on the Burlington task force ask the City to study whether removing the fees on excavation and sewer connections would encourage new affordable housing development. They also recommend that the regional planning agency broker agreements between municipalities where the communities would reduce demand for new water and sewer facilities by sharing unused capacity.

The members of the Pasadena task force advise the City to increase the number and types of fees waived for affordable housing. See the fees proposed below.

Pasadena Fees Proposed for Waiver
  • Plan Check/Permit Fee (currently waived)
  • Construction Tax (currently waived)
  • Development Review Fee
  • Grading/Shoring Permit Fee
  • Residential Development Impact Fee
  • (includes Parks and Recreation Fee)
  • Sewer Connection Fee
  • Water Connection Fee
  • Excavation Permit Fee

Those in Dallas suggest that the City assist the housing authority by granting them waivers of building permit fees, just as the city does for non-profit Community Housing Development Organizations.


Local task forces recognize that slow approval processes, outdated building codes, restrictive infill ordinances and high fees have an impact on housing affordability. Many are trying to overcome these barriers by urging local governments to undertake reforms that will benefit those who build and occupy affordable housing. Please read our December issue to see how these bodies suggest how communities should attack zoning barriers, tax burdens and state restrictions.