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Thinking Creatively About Fair and Affordable Housing

These brick townhouses are part of Philadelphia's Friends' Housing Cooperative founded in 1952 by the Quakers to create affordable housing in an urban setting. They date from the 1850’s and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Besides air, shelter is the second most important human survival need, as it protects people from the harsh elements of nature. From the lens of economic development, this idea extends to housing, which serves as a safe space for people to live, learn, and work. Ultimately, our work in economic development extends beyond “survival” and strives to support thriving communities. For communities to thrive, we must work to promote quality, affordably priced housing that serves all people so that all community members, in turn, are equipped to contribute to their economies fully.

With housing prices reaching record highs across the U.S., and new housing starts still well below pre-pandemic levels, communities need to think creatively about how to increase housing access and affordability. Below are a few housing initiatives our team has been examining as we develop strategies to promote quality, affordably priced housing in the communities and economies where we work.

Cooperative Housing

Philadelphia’s Friends Housing Cooperative was founded in 1952 by resident members with the mission of creating and maintaining affordable urban housing for a diverse community within proximity to Philadelphia’s Center City. The housing cooperative is formed as a corporate entity that owns the physical real estate and transfers the right to occupy designated units to individual shareholders. In addition to occupancy rights, shareholders determine the cooperative's policies and elect a Board of Directors from the general membership to lead business, operational, and financial decisions for the corporate entity. The low purchase price for each unit is determined by the number of shares designated for that unit, dependent on square footage. Annually, each unit accrues an additional stipend that increases shareholder’s equity in the unit. The cooperative also offers a limited number of units for rent at market rates. Under this model, members of Friends Housing Cooperative work together to ensure continued prosperity for its block of townhomes, landscaped grounds, and shared amenities.

CHN Housing Partners (CHN) is an affordable housing developer and housing service provider based in Cleveland, Ohio, that helps more than 50,000 families each year, including low-income individuals, seniors, the disabled, and the homeless – to improve their housing stability. CHN partners with cities and organizations, utility companies, financial institutions, and public agencies to manage and deliver large-scale housing resources to the community. The organization has helped 2,700 new low-income homeowners, developed 7,000 homes, and contributed to an 80% drop in chronic homelessness counts.

Piloted by the Pennsylvania Department of Aging, the Shared Housing and Resource Exchange program (SHARE), currently operating in seven mostly rural counties, connects elderly homeowners with individuals seeking housing. The arrangement provides the homeowner income to help with expenses, a responsible tenant, and help around the house. In turn, the tenant receives a private room and reduced rent. SHARE housing counselors work with both parties to match homeowners and home seekers, conduct reference and background checks, and provide ongoing support during the term of the agreement.

The SHARE program allows older residents to stay in their homes while providing affordable housing for those in need.

SHARE participants must be at least 18 years of age and one of the individuals in the match must be over 60. This unique arrangement can assist veterans, college students, those living with disabilities, and others who may be at risk of homelessnes find stable housing while allowing elderly homeowners to stay in their homes.

Land Banks and Land Recycling

Broadly speaking, land banks are typically non-profit or government affiliated public authorities that purchase, manage, and redevelop or redistribute properties. Land banks can take many forms, some, such as the State College Community Land Trust purchase homes at market rate, makes necessary repairs and energy efficiency improvements, and then re-sell the homes to eligible buyers at an affordable, below market rate. The homeowner owns the house but leases the land from the trust, thus making the home affordable while funding the trust so that they may purchase other properties. When the homeowner is to sell, they agree to sell at a price set by the trust, earning a portion of the increase in value while keeping the home affordable for the next buyer.

Land Banks and Land Recycling programs are solutions for returning abandoned or delinquent properties to the tax base while providing affordable housing.

In Pittsburgh, as much as one quarter of the City’s footprint is abandoned and vacant land that the government does not fully control. Working with the City’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, Fourth Economy conducted an analysis to map these properties and conducted extensive interviews and activities to investigate the challenges and barriers to acquiring and repurposing vacant, tax-delinquent properties. Fourth Economy produced a Land Recycling Handbook resulting in enhanced coordination between the 10-agencies/ authorities that have some role in property in the City, identified approximately 5,000 parcels that should be ‘pushed’ to a green use (e.g. park, green stormwater component etc) and not redeveloped, and properties that could be held by the Land Bank for future use to address changing housing needs.

Accessory Dwelling Units

Portland, OR is one of several communities in the U.S. with an Urban Growth Boundary put in place to manage sprawl. In response to a growing need for housing, the city of Portland expanded their zoning to allow for up to two Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) on residential lots. ADUs, sometimes known derisively as “mother-in-law suites”, must be permitted and meet building code standards but can be as small as 100sf, meaning shed conversions, tiny homes, and other creative structures can help add in-fill housing and meet the city’s growing demand for market rate and affordable rental housing.

Communities may need to revisit zoning ordinances and housing codes to allow for creative solutions for adding housing inventory. Such changes can reduce sprawl and provide residents with broader housing options.

Fixing ‘Section 8’ Housing

The National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC) has published a mapping tool indicating Source of Income (SOI) laws protecting renters from discrimination based on their income throughout the US. The map illustrates where statewide and districtwide SOI laws exist across the county. The tool also maps local SOI ordinances and the Section 8 Housing Voucher program.

NMHC believes in the potential of the public-private Section 8 housing choice voucher program as the country’s most effective affordable housing and community development tool. Yet it also recognizes the existing barriers that disincentivize private housing providers from accepting vouchers and prevent the program from reaching its full impact potential. According to NMHC, the program is hindered by inefficiencies such as burdensome regulatory requirements and a flawed funding system. While Congress made participation by housing providers voluntary, state and federal governments are enacting laws that make it illegal for private owners to refuse to rent to Section 8 voucher holders.

Assistance to Rural Communities

The Housing Assistance Council (HAC) is a national nonprofit that supports affordable housing throughout rural communities. HAC’s recent research provides insight into the decline of affordable rental housing in rural America. Section 515 Rural Rental Housing properties financed by the USDA have served as an essential source of housing in many rural communities since the programs started in 1963. According to HAC, Section 515 loans have financed nearly 28,000 rental properties containing over 533,000 affordable apartment homes across rural America. Yet the availability of Section 515 housing is steadily declining. According to HAC’s recent report:

  • 87% of U.S. counties have at least one USDA Section 515 property

  • 21,693 Section 515 units exited USDA's portfolio between 2016 and 2021

  • ⅔ of USDA Section 515 tenants are elderly or disabled

  • $13,640 equates to the average annual income of USDA Section 515 tenants

Since 1971, HAC has provided below-market financing for affordable housing and community development, technical assistance and training, research and knowledge sharing, and policy work to advance equitable solutions supporting rural communities' lives. Their efforts support the more than 60 million people living in rural America, focusing on the most underserved, highest need groups and regions. Through direct financial support and technical assistance, HAC connects local organizations to resources to build their capacity and improve the quality of life in their communities.

Access to fair and affordable housing isn't just an urban issue.

USDA’s Rural Housing Service (RHA) offers various programs, including loans and grants to help communities build or improve housing and essential facilities in rural areas. RHA provides funding for single and multifamily housing, including workforce housing for critical community workers such as farm laborers and emergency responders. Programs are available for low and very-low-income buyers purchasing new or existing homes, as well as homeowners financing repairs and maintenance. In addition to rural housing, RHA also promotes the development of facilities essential to maintaining the quality of life and work in rural communities. Such facilities include child care centers, fire and police stations, hospitals, libraries, nursing homes, and schools. RHA expands its reach and impact by providing technical assistance loans and grants in partnership with non-profit organizations, Indian tribes, state and federal government agencies, and local communities. These programs include rural housing site loans for organizations purchasing and developing sites for eligible households, as well as housing preservation grants for organizations administering the rehabilitation of eligible housing.

We Can Help!

Fourth Economy has a long track-record of providing quantitative and qualitative analysis to address housing needs, identify impediments to fair housing, and assisting communities with identifying strategies and creating implementable plans for expanding access to fair and affordable housing .


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