University of Wisconsin–Madison


Written by Walker Kahn, Max Prestigiacomo, Gianmarco Katz

What's the Problem?

While private markets provide adequate luxury housing, local governments must ensure that well-built, affordable housing is available to everyone. High-quality affordable housing is critical to a thriving community—making it a critical focus of local government policymaking. Traditionally, affordable housing for families is defined as costing 30 percent or less of household income, or as 30 percent or less of the median income in a given area. Unfortunately, affordable housing is becoming increasingly rare: since 1965, the cost of housing has increased 150% more than worker income. Moreover, housing price is only element of affordability: what at first appears reasonably priced housing might not be so affordable once things like the cost of energy and transportation are included.

Poor housing quality also negatively affects public health. Local governments should implement strong building codes, fire codes, and maintenance standards. Local governments must work to educate homeowners, landlords, and tenants about their rights and responsibilities—and must be willing to regularly enforce these policies and codes.

What are People Currently Doing?

Data & Planning

Local governments should work together to create comprehensive regional housing plans. For clear recommendations on developing intergovernmental planning and collaborations, see the ProGov21 Regional Coordination Roadmap.

Tailoring housing policy to local needs requires high-quality data on both the demand and supply in local markets. Local Housing Solutions’ free Housing Needs Assessment tool uses census data to create reports describing demographics, housing affordability, housing stock characteristics, and key housing indicators. Camden, NJ aggregates data across industries like criminal justice and healthcare from both private and public entities. Some cities mandate or incentivize data collection by landlords as part of the permitting process. New York City has successfully integrated permitting data into policymaking: the city’s building code requires energy efficiency reporting, and this data has been used to update and implement building energy efficiency standards.

Building Codes, Enforcement, and Education

Code enforcement and landlord licensing can be used to preserve high-quality affordable housing. Proactive Routine Inspections (PRIs) lead to earlier identification of code violations compared to reactive inspections triggered by tenant complaints. Applying PRIs based on compliance history, prioritizing randomized unit inspections in multifamily housing properties, or using routine exterior inspections to trigger interior inspections can reduce the costs of PRI programs. When inspections uncover problems, rent abatement can incentivize landlords to comply by reducing tenants’ rents until the property is brought up to code. There are high barriers to effective rent abatement programs: tenants are often unaware of their rights, and the processes often involve applications, fees, and hearings. Los Angeles has reduced these barriers: if a landlord fails to remediate, the city’s Rent Escrow Account Program (REAP) allows tenants to pay reduced rent into escrow, and if landlords cannot afford remediation, the city offers low-interest loans, releases escrow funds for this purpose, or conducts remediation themselves, recouping the costs by placing a lien on the property. When mitigation efforts or code violations result in tenants being displaced, cities may allocate funds, require landlords to cover relocation expenses, or place a lien on the property to finance relocation. Enforcement penalties should focus on facilitating compliance, preserving affordable housing, and avoiding displacement. Further, policymakers should consider the unintended consequences of overly punitive enforcement policies: while enforcement improves housing quality, costs are often transmitted to tenants.

Local jurisdictions can use landlord licensing and tenant education to stop problems before they start. Kansas City, MO requires property registration, licensing, and annual renewal, creating accountability. Anne Arundel County, MD mandates licenses as a prerequisite in the eviction process to incentivize registration. Localities like Chicago, IL require lease agreements to inform tenants of their rights and include compliance standards complaint forms. Landlord education programs can reduce eviction rates and costs for landlords, tenants, and local jurisdictions.


Zoning is an effective tool for promoting affordable housing. Multifamily zoning laws allow for the development of multi-unit residential buildings on parcels of land zoned for single-family occupancy. The Home In Tacoma housing plan creates opportunities for multi-unit housing in many areas of Tacoma, WA that were single-family only. Arlington, VA expanded housing options by ending mandatory single-family zoning. Richfield, MN passed a zoning law to allow for duplexes in formerly single-family exclusive neighborhoods and reduced the minimum lot size to allow for more units to be built on a parcel of land. Inclusionary zoning promotes affordable housing (without new public spending) by requiring or incentivizing market-rate developments to include a set number of affordable units, usually in exchange for regulatory incentives like density bonuses or height allowances. This briefing book from the Zoning for Diverse Housing Types panel provides strategies and examples of successful zoning reforms. This 2019 New Orleans ordinance establishes mandatory inclusionary zoning sub-districts, and sets affordability limits, density bonuses, and design standards.

Cities can also update zoning to enable for Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). ADUs are secondary dwelling units on the same property as the primary residence and can vary anywhere from basement and attic units to detached outdoor units. ADUs should require inspections and permitting to ensure compliance and promote quality housing conditions and overall well-being. This Chicago ordinance enables ADUs across the city. ADUs are a popular way for seniors to live near children while maintaining an independent living space. AARP offers informative policy resources and model legislation promoting ADUs.

Taking it to the Next Level

Housing Affordability, Transportation, and Energy Efficiency

Transportation costs are place-based, and supposedly cheap housing becomes expensive once the cost of transportation to necessary resources like high-quality employment and food is accounted for. Transportation is usually a household’s second-largest expenditure after housing, and low-income communities with access to lower-cost transportation options (like public transportation) experience lower eviction rates. To maximize the benefits of housing, housing must be planned and built together with transportation. Transportation policy should be co-created with housing policy to maximize the effectiveness of transportation and to improve housing affordability. The Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Housing + Transportation Index presents housing and transportation costs together from the neighborhood to the regional level through maps and statistics covering more than 90 percent of the U.S. population. See the ProGov21 Transportation & Mobility Roadmap for more on efficient transportation systems and their impact on housing.

Like transportation costs, energy costs are a hidden component of housing affordability. More than thirty percent of all energy consumed in homes is wasted, and another thirty percent goes to heating and cooling—meaning that improving a home’s energy efficiency through retrofitting or similar policies can greatly reduce energy costs. See the ProGov21 Building Energy Efficiency Roadmap for more on improving housing energy efficiency and reducing associated socioeconomic disparities.

Allies, Comrades, and Helpers

  • Center for Neighborhood Technologies: A Chicago-based research institute creating resources for progressive local government policy around transportation, land use, and economic development.
  • National Homelessness Law Center: A national network of pro bono lawyers litigating to end homelessness and strengthen the social safety net. In partnership with state and local advocates, they work to pass and enforce laws to address the immediate and long-term needs of those who are homeless or at risk.
  • National Low Income Housing Coalition: The NLIHC, based in Washington, DC, lobbies for providing affordable housing for extremely low-income people. It also provides research and policy analysis.
  • National Housing Law Project: A legal organization engaged in advocacy and litigation to strengthen housing affordability and tenants’ rights. It also provides trainings and research.
  • Homes for All: A national coalition that advances shared policy initiatives that lead to housing stability for all. It also runs state-level Homes for All coalitions.
  • Eviction Lab: A team of researchers, students, and website architects at Princeton University publishing data sets on evictions in America.
  • Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America: A non-profit, community advocacy and homeownership organization providing working people counsel and enabling workers with poor credit to purchase a home or modify a predatory loan.
  • Preservation of Affordable Housing: A nonprofit developer, owner, and operator of affordable homes in eleven states and Washington, DC.
  • Coalition for Property Tax Justice: A collective of Detroit grassroots organizations formed to stop unconstitutional property tax assessments, compensate Detroit residents who have already lost their homes through illegal tax foreclosures, and suspend pending property tax foreclosures until it is confirmed that the delinquent taxpayers were not unconstitutionally assessed.
  • National Alliance to End Homelessness: A Washington, DC-based nonprofit using lobbying and research to end homelessness.

Mayor's Innovation home page

Mayors Innovation Project, our sister organization, is a national learning network for mayors committed to shared prosperity, environmental sustainability, and efficient democratic government.


Remove Entry

Are you sure you want to remove this?

There was an error communicating with the server.

Please try again later.

There was an error while saving your data.

Please try again later.


Please try again later.

Update Page Content

You are leaving the page

Please make sure you saved all of the modules to avoid losing any data.