16 Affordable Housing Terms Everyone Should Know

The housing world is evolving and so is the vocabulary, says John Welsh of NHP Foundation.

John Welsh

Google “affordable housing terms,” and millions of results are available. Those of us in the affordable housing industry know just how daunting the vocabulary can be and how interesting. I took an informal poll of colleagues to compile a list of some key terms and acronyms for them now. It is especially appropriate to build our vocabulary as we enter a new year that will bring new terms to describe our evolving housing world.

  1. Activation in a real estate transaction is leveraging previously unused space in a building into usable, or potentially leasable, space at a property such as for retail or parking. This can also include adaptive reuse, e.g. office conversion to residential. With developable land ever more valuable, reimagining existing land/buildings can generate interesting, well-located housing.
  2. Biophilia is a hot topic in new home and residential development design connecting residents to nature by increasing provision of resources such as door plants, planters, fountains, terraces, and gardens, sometimes by way of adding stoops and porches. Good housing and the immediate surroundings are not only about what a resident sees but how the layered environment makes them feel.
  3. Build-to-rent units are also sometimes referred to as “horizontal apartments.” These homes (often developments of homes or scatter-site homes) are built specifically for long-term renters. In the Covid era, many renters placed a high value on access to a yard, patio, etc., while retaining the flexibility of rental housing.  This model provided both.
  4. Built environment includes all of the space residents live in and work at (e.g., homes, buildings, streets, open spaces, and infrastructure).  Executed well, the built environment positively influences many aspects of daily life.
  5. Coefficient of Performance (CoP) is a ratio that describes the efficiency of a system. It is based on the relationship between the power (kW) input to a system compared to the amount of power that is output (formula: CoP = power output / power input). As we implement ever more stringent sustainability standards, we will focus on greater energy efficiency from our HVAC and hot water heating systems. The higher the CoP, the greater the efficiency factor.
  6. Decarbonization is the reduction of carbon, particularly the reduction/elimination of combustion of fossil fuels in homes or businesses.  Many localities are establishing health and energy standards that prohibit the burning of natural gas for heating, hot water, cooking, and even transportation.
  7. Family-Centered Coaching calls on Resident Services Coordinators to partner with residents and their families holistically to broaden the dynamic from the individual to inclusion of the full family and recognizes that families change over time. This approach offers flexibility for families to guide the definitions, processes, and solutions. Combining resident-based services with family-centered coaching can help families to be more fully served and stable, leading to more sustainable communities.
  8. Housing as Health indicates that housing is a social determinant of health. Leveraging housing’s impact on residents’ health includes solutions such as onsite permanent supportive services, increased access to telehealth, building in proximity to health care and other programs to change the lives of those struggling with complex challenges. NHPF, among other organizations, has fielded studies that demonstrate the strong links between a solid, well-designed home and resident health.
  9. Inclusionary housing is a local zoning policy that uses profit from rising real estate values to create affordable housing for low to middle income families.  An inclusionary housing program might require developers to sell or rent 10 to 30 percent of new residential units to income-qualified residents. These properties tend to have a healthy mix of socio-economic characteristics and lead to long-term stability.
  10. Missing-middle housing was coined by Daniel Parolek, a nationally recognized architecture, design, and urban planning pro, to describe house-scale buildings with multiple units, compatible in scale and form with detached single-family homes, located in walkable neighborhoods featuring diverse housing options not built in recent years including duplexes, fourplexes, cottage courts, and multiplexes. Redeveloping for greater density options can expand housing affordability, building types, and “found” space that was previously overlooked. 
  11. Proptech, short for property technology, encompasses the range of tech tools the real estate industry uses to optimize the way we buy, sell, research, market, and manage property. This is a complicated area: While some businesses in this sector have led to lasting changes in real estate, some have caused disruptions in local markets that have displaced long-term residents.
  12. Renoviction describes an undesirable situation of a landlord citing the need for major renovations as cause for eviction. Although a commonly used term in Canada, it has made its way across the border.
  13. Rent reporting refers to the monthly reporting of resident rent payments to at least one consumer credit bureau, often by a business specializing in this reporting. Rent reporting provides a way for renters to establish a credit history. This is an important change, particularly for lower-income families, whose long-time practice of paying rent on-time had previously gone under-looked.
  14. Resilience is an increasingly critical component of safe and stable housing. Climate change and natural disasters signal that affordable housing developers must do more to provide solar, backup power as well as refuge areas, cooling/warming centers inside buildings that residents and community members can access in an emergency. Designing buildings to be all electric and including spaces for EV charging, for example, also helps whole communities move toward cleaner, more reliable energy sources.
  15. Trauma-informed services consider the physical, mental, and emotional pain residents of affordable housing communities experience that may impact their choices. Trauma-informed care takes into consideration the damaging effects that racism and poverty continue to have on individuals and communities.
  16. Vehicular homelessness occurs when people experiencing homelessness sleep/live in their cars. Many housing organizations are looking for housing solutions in resort communities, for example, where more and more people deal with this issue.

As we all gear up for a fast-paced year of housing transactions, polishing up on current industry vernacular will certainly help affordable housing teams be prepared.

John Welsh is senior vice president, Development, NHP Foundation. He supervises a team of project managers and acquisition professionals who identify sites, managing design teams, undertake entitlements, and finance NHP Foundation projects.

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