How Affordable Housing Can Work Towards Inclusion

In honor of Women's History Month, we are resharing Emmily De Los Santos' byline on six recommendations that should be implemented in affordable housing preservation and new construction.

Emmily De Los Santos

While 2020 is notable for much upheaval, uncertainty and unrest across the political, health-care and social justice spectrum in our country, it is also notable as a time of reckoning for decision-makers in areas such as affordable housing.

Those in the industry are looking to develop equitable housing options, resources, and inclusive community revitalization.  As a member of the APA NY Metro Chapter Diversity Committee and elected NYC section representative for the chapter, I recently attended the fourth annual Hindsight Conference which included a virtual keynote “fireside chat.” We explored innovative practices to influence the reimagination of institutions and systems that truly meet the needs of historically marginalized groups and promote social justice.

How does this exploration manifest itself in affordable housing? We are working to ensure that racial equity, social justice and resident services are just as solidly built into today’s affordable housing as sound design, plumbing and electrical.

To that end, here are six recommendations that should be implemented in affordable housing preservation and new construction. This combination of ideas will produce a winning, inclusive, equitable housing solution for families, individuals and seniors from low- to middle-income households.

Work to strengthen the low-income housing tax credit

While the provision remains the strongest tool in the affordable housing toolbox, fortifying state policies that encourage LIHTC development in high-opportunity neighborhoods would go a long way towards expanding housing access for Black, brown and indigenous people.

Additionally, the industry must work hand in hand with municipalities and lawmakers to help provide assurances that resulting housing remains affordable. This is best accomplished via improved coordination between LIHTC and rental assistance programs like Project Based Section 8. It is also incumbent upon the industry to communicate with and support bi-partisan members of Congress working to make LIHTC more effective at expanding opportunity for families with low incomes.

Looking through a different “land lens”

Most affordable housing built in the past was fairly “cookie cutter.” We propose taking in the whole of what is available to build on and customize it for the population who will live there. For example, surveys often show that a housing community has more land devoted to parking than needed and voila, usable land for something else that residents require. This could range from a community center for families and children to a community garden supplying fresh produce in a food desert.

By thinking strategically and creatively about underutilized or misutilized land, developers can build properties best suited to those who will live there. Specifically, developers can view the built environment as a catalyst for fighting social and racial injustice. This approach includes providing additional resources, such as a local grocery store, school, or medical facility, to improve resident quality of life. In many instances, this requires a strong partnership and a strategic and unique financing structure that supports both residential and commercial uses.

Make on-site programming intentional

Similar to customizing land use, there are exciting opportunities to shape resident services programming around the population. This means tailoring efforts beyond simple demographic decisions—more smoking cessation at a senior property, homework help at properties with children. We’re talking about meeting the needs of those with mental health and substance abuse issues, meaningful career-building efforts for job seekers and financial empowerment resources.

Furthermore, it is important to identify where additional support or specific expertise is needed, such as partnering with a local organization to provide high level case management services to residents living in permanent supportive housing units. These organizations engage on an individual level with residents to ensure they receive the best care needed in order to maintain a healthy life and their affordable home.

Promote innovative affordable housing work to potential partners and funders

“Success breeds success.” We are strong believers in sharing positive news of our affordable housing achievements: acquisitions, groundbreakings, ribbon-cuttings and any other events that demonstrate positive project progress. We also create case studies with meaningful results, e.g., how “green” efforts save on property expenses or how property rehabilitation can help reduce community crime.

Communications efforts also include regular social media postings, a quarterly newsletter, and sharing of editorials and op-eds. NHPF also takes pride in presenting annual symposia on relevant topics as well as securing speaking appearances and awards for the organization and its leaders. The goal of all marketing efforts here is to help move current investors to do more and “not yet investors” to jump on the affordable housing bandwagon.

Build partner and vendor teams through conscious, diverse choices

It took years and years to create business conditions that ensured the inclusion of women and minorities in the housing construction process. Today though, enlightened developers can throw away those antiquated notions of inclusion because you “have to” and embrace thoroughly qualified, talented individuals and companies doing great work that can distinguish and elevate any developer’s project and align much better with resident needs.

Specifically, when identifying a project, developers can put forward a Request for Proposals and share with networks that promote women and minority-owned businesses. Take time to build these partnerships and plan ahead to select from a well-diversified candidate pool.

Encourage and challenge planners/policymakers

The outcome of the recent APA NY Metro Chapter Conference led to this takeaway: we must apply a global, antiracist and decolonizing lens in our work to address the profession’s racially disproportionate environmental and health impacts and make affordable housing truly inclusive. We should also work closely with community leaders and stakeholders through strong engagement that embraces transparency and open communication to further understand current as well as future needs. The “savior” perspective and/or approach imbedded in the field needs to be eradicated and replaced with an inclusive and holistic one.

We are planning for cultural, societal shifts that emulate what author and activist Verna Myers means when she says, “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.”

Emmily De Los Santos joined NHPF in 2019. As a member of the acquisition/development and group, she is primarily responsible for supporting the financing, development and preservation of multifamily housing. 

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