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Land-Based Solutions

Using Public Land to Support Affordable Housing

Land is the basic element of development, and many jurisdictions control significant amounts of it. Oftentimes, these jurisdictions can sell surplus public land at below-market prices to affordable housing developers to facilitate the development of affordable housing.  Publicly owned land can be an extremely valuable resource for jurisdictions interested in expanding the supply of affordable housing, particularly since land can be a significant portion of a project’s costs. For example, a study by NHC of the Washington, D.C., area estimates that eliminating land costs from development can cover one-seventh to one-third of the affordability gap for affordable units, depending on the site’s local land market.

Using publicly owned land for affordable housing will generally have the most impact in high-cost, high-growth housing markets with greater land costs, where the financial value of discounted land is greatest for developers of mixed-income or fully affordable housing. For example, New York City has found new opportunities to develop new affordable homes by using former schools, hospitals, and underutilized parking lots. Certain types of locations, such as surface parking lots or low-density structures, can also be redeveloped as a mixed-used property to both fulfill the original use and provide affordable homes.

However, lower-cost or slow-growth markets also provide opportunities for localities to acquire land to be used for future redevelopment. Creating and supporting land banking initiatives in down markets is one of the most effective ways for jurisdictions to manage their surplus real estate holdings. Land banks help to keep down the soft costs associated with holding land until the market is ready for new development and permanent financing can be arranged. Providing political and financial support to community land trusts (CLTs) is also much easier in down markets when there is less pressure for market-rate development.

Jurisdictions in low-cost areas might also consider how the adaptive reuse of historical or culturally significant buildings for affordable housing can help strengthen the community fabric while also providing affordable housing opportunities (see examples here and here). Adaptive reuse can be more difficult and costlier than developing housing on undeveloped land, but the added effort and expense may benefit the entire community by preserving a treasured old school, hospital, community center, or other local landmarks.

Strategic considerations in using public land

Identify opportunities

Agencies at all levels of government own land that could potentially be used to increase the supply of affordable homes. The first step is for all departments and agencies to identify any publicly owned parcels that may have room for residential development. This includes surplus parcels, undeveloped or underdeveloped portions of actively used sites, and low-density structures in areas suited for higher densities. Available parcels can then be evaluated for housing development potential, and properties that are available and suitable can be used for affordable homes.

In most communities, publicly owned land is controlled by numerous separate agencies, such as school boards, hospital boards, fire and police departments, and departments of transportation. Interagency coordination through a task force or other process can uncover underutilized or surplus land that housing agencies would have been unlikely to find on their own. New York City’s most recent housing plan incorporates this strategy by engaging with both public and private institutions to find underutilized land. Jurisdictions may want to maintain this information in a unified and regularly updated list of underutilized and surplus land, either for internal use or as a resource available to developers and other interested members of the public. In addition, participation on a task force may help agencies without a housing focus to understand the strong need for additional affordable homes in the area and the public purpose that is served by using publicly owned land to increase the supply of affordable homes.


Make it a priority, and make it easy

Since publicly owned land may be sold or transferred for any number of purposes, jurisdictions that wish to use publicly owned land for affordable housing development will need to clearly articulate that as a priority. One approach used by several states and local legislators is to adopt a public land disposition policy that offers publicly owned land first to affordable housing developers (whether for sale or lease). This approach does have some limitations. First, it does not ensure that publicly owned sites are protected as development opportunities for affordable housing, as limited resources means that affordable housing developers cannot always develop on demand. This can lead to missed opportunities. Second, it does not necessarily lead to the provision of public land at a discounted price. However, a right-of-first-refusal policy can still be helpful in facilitating access to publicly owned land for affordable housing development.

Make it last

The dispersal of publicly owned land for affordable housing development presents an opportunity to put in place long-term affordability requirements. Rental housing covenants can require property owners to rent only to income-qualified households and to charge rents that would be affordable to these households for a specified period. For owner-occupied units developed on publicly owned land, a variety of resale-restriction strategies can be used to ensure ongoing affordability, such as providing support for community land trusts and limited equity cooperatives, or the administration of deed restrictions.

Key Resources

Identifying Opportunities on Publicly Owned Land

Public Land and Affordable Housing in the Washington, D.C., Region: Best Practices and Recommendations 2015. By Robert Hickey and Lisa Sturtevant, PhD. Washington, DC: National Housing Conference.

Leveraging Public Land for Affordable Housing in Northern Virginia: A Primer. 2014. By the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance.

The New Housing Marketplace Plan: 2003-2014. 2013. By the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development. New York: Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

Public Land for Public Good: Making the Most of City Land to Meet Affordable Housing Needs. 2012. By Cheryl Cort, Matt Schuneman, and Stewart Schwartz. Washington, DC: Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Developing Affordable Housing on Public Land: A Guide for Massachusetts Communities. 2005. Boston, MA: Massachusetts Housing Partnership.

Getting Home: Overcoming Barriers to Housing in Greater Boston. 2003. By Charles Euchner and Elizabeth Frieze. Boston, MA: Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research; and Cambridge, MA: Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.


  • Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing
    A developer of affordable housing in Arlington County, Virginia that built Arlington Mill Residences, an affordable housing property co-located with a new community center.
  • Coalition for Smarter Growth
    A regional advocacy organization in the Washington, D.C., metro area with expertise in public land and other land use policies that help create walkable, inclusive and transit-oriented communities. Closely involved in Washington, D.C.’s 2014 adoption of affordability requirements for city-owned surplus land.
  • Massachusetts Housing Partnership
    A statewide public/nonprofit affordable housing organization that works in concert with the governor and the state Department of Housing and Community Development to help localities increase the supply of affordable housing in Massachusetts. Produced a guidebook for local governmental staff on using public land for affordable housing.
  • Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California
    A regional housing advocacy organization working at the local and state level to pass legislation that increases the use of surplus land for affordable housing as part of its “Public Land for Public Good” campaign.
  • Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance A regional nonprofit organization working to create successful communities through affordable housing education and advocacy. Recently authored a primer on leveraging public land for affordable housing.
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