Good Design Practices Improve Affordable Housing

This piece was originally written by Lara Seltzer for Planning Methods (PLAN 720) in November 2018.

In today’s current economic climate, the lack of affordable housing in the United States is cause for concern. In 2017, the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies released a report highlighting that 38.9 million households in America are cost-burdened, meaning the household pays more than 30% of their income on housing related costs.1 Addressing this issue of affordable housing is of upmost importance for governments and planners. Just increasing the supply of affordable housing, though, is not enough to address big picture problems, such as sustainability and equity, related to housing. So, how can planners begin to tackle these big picture problems?

Design of affordable housing has implications on the sustainability of the building itself and on the health, social and economic well-beings of the residents. However, there is evidence that suggests that affordable housing developers from the public, private, and non-profit sectors still misunderstand and mistrust the concept of design quality in relation to affordable housing, as they equate it with desirable aesthetics instead of essential needs.2 Furthermore, one study found that “many Americans mythologize the market and look down on those who need assistance as failures…the middle class resents ‘entitlements’ or ‘handouts’ as special benefits for poor citizens.”3 These negative views of affordable housing often affect the funding and building location of affordable housing, and also perpetuate the belief that design is a matter of aesthetics and should be reserved for those who are able to afford housing.4 Additionally, the literature on design of affordable housing has taken a broad and varying approach to discussing these various components, which makes it difficult to form a complete picture on the relationship between design and affordable housing.

Affordable Housing in San Jose, California (Donner Lofts). Photo Credit: Will Buckner/Flickr CC

This is where planners can begin to address these misconceptions and educate on the beneficial relationship between design and affordable housing. Good design of affordable housing has the ability to connect residents with the economic, social, and physical aspects of their communities, as well as allowing for residents to reap the benefits of said community.5 Even so, there are different definitions of good design practices across the literature. For example, some studies have found that design practices that promote affordable housing that resemble the market-rate housing of a neighborhood assume higher costs of construction and produces housing that is less affordable.6  This category of literature tends to champion design that creates modest housing and keeps construction costs extremely low. This finding, and definition, contrasts with the findings of the other available literature which suggests that affordable housing should blend in with the market-rate housing of the neighborhood to help it avoid the stigma associated with affordable housing and its residents. Maintaining the character of the neighborhood while varying the housing stock enhances the neighborhood overall.7 This inconsistency is a shortcoming of the literature which planners much address in order to present a cohesive understanding of the relationship between design and affordable housing. By doing so, planners can begin to promote and educate on good design practices for affordable housing.



Since design is a very visual concept that takes many forms and has many unique qualities, the discussion of the actual process of implementing good design practices into affordable housing is extremely important. While not much of the literature actually discusses the implementation of best design practices for affordable housing, New York City has been a leader in their creation of the Designing New York: Quality Affordable Housing design practices guidebook. The report focuses specifically on promoting good design practices in New York City in accordance with the city’s plan to create 300,000 affordable homes by 2026.8 It also speaks generally to, and in depth on, eight different good design practices, including façade considerations, open space design, and ground floor conditions, that can be used in any context to promote equity, resiliency, sustainability, and health in affordable housing.9

Townhomes in Tacoma, WA Affordable Housing. Photo Credit: Jacob Rose Creative Commons.

The takeaway from the literature is that, overall, there is not enough discussion on the relationship between design and affordable housing. Even the existing literature argues that there needs to be “more policy-oriented, design-based research on housing form, particularly research that assesses housing models and typologies.”10 If planners want to improve the quality of affordable housing, and not just the stock size, good design practices must be implemented and governments, at all levels, as well as the general public, must be on board with this ideology. There needs to be more discussion in the literature on the relationship between affordable housing and design, including on actual implementation practices, as well as determining a cohesive definition for good design practices.

About the Author: Lara Seltzer is a first-year master’s student pursuing a degree in City and Regional Planning with a specialization in Housing and Community Development. She’s interested in the confluence of design and affordable housing. In her free time, Lara enjoys watching the Red Sox, spending time with her friends, and dancing.


1 Sisson, Patrick. “How Cities Are Getting Creative about Affordable Housing.” July 25, 2017. Accessed October 31, 2018.

2 Evans, Deane. 2014. “Bringing the Power of Design to Affordable Housing: The History and Evolution of the Affordable Housing Design Advisor.” Cityscape: A Journal of Policy Development and Research 16 (2): 87–102.

3 Wright, Gwendolyn. 2014. “Design and Affordable American Housing.” Cityscape: A Journal of Policy Development and Research 16 (2): 69–86.

4 Ibid.


6 Mukhija, Vinit. 2014. “The Value of Incremental Development and Design in Affordable Housing.” Cityscape: A Journal of Policy Development and Research 16 (2): 11–20.; Mukhija, Vinit, and John Scott-Railton. 2013. “The Importance of Design in Affordable Housing: Lessons From Mutual Self-Help Housing in California.” Housing Policy Debate. Taylor & Francis.

7 Vale, L. J., Shamsuddin, S., Gray, A., & Bertumen, K. (2014). What Affordable Housing Should Afford: Housing for Resilient Cities. Cityscape: A Journal of Policy Development and Research, 16(2), 21–50.; Evans, “Bringing the Power,” 87-102.; Wright, “Design and Affordable American Housing,” 69-86.

8 NYC DESIGN, AIA New York Housing Committee, and The Fine Arts Federation of New York. 2018. “Designing New York: Quality Affordable Housing.”

9 Ibid.

10 Mukhija et al, “The Importance of Design.”