‘Through the Roof’ Confronts Affordable Housing Crisis, Bridges Divide in Policy Debate

By Will Jason, March 2, 2021


Faced with a housing crisis that has grown even more urgent under the stress of the COVID pandemic, local U.S. governments need to adopt comprehensive and balanced housing strategies to ensure everyone can access a stable and affordable place to live, according to a new Policy Focus Report from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Building on years of research and collaboration with public sector leaders, the authors lay out a multipronged framework for local communities to attack the housing crisis in Through the Roof: What Communities Can Do About the High Cost of Rental Housing in America. Housing policy debates are often split between advocates of deregulation and those who worry about the dangers of an unfettered market. Authors Ingrid Gould Ellen and Mark A. Willis of New York University and Jeffrey Lubell of Abt Associates bridge this gap. They recommend tailored approaches to meet the unique conditions of every community, with a focus on the rental market, where millions of households face unsustainable cost burdens. 

The report builds on the recommendations found on LocalHousingSolutions.org, a website hosted by Abt Associates and the NYU Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy that helps local government officials navigate policy options and craft housing plans.

“Balanced housing strategies are those that address a range of housing challenges, rather than a single narrow one,” the authors write. “Focusing on the full range of needs is important for maximizing both the political acceptance of a local housing strategy and the likelihood that a community’s strategy will succeed.”

The report describes the extent of the affordability crisis, explores the forces that drive housing prices, and explains the interaction among federal, state, and local policy. Its recommendations focus on local government, where most decisions about land use and housing are made in the United States.

“Local governments set the zoning rules that determine how many units can be built on a given piece of land and how many conditions landowners and developers must meet for permission to build at an economically viable density,” the authors write.

As the report details, rents have climbed much faster than incomes in recent decades. Nearly half of American renters now struggle to afford monthly payments, double the number in 1960. This percentage—based on the number of households that spend at least 30 percent of income on rent—has increased steadily for decades, dropping only slightly after the Great Recession as higher-income households delayed homeownership. Today, lower-income renters have less income remaining after paying rent—a measure known as residual income—than they did in 2000, and moderate-income renters have seen no change. Only higher-income renters have seen a small increase in residual income.

The economic impact of the COVID pandemic has deepened the crisis. Despite temporary protections against eviction, Americans collectively owed some $57 billion in back rent, utilities, and late fees in January, according to an estimate by Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, and Jim Parrott, a fellow at the Urban Institute.

While there is some debate about the relationship between regulations and housing prices, on balance, the available evidence suggests that restrictions on the construction of new dwellings limit the supply of housing and contribute to higher prices, the report finds. Examples of such restrictions include minimum lot sizes, bans on multifamily housing, minimum parking requirements, and complex and uncertain permitting processes. 

However, more permissive land-use policies alone will not solve the affordability crisis, the authors write. Other drivers of rising housing costs include the limited availability of land, the impacts of global investment capital, rising income inequality, stagnant incomes, and a lack of innovation in the construction sector. These challenges demand collaboration between the private sector and all levels of government to expand the stock of rental and for-sale housing with binding covenants that ensure long-term affordability and to protect residents from displacement. 

Further, even with more plentiful supply, the lowest income households will have trouble affording rental housing without government intervention. In weaker-market cities with relatively plentiful housing, low incomes are a greater barrier than limited supply. The private market alone is unlikely to reduce economic and racial segregation, which perpetuate disparities in health, wealth, and quality of life.

The report recommends that every community work with a diverse set of stakeholders to create a comprehensive housing strategy with clearly articulated goals and metrics. It offers a four-part framework for local housing reform with a menu of actions in each category:

1. Create and preserve dedicated affordable housing units: Local governments can adopt policies designed to create and preserve housing that stays affordable over time to low- and moderate-income households—including in wealthy neighborhoods. Doing so requires a combination of public expenditure and regulation. Examples of such policies include direct subsidies for dedicated affordable housing, inclusionary housing, in which a portion of new homes are rented or sold below the market rate, and shared equity models such as community land trusts, through which homeowners give up some of the gains in home equity in exchange for a lower purchase price.

2. Reduce barriers to new supply: To expand the overall supply of housing, communities can relax zoning and other regulations, provide incentives for desired housing development and shift the property tax to assess land at a higher rate than buildings, which encourages landowners to develop or sell vacant parcels.

3. Help households access and afford private market homes: Policies in this category include providing assistance to lower-income residents to help them afford private rentals, helping families become homeowners, and enforcing fair housing laws to combat discrimination.

4. Protect against displacement and poor housing conditions: Communities can create stability for renters by enacting protections that limit the rate of rent increases and provide financial and legal help to renters at risk of eviction. Similarly, they can assist low-income homeowners through targeted property tax relief and financial assistance to avoid foreclosure. Finally, communities can use regulations and incentives to encourage landlords to maintain apartments in good condition rather than selling them for conversion to higher-priced housing.

“Whether in San Francisco, California, or Gary, Indiana, too many people struggle to afford one of the most basic human needs—shelter,” said George W. “Mac” McCarthy, president and CEO of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. “Through the Roof recognizes the complexity of the problem and provides an actionable framework for local governments to make housing affordable across a wide variety of market conditions.”

Praise for Through the Roof

Through the Roof is a ray of light in dark times. Housing has always been at the center of economic and racial inequality in our nation, and it must be at the center of creating real opportunity in every community. The authors explain masterfully how a quiet crisis became a national epidemic of housing insecurity over the past half-century. Even more important, at a time of division and paralysis in our federal government, they show convincingly how cities, towns, and counties can come together to solve our housing challenges and build more just and inclusive communities.”

— Shaun Donovan, Former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

“The authors provide a thoughtful assessment of why housing affordability has become worse and they tackle the thorny question of what federal, state, and local governments can do to help. They marshal an impressive array of quantitative data and case studies in support of their conclusions, which are economically sound and politically pragmatic. This report will serve as an excellent resource and guide for policy makers.”

— Jenny Schuetz, Fellow, Brookings Institution 

“This report is a comprehensive, powerful look at the affordability crisis—how rent burdens hold families back from upward economic mobility and the actions that government can take to close this gap. An important resource at any time, Through the Roof is even more urgent as we face record unemployment and unprecedented housing instability across the country. Stable, affordable housing for all is a human right, and this report is a necessary guide for policy makers seeking to create this reality for their constituents.”

— Denise Scott, Executive Vice President for Programs, Local Initiatives Support Corporation

“Communities across the country are grappling with the challenge of how to meet the pressing need to build and preserve affordable housing. The COVID-19 crisis underscores the importance of decent, safe, healthy homes. Through the Roof offers critical insight into the housing crisis facing renters. It offers real-world examples of housing solutions. The concepts in Through the Roof should encourage all of us to join this community of practice and put these ideas to work!”

Linda Mandolini, President, Eden Housing 

About the Authors

Ingrid Gould Ellen is the Paulette Goddard Professor of Urban Policy and Planning at the NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and a faculty director at the NYU Furman Center for Real Estate & Urban Policy.

Jeffrey Lubell is principal associate and director of Housing and Community Initiatives at Abt Associates.

Mark A. Willis is the senior policy fellow at the NYU Furman Center for Real Estate & Urban Policy.

About the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy

The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy seeks to improve quality of life through the effective use, taxation, and stewardship of land. A nonprofit private operating foundation whose origins date to 1946, the Lincoln Institute researches and recommends creative approaches to land as a solution to economic, social, and environmental challenges. Through education, training, publications, and events, we integrate theory and practice to inform public policy decisions worldwide.



Will Jason is director of communications at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Photograph Credit: NicolasMcComber/Getty Images.