With developers’ desire to minimize costs, it can be challenging to design and implement inclusionary housing policies with appropriate standards to ensure quality affordable housing. Some cities have insisted that affordable units be identical in every respect to market-rate units, but it can be difficult to defend the public policy rationale behind requiring granite countertops and luxury ranges in affordable units. On the other hand, providing developers with no standards has its own risks. For instance, one California developer sold affordable units without any kitchen cabinets.*

An additional concern is the location of affordable units in market-rate developments. For instance, locating all affordable units in the basement or next to the dumpsters may reduce the developer’s costs, but would not likely lead to harmonious and respectful integration of lower-income households within the development.

It’s also important to have a clear set of design standards for racial equity reasons. When people of color, regardless of their economic status, occupy buildings with predominantly White residents, they may experience “othering” or micro-aggressions from their neighbors such as cold-shoulders, blame for noise, or suspicions about property damage.  If residents of color also happen to be occupants in affordable units, it can compound racial bias, particularly given racist stereotypes about low-income people of color who receive housing support such as Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers or who live in public housing.

To address these concerns, affordable units generated through inclusionary housing policies should be required to meet design/unit comparability standards such as:

  1. In buildings with both market-rate and affordable units, the affordable units should be located proportionally throughout the floors of the building compared to any market-rate units.
  2. Externally and from all shared spaces, affordable units should not be distinguishable from any market-rate units in the building and should be architecturally equivalent. Interior layouts, designs, materials, and finishes should be functionally equivalent but do not have to be identical.
  3. Unit types (size and number of bedrooms) for affordable units should be proportional to market-rate units. Exceptions should be allowed if the developer chooses to provide more family/large household affordable units (3 and 4 bedrooms).
  4. Affordable units must share the same entrances, common areas, and amenities as market-rate units, if there are market-rate units in the building.

Livermore, California

A 2007 report by PolicyLink discusses Livermore, where program administrators encouraged developers of single-family subdivisions to build two affordable homes on the same size lot that their typical luxury home would occupy. They maintained the exterior appearance of single-family homes, but located the duplex units on corner lots so that each unit had its own front door and driveway facing a different street. This strategy dramatically lowered the developer’s cost while still offering seamlessly integrated affordable housing opportunities.*

Boulder, Colorado

Boulder’s ‘livability standards’ outline design requirements for affordable units and authorize the city to accept units that are not identical to the market rate homes.

“Affordable units may be ‘functionally equivalent’ to the market-rate units generating the requirement meaning that when fixtures and finishes are included in market-rate units, such as kitchen cabinets, countertops, dishwasher, garbage disposal etc., equivalent features are included in the permanently affordable units. This does not mean that the types of features need to be identical. For example, market-rate units could include granite countertops, while laminate countertops of reasonable quality would be acceptable for the permanently affordable units.”

Charlotte, North Carolina Multi-Family Design Standards

Charlotte’s design standards state that affordable units must be dispersed within the development:

  • If there are more than 25 affordable units, then those units may be contained in a single structure.
  • Buildings within the development must externally blend in architecturally with other units to include materials and style (such as roof pitches, foundations, window types, building materials).