Expert Commentary

Preventing housing displacement: What works and where more research is needed

A recent literature review examines short- and long-term policies that cities and states have used to try to prevent people from losing their homes for various financial reasons.

(Matthew Moloney / Unsplash)

Faced with rising housing costs and a multi-year influx of higher-income residents, Austin, Texas is training specialists to help residents at risk of losing their homes navigate the paperwork to access city resources that can help them stay put.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, a nonprofit helps low-income residents purchase homes through a local community land trust. In Philadelphia, volunteers make badly needed repairs, giving homes a free facelift along with structural fixes, so residents have a safe place to live.

And across the U.S., 60 cities have right-to-counsel laws, so tenants have a right to legal representation in housing court cases against landlords.

Each of these are examples of policies aimed at preventing displacement, a term for what happens when people have to leave their homes because rents or property taxes get too high, they can’t afford repairs, or other reasons.

A recent literature review in the Journal of Planning Literature takes a close look at what the research says about housing policy solutions that work to prevent displacement — and identifies areas where more research is critically needed.

The paper, “The Role of Local Housing Policies in Preventing Displacement: A Literature Review,” brings together results from academic studies, white papers from think tanks, and news stories on 12 strategies states and local governments have implemented across three broad frameworks:

  • Producing new housing.
  • Preserving existing housing.
  • Stabilizing the finances of at-risk tenants and homeowners.

Stabilization strategies

Overall, the literature suggests strategies that focus on residents themselves are best at quickly and directly helping residents avoid displacement.  

These include programs that help residents understand legal services and advice available from municipalities or nonprofit groups, as well as programs that provide money to people stave off eviction.

But Karen Chapple, director of the School of Cities at the University of Toronto and one of the paper’s authors, stresses that a mix of short- and long-term strategies are needed, and whether proposed policies prevent displacement depends on local market conditions.

“In the end, it depends on what context you’re working in,” says Chapple. “Some of the things that do seem to help are, for instance, tenant counseling programs. They seem to keep people in place. And also, small amounts of cash assistance seem to help prevent people from being evicted.”

Studies cited in the paper from the Urban Institute, a nonprofit think tank, find foreclosure assistance programs, which provide counseling and sometimes financial support, can keep people in their homes. One study finds half of households in a Washington, D.C. mortgage counseling program were able to catch up on their payments or obtain a forbearance.

Production strategies

Production strategies focus on encouraging builders to construct homes to be sold at either market rate or as affordable housing. The idea is that increasing housing supply to meet the amount of housing demanded will bring down prices.

One common production strategy is inclusionary zoning, which usually requires builders to set aside a percentage of new housing units for low- or middle-income buyers, though inclusionary zoning is sometimes voluntary. Another strategy involves municipalities charging developers linkage fees — a fee per square foot of new market-rate housing — then using those funds to build affordable housing.

After reviewing the research on production strategies, the authors write that new market rate homes “may actually result in rent increases in lower priced residential buildings nearby and may not alleviate displacement over the long-term as low-income newcomers cannot move in.”

Inclusionary zoning — which has existed in California cities since the 1980s and more recently in other cities, such as Washington, D.C. — does produce affordable housing units, but the authors note “the extent of their effectiveness depends on the presence of a strong market and the particular terms of each program,” such as whether they are voluntary or mandatory.

Linkage fees raise the price of construction and raise the final price of the housing sold. Still, this strategy can provide much needed municipal funding toward affordable housing. In Boston since 2014, for example, $30 million in revenue from linkage fees has led to more than 1,250 affordable housing units being built.

Preservation strategies

Preservation strategies — those aimed at maintaining or increasing affordable housing stock — include community land trusts. This model usually starts with a nonprofit that owns and cares for a piece of land and makes long-term leases for houses built on it.

One study the authors cite finds strong evidence that this model decreases the odds of that a neighborhood will be gentrified by 70%. But other survey research suggests that community land trusts tend to serve middle-income households, rather than lower-income ones. 

“While these policies have not yet been broadly replicated and do not currently cover people at all income levels, they have the potential to work in concert with other anti-displacement strategies to preserve affordable housing and reduce displacement,” the authors write.

Another preservation strategy is the use of condo conversion restrictions, which put a yearly cap on the number of rental units in a multifamily building that an owner can convert to condos. Measures that give tenants the first right to buy their unit if it is converted can help some renters become homeowners, the authors write.

Overall, the research suggests that the most effective way for local governments to help prevent displacement is through a mix of long-term housing production and shorter-term measures to keep people in their homes.

“What seems pretty clear is that you want to make sure you have your tenant protections and housing preservation policies in place first and then do some building,” Chapple says. “We should have learned that years ago from urban renewal programs. But it’s taken a long time for people to figure that out.”

There is sparse research on housing compared with other major public policy areas, such as health care, Chapple says. Much of the research is descriptive and difficult to generalize. For example, surveys that ask about residents’ housing situations may be informative about a particular place and time, but they are difficult to draw sweeping conclusions from. There should be more research on housing stability in small metropolitan and rural areas, as well as barriers to displacement policy implementation, the authors write.

“Housing policy affects so many lives, and so many people care about it and so many people organize around it,” Chapple says. “But we don’t have evaluations like we have of health policy. We have a pretty good sense of, like, vaccines — what works? What doesn’t work, and for what stage of life? … There’s nothing like that for housing.”

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