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Erasing redlining’s legacy through multifamily development

by Omar Bailey, AIA

Multifamily housing is vital to expanding upon the diversification of a community, local economy and environment. A denser environment not only fosters greater activity in a community, but also affects the environment with reduced commuting traffic and less impact on a larger footprint of land, allowing for greater amenities such as open public spaces.

Following years of racial inequities, cities across the U.S. are working to make progress in their diversity, equity and inclusion strategies. A driving factor behind this paradox is rooted in the history of redlining, a discriminatory method of labeling neighborhoods and areas. Boston is one of those areas known for its history of redlining – in 1843, the neighboring town of Brookline included language in a property deed identifying land not to be sold to a “Negro or native of Ireland.”

As part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to assist homeowners in refinancing their mortgage debt during the Great Depression, the House Ownership Loan Corporation was established. To evaluate the lending “risk” for properties and homeowners, the program created color-coded residential security maps: Red for hazardous, yellow for declining, blue for desirable, and green for best. This was the birth of the term redlining. If an area was labeled hazardous – and typically these neighborhoods were dominated by racial, religious and ethnic minorities – it would be “redlined” by lenders, denying minorities access to capital and investment. This allowed more single-family home zoning districts to spring up in suburban communities, and with that less diverse communities.

The Best Tool to Address Lingering Inequities

Fast forward to today, we are seeing the effects of those redlined districts in the form of minority and lower-income communities versus single-family suburban “green” districts. These redlined districts also encompass prime real estate as cities are grappling with greater public interest in moving back to city centers.

Multifamily housing is the strongest housing type to break down these redlined districts and create more diversification in the housing market. Due to the previous lack of investment in these communities, investors can find acres of unused or underdeveloped lots. Studies have shown redeveloping an acre with single-family homes can result in roughly three single-family detached homes versus 176 dwelling units in a 15-story property. Multifamily housing can provide a wide range of unit types, housing options and price points that accommodate a variety of household types, age demographics and income levels.

Other benefits from creating denser communities include reduction in commute times, transforming underdeveloped or single-use districts into vibrant communities and expanding the tax base opportunities. As residential developments increase within commercial downtown districts that have the mass transit infrastructure, commute times can be reduced, providing people with affordable housing located near their place of work.

Multifamily housing can also transform business districts solely active during daytime work hours into vibrant, 24-hour mixed-use districts, as has been the case for downtowns in Phoenix and Los Angeles.

By requiring a smaller land footprint, municipalities can benefit from the expanding density’s increased taxes with a greater number of households occupying a smaller area of land. Cities can utilize the increased tax revenue to improve local infrastructure, create walkable streets and deliver more public services such as ambulance, police and fire services.

In Phoenix, the city is working with developers to encourage greater density through programs such as the sustainability bonus system. The system is designed to provide projects that exhibit environmentally friendly design and performance elements with additional entitlements to meet the constraints of increased density on a tight site. Projects can pursue these credits in a variety of ways, including preserving open spaces, providing sustainable features such as permeable paving, increasing public area shading, and encouraging the preservation of local mature trees onsite.

As cities evolve, multifamily housing can continue to play an instrumental role impacting resources and longevity. In diversifying our communities, we’re investing in spaces that can stand the test of time.

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