12 Strategies for Community Building in Affordable Housing Development

12 Strategies for Community Building in Affordable Housing Development
January 31, 2017 Ricardo Álvarez-Díaz
Caguas Housing - Image 5 - Álvarez-Díaz & Villalón | Architecture & Interior Design

The benefits of mixed-income affordable housing are abundant.

Affordable Housing Development can improve the individual lives of residents and support the local workforce by providing well-constructed, decent housing while revitalizing distressed neighborhoods, promoting social integration, boosting an area’s economic health and building communities.

Much of the public housing built in the mid-20th century proved to be a failure. The configuration was too isolating, the scale too dense, the towers too tall, and the residents too uniformly poor.

– Bach, Katari Gupta, Haughey, Kelly, Pawlukiewicz, and Pitchford; Ten Principles for Affordable Housing Development

This failed approach taught public officials and affordable housing developers a valuable lesson—to focus on building communities and neighborhoods, not projects and developments.

Designers, too, learned that in addition to quality housing, great design can foster a sense of community and empower residents.


Successful community building can uplift residents in several ways:

  • Enhances social interaction among residents across income levels
  • Drives positive changes in the neighborhood
  • Provides a sense of security and belonging
  • Repairs run-down areas
  • Increases access to opportunity and better employment
  • Raises adjacent property values
  • Attracts market-rate development
  • Improves academic and job performance
  • Adds authenticity to the urban environment
  • Prompts positive changes in people’s behavior and aspirations

In addition, living in a well-designed, affordable housing community helps improve residents’ quality of life by enabling them to have money to spend on healthcare, transportation, education, household goods and entertainment, among other things, after paying the rent or mortgage.


Affordable, mixed-income housing designed with community building in mind is meant to meet the needs of nuclear families as well as people who live alone. All communities need teachers, healthcare workers, police officers, car mechanics, electricians, landscapers and other service workers.

Strong communities also serve the needs of people in all stages of life. Young adults who are just starting out their careers need low-maintenance affordable housing options, as do seniors on fixed incomes and disabled people.


Creating vibrant communities requires more than just building affordable mixed-income housing.

Financial resources for affordable housing development tend to be limited, which demands ingenuity and creativity from developers and designers who typically put significant effort into value-engineering interior and exterior spaces to create the most value for the least cost. Community building makes them reassess how spaces are used.

There are a number of strategies and design guidelines that developers and designers can follow to incorporate community building in their plans. Here are 12 of them.

affordable housing development

Smart Ideas for Community Building through Affordable Housing Development 

1. Empower residents

Community members should be involved in the project’s development from the start. They know the area—listen to them.

2. Smart green and public spaces

Using green space at entry points is highly effective to make residents feel welcomed, setting an inviting and peaceful tone for the building. Use public spaces to foster a sense of community among residents.

3. Skip gates and fences

Resist the impulse to surround low-income housing with high fences to give residents or neighbors a sense of safety. Decorative fencing can be used to define the character of a property and increase security. The community should connect to the rest of the neighborhood by streets, parks and natural areas.

4. Create curb appeal

Attractive housing fosters resident pride. Scale projects to respect the neighborhood. The proper scale will promote a healthy connection between the development and its surrounding neighborhood.

5. Offer on-site services

Equally important to good design is what takes place inside the development. Services such as child care, after-school care, job training, continuing education, health services, financial counseling, and social events do a lot to improve the lives of residents and strengthen communities.

6. Clear the path

Study pedestrian paths and address problems. Worn dirt paths, for example, produce negative impressions.

7. Provide adequate parking

Address issues of parking and auto circulation. Insufficient parking causes stress to residents and neighbors. Parking should be located appropriately: a parking field in front of a building on an otherwise residential street will not give the right impression.

8. Elevate security with lighting

Use lighting to enhance security. A well-lighted site is more secure and attractive.

9. Do not neglect landscaping

Use good landscaping to define and embellish the property. Good landscaping provides shading exposure as well as cooling of the overall site, adding to its energy efficiency.

10. Eyes on the street

Orient windows to put “eyes” on the street. Street watching can instill a sense of ownership in residents and it serves as a de facto neighborhood watch program, making the neighborhood safer.

11. Keep it in context

Recognize the context of the surrounding neighborhood, but do not rely solely on replication.

12. Facilitate ownership

Incorporate programs that encourage ownership and facilitate the transition from renting to owning.

* Additional data provided by the Urban Land Institute.


Well-designed, affordable mixed-income housing is a key component of a healthy community. To build successful communities, designers and developers need to respect, relate and respond to the people who will reside in the housing they are developing.

They are, after all, building more than permanent homes. They are building connections, relationships, lifestyles, opportunities, and memories. They are building communities.

Take a look at one of our recent affordable housing projects, as part of a partnership with McCormack, Baron Salazar:


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