Preserving Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing

Zoning Practice — December 2023

By Donald Elliott, FAICP


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Most of the United States is now in an affordable housing crisis. While zoning reform to loosen up housing supply is badly needed, it is not enough. Given the slow rate at which the U.S. housing stock grows, we may not be able to narrow the affordability gap without significantly expanding our efforts to preserve the existing stock of relatively affordable housing.

In many communities, smaller, older single-family homes are the largest source of naturally occurring affordable housing (NOAH) — unsubsidized privately owned residences that are affordable to low- or moderate-income households. While it would be nice if these existing older homes would remain at their current levels of affordability without intervention, that often does not happen. Some of them are lost every year due to damage or destruction, and there is not much local government can (or should) do to avoid that. However, others are lost through replacement by newer housing, often at bigger sizes or higher densities.

This issue of Zoning Practice addresses how local governments can use zoning to preserve the existing supply of affordable housing. It briefly summarizes housing market conditions that illustrate the importance of NOAH and explains potential precedents for NOAH preservation regulations before presenting a range of potential zoning strategies that communities could use to slow the loss of older, modest homes.


Page Count
Date Published
Dec. 1, 2023
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American Planning Association

About the Author

Donald Elliott, FAICP
Donald L. Elliott, FAICP, is a Senior Consultant with Clarion Associates, LLC, a national land use consulting firm. Don’s practice focuses on land development regulation, fair and affordable housing, and international land and urban development issues. Don has assisted over 70 U.S. communities to update plans and regulations related to housing, zoning, subdivision, fair housing, and land development. He is the author of A Better Way to Zone (Island Press 2008), co-author of The Rules that Shape Urban Form (APA 2012) and The Citizen’s Guide to Planning (APA 2009) and has served as the editor of Colorado Land Planning and Development Law for 30 years. Don teaches graduate level course on Land Use Regulation at the University of Colorado at Denver School of Architecture and Planning and is a former member of the Denver Planning Board. Don has a bachelor’s degree in Urban Planning and Policy Analysis from Yale University, a law degree from Harvard Law School, and a master’s degree in City and Regional Planning from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.