Academic journal article Cityscape

The Value of Incremental Development and Design in Affordable Housing

Academic journal article Cityscape

The Value of Incremental Development and Design in Affordable Housing

Article excerpt


The United States has achieved enviable success in expanding access to home loan mortgages to help make homeownership affordable. In this article, however, I suggest that the overwhelming emphasis in the United States on financial innovations and approaches in expanding access to homeownership may detract from a serious consideration of the role and value of design-based strategies to make housing affordable. I suggest more specifically that modest designs that facilitate and allow for incremental development, or progressive expansion and improvements over time, also have an important role in making homeownership affordable. They can also help increase the supply of rental housing. I argue that incremental development-based design and planning approaches can help reduce the initial cost of housing development, can broaden access to affordable homeownership and housing, and deserve more attention from policymakers and scholars. I also argue that more research is needed on housing layouts and designs that can be conveniently and economically expanded over time, and I caution against housing finance requirements and planning regulations or codes that make future expansion and changes to the built form difficult.

The idea of incremental development is typically associated with developing countries, where access to institutional housing finance is limited or unavailable, particularly for low-income households. Although most observers do not think of incremental development in the context of housing practices in the United States, I illustrate that it is more common than the conventional wisdom suggests. I draw from my previous research to suggest that the strategy is prevalent in informally developed colonias, or subdivisions, along the U.S.-Mexican border region (Mukhija and Monkkonen, 2007, 2006) and in informally converted garage apartments in urban areas such as Los Angeles (Mukhija, 2014). I also suggest that incremental development and the ability to expand modest housing designs were inherent features of postwar affordable suburbs like Levittown, New York, and Lakewood, California. Finally, I focus on Mutual Self-Help Housing (MSHH), a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-financed program of affordable housing through mutual self-help and incremental development. I show that in the past two decades the program has moved away from its initial focus on modest designs that were ideal for incremental expansion overtime (Mukhija and Scott-Railton, 2013). As a consequence, the initial cost of housing has increased significantly, and the program's ability to taiget very low-income households has dropped dramatically. In spite of noteworthy financial innovations, including longer loan terms and access to secondary finance for borrowers, nonprofit developers of MSHH are facing challenges in targeting their programs to their originally intended beneficiaries: modest-income farmworkers.

My article is divided into four sections. After this brief introduction, the next section elaborates on the idea and practice of incremental development. I discuss its intellectual links to affordable housing strategies in developing countries, but I also suggest its prevalence in housing improvements in U.S. suburbs and in informal initiatives in U.S. cities. The third section focuses on the main case of USDA-financed MSHH in California and shows how a key original innovation of a modestly designed house has disappeared. In the fourth section, I conclude by focusing on potential avenues for policy and research. On the one hand, I discuss opportunities for design-based strategies in improving housing affordability and, on the other, I caution against some emerging directions in design-based thinking.

The Idea of Incremental Development

Conventional wisdom associates the idea of incremental development with low-income households in developing countries. Planning scholars have suggested that the incremental development approach-also known as progressive development or autoconstruction in the literature-persists because, for most low-income households, it is often the best available option, particularly in the absence of adequate government support for affordable housing or housing finance (Abrams, 1964; Peattie, 1968; Turner, 1976, 1972, 1967; UN-Habitat, 2003). …

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