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Arlington Mill Residences, co-located with a community center in Arlington County, Va.

Public land policies make government-owned land available at reduced or no cost for affordable or mixed-income housing. They can be a valuable way to help address local affordability needs, particularly in areas with high land costs.

Because localities often own land in myriad locations throughout a jurisdiction, public land redevelopment can be a helpful strategy for siting affordable housing in dispersed, opportunity-connected settings.

How it works

Across the country, local jurisdictions are taking a broad view of potential opportunities for using public land for affordable housing, including:

  • the development of new public facilities such as community centers, libraries, fire stations, schools and police stations;
  • underutilized public parking lots;
  • sites that host no-longer needed public facilities; and
  • publicly owned vacant land.

Cities and urbanized suburbs are increasingly home to high land costs, particularly in desirable, accessible neighborhoods. With land scarce, housing developers face tight competition from other residential developers, as well as from retail and office builders. A limited supply of land drives up the cost of housing development. Free or below-market land offered by the local government can be an effective way to subsidize the affordability gap.

Land costs can be a significant share of development costs for developers. For example, a recent study of the Washington, D.C., area by NHC’s Center for Housing Policy, in partnership with the Urban Land Institute, estimates that eliminating land costs from development can cover one-seventh to one-third of the affordability gap for affordable units serving households earning approximately 60 percent of area median income (AMI), depending on the site’s local land market.

A policy of allocating public land for mixed-income or 100 percent affordable housing can be a valuable way to reduce development costs, meet the housing needs of lower-income residents and increase development opportunities for affordable housing in mixed-income settings, with less need for direct public subsidy.

Where it works

A strategy of using publicly owned land for affordable housing will generally have the most impact in hot housing markets and sought-after neighborhoods with high land costs, where the financial value of discounted land is greatest for developers of mixed-income or 100 percent affordable housing. Making publicly owned land available for affordable housing in these settings could also provide development opportunities that affordable housing and mixed-income developers would be otherwise unable to acquire. Down markets provide an ideal opportunity for localities to acquire land to be used for future redevelopment.

Policy and Program Tools



  • Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing
    A developer of affordable housing in Arlington County, Virginia that built Arlington Mill Residences, an affordable housing property co-located with a new community center.
  • Coalition for Smarter Growth
    A regional advocacy organization in the Washington, D.C. metro area with expertise in public land and other land use policies that help create walkable, inclusive and transit-oriented communities. Closely involved in Washington, D.C.’s 2014 adoption of affordability requirements for city-owned surplus land.
  • Massachusetts Housing Partnership
    A statewide public/nonprofit affordable housing organization that works in concert with the Governor and the state Department of Housing and Community Development to help localities increase the supply of affordable housing in Massachusetts. Produced a guidebook for local governmental staff on using public land for affordable housing.
  • Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California
    A regional housing advocacy organization working at the local and state level to pass legislation that increases the use of surplus land for affordable housing as part of its “Public Land for Public Good” campaign.
  • Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance
    A regional nonprofit organization working to create successful communities through affordable housing education and advocacy. Recently authored a primer on leveraging public land for affordable housing.