Image by Daniel Chapman licensed under Creative Commons.

London (like DC) is revising its plan for long-term growth, and just released a draft of the new London Plan. This plan aggressively pushes for more homes and affordable homes, combining strong language and goals about dedicated affordable housing while also encouraging significantly more density to address the city’s housing shortage. Let’s hope DC is taking notes as it continues to amend its own Comprehensive Plan.

Just like DC, London aims for “good growth,” but is way less afraid of density

Both London and DC are seeing a large influx of new residents, but also a widening gap between the rich and the poor. London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s foreword to the affordable housing part of the London Plan might as well as been written for DC (except for the population numbers of course):

Our city’s success is reflected by the number of people becoming Londoners. With 70,000 new Londoners every year, we are a bigger city than we have ever been, and our population is set to top 10 million within 25 years.

But our city’s great success has brought huge challenges too. In recent years, we know that London has built nowhere near the number of new and affordable homes we need. As a result, too many Londoners can’t afford a decent home to rent or buy.

Calling for what he calls “good growth”, Khan wants to “re-balance development in London towards more genuinely affordable homes for working Londoners to buy and rent.”

There are many policies drafted so far that take on the city’s shortage of housing directly. Under the proposed design standards for new construction, there is a whole policy called “Optimizing housing density,” which calls for exactly that, given the surrounding neighborhood context. It even says that “proposed residential development that does not demonstrably optimise the housing density of the site in accordance with this policy should be refused.”

Can you imagine DC’s Comp Plan arguing that a building is not dense enough, and therefore should be reworked to include more homes?!

The reason for this policy is clearly stated, you can’t be an inclusive city if you have a shortage of homes:

Compare that DC’s current Comp Plan, which is full of density-defensive language like “development and redevelopment pressures threaten the very qualities that make the neighborhoods attractive” and that “these pressures must be controlled through zoning and other means to ensure that the best qualities of neighborhood character are preserved and enhanced.” There is clearly room for improvement!

The London Plan also encourages more than just big-building density. There is a section of policies that strongly support smaller-infill density, aiming to bring online more “missing middle” housing types.

4.2.1 - For London to meet its housing needs, small housing developments of between one and 25 homes must make a substantially greater contribution to new supply across the city. Therefore, increasing the rate of housing delivery from small housing sites is a strategic priority.

London is taking producing and preserving affordable homes very seriously

Beyond strategies to meet the overall demand for homes, the London Plan sets a big goal for producing affordable homes: the target is 50 percent of all newly built homes to be affordable.

So far they have a variety of proposed policies to meet that goal. One big one: all new developments over 10 units are asked to provide 35 percent of their units as affordable without any public subsidy (50 percent when public land is involved).

While at first glance this looks like an impressively high inclusionary zoning rule (where developers are required to build a certain percentage of affordable homes as part of their plans), the details reveal an attempted bargain.

Projects that meet the 35 percent threshold policy are placed on what the plan calls a “fast track route” receiving an accelerated approval process. The idea is that combining a less burdensome process with the extra density already encouraged in the rest of the plan makes it financially feasible for developers to offer cheaper rents for more homes. As the plan explains, “[t]his approach seeks to embed affordable housing requirements into land values.”

For projects that don’t meet the 35 percent (or 50 percent) threshold, or that require some amount of public subsidy to do so, the developer must submit a “viability assessment,” in essence explaining in detail why it is infeasible to meet the set threshold. The city would then review those reports, decide if the arguments were valid, and if so approve the project.

The plan sets a date to review the feasibility of this 35 percent number in 2021, but also claims that developers have already begun adjusting to this expectation:

Since this guidance was published in draft last November, we have seen developers already starting to adopt its principles – including by routinely taking account of affordable housing expectations when paying for developable land.

Shoreditch neighborhood, London Image by La Citta Vita licensed under Creative Commons.

When it comes to redeveloping and preserving existing subsidized affordable housing, the plan again has strong language. It calls for increased public funding for affordable housing, promising grants to developments the provide 40 percent or more affordable homes. It also draws a strong line in the sand, saying that:

The Mayor expects existing affordable housing to be replaced on a like-for-like basis, meaning that, for example, homes at social rent levels should be replaced with homes at the same or similar rent levels, or that specialist types of affordable housing should be replaced with the same type of housing.

This kind of strong language about replacing subsidized homes one-for-one is important, as too often redevelopments don’t follow through on this promise and the city’s stock of affordable homes is diminished.

DC’s Comp Plan does not have these kind of explicit protections. That’s partly why Greater Greater Washington, along with a diverse group of partners, have been working hard to introduce amendments that get our planning and zoning agencies to hold the line when it comes to maintaining the stock of affordable homes we already have.

Experts agree, to make for an affordable, inclusive city you need to preserve the affordable homes you have, build new ones, and build enough market-rate homes to meet the overall demand.

London’s Plan is still in its early stages of public feedback and development, but while we wait for DC’s own amendment process to come to fruition, it’s worth looking to other big-city plans like this for inspiration and ideas.