Density Bonuses for Affordable Housing


  • The diversity of density bonus programs and the challenges of developing and implementing these programs in large cities 
  • The opportunities and limitations of density bonus programs as an effective zoning tool
  • Strategies for community engagement around the implementation of density bonus programs 


Local density bonus programs look to balance developer incentives, affordable and middle-income housing goals, neighborhood character, and needs unique to each city. The challenge for cities with specialized needs is how to incentivize development within a local process that is more prescriptive than the state law.

Listen in as key players in diverse municipalities—Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco—speak to the challenges and opportunities afforded by expanding inclusionary housing through the zoning tool of density bonus incentives. This comparative discussion also considers differences between state and city laws and ways to address regional specificity.

Chicago: The City of Chicago’s complex bonus system—and in particular the city’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance—has been recently supplemented by a new “Neighborhoods Opportunity” program. Announced in Spring and implemented in Summer 2016, the amended program provides density bonuses for both transit-oriented development and development projects in the newly expanded downtown area that facilitate neighborhood development projects. Chicago has a fast-growing urban center, and these reforms seek to help accelerate this growth by allowing for additional development in areas adjacent to zoning districts currently designated as “downtown.”

Boston: Seen as a national leader for affordable housing—with almost 20 percent of the housing stock income restricted as affordable to low-income families—Boston is still working to expand inclusionary housing through a density bonus incentive. The Mayor’s Housing Innovation Lab and the Boston Redevelopment Authority partnered to set up pilot programs for two distinctly different corridors. Through extensive community engagement, they determined the appropriate target income level and percent of the benefit to allocate towards housing in each neighborhood. In the high density South Boston area, the density bonus targets middle-income units and allocates additional benefit to open space and affordable business space; in the lower density infill neighborhood of Jamaica Plain/Roxbury, the bonus is focused on displacement prevention, allocating 100 percent of the benefit to housing lower- income residents.

San Francisco: The new Affordable Housing Bonus Program (AHBP) is being developed in San Francisco in response to two catalysts: a recent court decision spurring compliance with the unenforced 1979 State Density Bonus Law and a 2014 local measure mandating 30,000 new housing units by 2020, with 10,000 priced at below-market levels. This panel will look to ways the 1979 state law has been addressed throughout California and will follow the arc of the development of the AHBP—from the establishment of policy goals, through the zoning and feasibility analyses, to community outreach and response, and its current status.