Developing Affordable Housing Through Collaborative City-University Partnerships


  • Stephanie Onuaja
January 18, 2024 - (6 min read)

Written in collaboration with Gregory Kienzl, Director of Data and Impact, Office of Engagement and Community Affairs, University of Pittsburgh.

In our nation’s cities, the lack of affordable housing continues to challenge local leaders. According to the 2023 Urban Institute study, there was a shortage of 7.3 million available rental homes for renters with extremely low incomes, an eight percent increase from two years prior. In addition, the U.S. Government Accountability Office has estimated that the shrinking stock of rental properties has led to a 24 percent increase in rents between 2020 to 2023, pricing many renters out of the market. In the largest 50 metropolitan areas, more than 60 percent of renters with very low incomes are extremely cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than half of their income on housing. The shortage of available and affordable rental units disproportionately affects Black, Latinx, and Indigenous households, as they are more likely than white households to be renters and have extremely low incomes.

To address these challenges, cities, towns and villages have taken several steps to make housing more available. They have established their housing trust funds, adopted policies to permit accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and missing middle housing and led local zoning reform, to name a few. Another promising avenue for local leaders is to partner with universities in the development of affordable housing solutions. This underlines the untapped potential of collaborative problem-solving between local leaders and universities, aligning their housing goals to meet the local housing needs of students, staff and faculty residents, and long-term residents alike.

Case Study: City of Pittsburgh

Planning for Housing Needs

In 2022, Pittsburgh released a comprehensive citywide housing needs assessment report. The Oakland neighborhood, which is home to the main campuses of the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and Carlow University, was mentioned multiple times in the report. Several recommendations would affect the Oakland neighborhood and the student and resident populations who live there. The recommendations included:

  • Supporting more housing diversity within the neighborhood, including a better balance of both rental and owner-occupied opportunities and housing that targets a wider range of incomes.
  • Expanding the overall housing supply, with specific aims to increase student-focused housing supply. (It is important to note that just 24 percent of the city’s land can currently be used to build multi-unit housing of four or more units.)
  • Expanding affordable housing options for low-income workforce households.
  • Identifying strategies to mitigate displacement in Oakland, with an emphasis on stabilizing long-term residents and non-student populations.

In addition to the citywide plan, the City of Pittsburgh developed the Oakland Plan through a collaborative community engagement process. The initiative involved organizations, businesses, institutions and residents, many of whom served on the steering committee. The steering committee not only crafted the Public Engagement Plan but also contributed to the resulting plan and will support its implementation. The aforementioned universities played a pivotal role in shaping this vision—each university was a member of the steering committee.

Aligned with the plan’s goal of addressing the housing demands of long-term and student residents and mitigating the shortage of affordable housing units, the plan will implement the following strategies:

  • Inclusionary Zoning Overlay (implemented in June 2023). Requires new construction or renovations producing more than 20 units for sale or rent to allocate 10 percent of their units as affordable rental units; reserving rental units for individuals earning no more than 50 percent of AMI and for-sale units reserved for individuals earning no more than 80 percent of AMI.
  • Expanding Missing Middle Housing. Aims to modify base zoning or adopt a zoning overlay that supports the construction of missing middle typologies in Oakland, including Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). Missing middle housing often constitutes naturally occurring affordable housing in communities while ADUs offer a solution to affordable homeownership.

Allocating Additional Resources

Having a plan that includes the voices of residents and notable anchor institutions is an important first step to addressing shortages in affordable housing. Additional resources can also help. In late 2023, Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) approved a $10 million spending plan for the city’s trust fund supporting affordable housing, and more than $2 million from pandemic relief funds to renovate and preserve over 420 apartments as affordable housing. Within the Oakland neighborhood, an additional $200,000 is slated to go to the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation (OPDC) to renovate a six-unit Victorian house owned by OPDC.

Note: Several offices at the University of Pittsburgh engage with and have dedicated financial support to several community organizations to support affordable housing creation, preservation, and ownership. One of its primary partnerships is with OPDC’s Oakland Development Fund and Community Land Trust. The Oakland Development Fund exists to support OPDC’s work to revitalize the Oakland neighborhood, including improving neighborhood housing stock, growing the number of low- and moderate-income households, and creating an environment in which the community is socioeconomically and racially diverse.

To learn more about what universities are doing on affordable housing, check out these case studies: Universities and Affordable Housing: Seven Case Studies.

What’s Next for Cities?

As cities nationwide grapple with the growing crisis of affordable housing, the need for innovative solutions is urgent. Particularly in cities hosting higher education institutions, fostering city-university partnerships emerges as a critical avenue for developing inclusive and forward-thinking solutions.

Here are considerations drawn from the City of Pittsburgh:

  • Forge University-City Bridges: Actively seek to establish and strengthen partnerships with their higher education institutions. These bridges facilitate communication, collaboration, and resource-sharing between academic institutions and local communities.
  • Engage Higher Education Institutions in Planning: Intentionally involve higher education institutions in community planning processes. This includes comprehensive housing needs assessments, goal setting, and implementation. It ensures that the housing needs of all residents are thoughtfully considered, contributing to the development of healthier communities.
  • Seek Co-developed Solutions: A greater emphasis needs to be placed on co-developed —city officials in partnership with university leaders—approaches and solutions that address the scarcity of affordable housing options.

Cities and their higher education institutions stand to gain significant benefits from such collaborations, offering a holistic approach to address the intersectional needs of both students and long-term residents.

International Town & Gown Association and National League of Cities Housing Access in Communities Hosting Higher Education Institutions Survey

Take 5 minutes to share insights on housing challenges faced by communities hosting higher education institutions.

About the Author

Stephanie Onuaja

About the Author

Stephanie Onuaja is a Program Manager for Housing and Community Development at National League of Cities.