By Michael A. Spotts, President
On Friday, February 16, the NACCED Holistic Housing Podcast (which I highly recommend generally) featured Jonathan Coppage of R Street Institute. Titled "Putting the Granny Back in Granny Flat," the podcast discussion went beyond accessory dwelling units and covered a wider range of missing middle housing typologies that can create a broader, more market-based spectrum of housing affordability (a topic covered in previous Neighborhood Fundamentals commentary earlier in January and February).
One of the key points of that discussion was that post World War II zoning codes have made many middle-density housing typologies in mixed-use neighborhoods either illegal or difficult to build. If anecdotal evidence (and evidence based on price effects) is accurate that demand for such neighborhoods is increasing, a healthy market would make such neighborhoods the "path of least resistance" from a zoning and regulatory perspective. Unfortunately, this is not often the case.
Yet while the focus is often on use, form and density levels, last week Sarah Kobos wrote for Strong Towns about an oft-overlooked barrier to neighborhood diversification: the subdivision ordinance. The article discusses subdivision in the context of infrastructure - block length, street connectivity, dead ends, cul-de-sacs, etc. Municipalities can and should create a regulatory framework that allows or encourages walkability, adaptability and flexibility. This would put "traditional neighborhoods" back on an even playing field, and mitigate the isolation of the "islands of urbanism" developments that are sometimes built in suburban regions (in other words, the development titled "Town Center" where there hasn't been an actual town in decades).
Subdivision ordinances can make a difference for smaller parcels or individual owners as well. Neighborhoods built to lower densities than current code allows might still struggle to evolve if the subdivision process is cumbersome. Accessory dwelling units are important to housing affordability, but that specific solution is not right for everyone. Can the owner of a 1/3 or half-acre lot near an urbanizing transportation corridor subdivide and sell a portion of the site? Can an "empty nester" interested in downsizing convert their larger home into a duplex? If the economy slides and demand for "McMansions" decreases, can they be converted into multiple apartments/condos? These are the types of activities that allow incremental evolution of a neighborhood. I would also argue that these options increase a neighborhood's economic resilience. When considering strong development policy, it is important to think beyond the zoning code.