Earlier this month, ULI Washington released a new report on Increasing Housing Supply and Attainability: Improving Rules & Engagement to Build More Housing. Neighborhood Fundamentals was a proud contributor to this report, along with Rhodeside & Harwell and other members of the region’s ULI Housing Impact Task Force. Click “read more” for findings and recommendations.
By Michael A. Spotts
In recent years, the issue of housing affordability has gained prominence in the national dialogue. Efforts to address the rising costs for safe, decent homes have generated substantial debate about the role of market-rate development, the availability of committed affordable housing, and the causes and impacts of gentrification. Neighborhood Fundamentals is pleased to announce the release of two new publications for the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance that address these topics: Building Northern Virginia’s Future: Policies to Create a More Affordable, Equitable Housing Supply and a companion Research Justifications report.
This body of research examines the factors that are influencing housing costs in the inner-Northern Virginia region – population and economic growth, demographic change, shifting consumer preferences, among others. It also discusses the factors that have inhibited the growth of an equitable housing supply, including local land use and the regulatory framework. At a high level, this research found that addressing affordability across the income spectrum involves more than simply increasing development. Adding new housing supply may have varying impacts on affordability, particularly for those with the lowest incomes. An equitable approach to development addresses supply needs across multiple dimensions, including tenure, building type, and location/neighborhood characteristics.
This report offers recommendations to advocates, policymakers and practitioners for improving affordability while advancing social equity. The recommendations reflect the notion that the most urgent action should be directed to the areas of greatest need and to the region’s most vulnerable residents. Recommendations are organized into four categories:
Proactively preserve and expand housing options for the region’s low-income and historically marginalized households;
Increase market-rate development and diversify the region’s housing stock to accommodate household and job growth;
Undertake bureaucratic improvements to improve the efficiency of current policies;
Improve communications and community engagement processes to better facilitate the policy changes necessary to improve affordability.
Each category includes specific recommendations that the region’s elected officials, city/county staff, funders, and developers can support to improve the region’s development climate, improve affordability, and increase access to opportunity for all of the region’s residents.
Interested in learning more about addressing these challenges in your city or region? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
By: Michael A. Spotts
From 2012-2015, my adopted hometown of Arlington, VA held an intensive process to update its housing affordability policies, culminating in the passage of an Affordable Housing Master Plan (AHMP) and Implementation Framework. Over the course of three years, I had the honor of serving as the vice-chair of the working group that advised County staff and leadership on this effort. In the end, local advocates, County staff, and the working group were successful in building unanimous support from the County Board for an ambitious set of goals and targets. Notably, the AHMP included the goal of maintaining the County's current economic diversity through increasing the supply of affordable homes. This is a difficult task given that market pressures have significantly decreased the stock of affordable rental housing options, and affordable homeownership opportunities are few and far between.
Since 2015, County staff have worked to implement several of the recommendation included in the Implementation Framework, including recently-passed revisions to the County's Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) and parking policies, as well as ongoing efforts to support the preservation of market-rate affordable rental properties. While I have concerns about certain aspects of recent efforts (for example, I believe the new ADU policy is still far too restrictive), they represent steps in the right direction and further demonstrate the commitment of both board and staff to housing affordability.
Yet achieving the AHMP's supply-related goals will require an increase in scale. Success will hinge on the County's ability to continue to remove barriers to more naturally affordable housing types (ADUs, "missing middle" building typologies), as well as dramatically increasing the production of committed affordable housing. Each individual effort takes time and political will.
To help address the issue of scale, a coalition of housing experts and advocates was formed to identify potential policy changes that could increase the production of committed affordable units. The result is a new report - Fulfilling the Promise: Meeting the Production Goals of Arlington's AHMP. This report was presented to the County board and staff in December. The coalition offered a menu of options that the County could consider to ramp up production from current annual levels of approximately 220 units to the nearly 600 units/year that would be necessary to preserve Arlington's current economic diversity.* Importantly, these options include not just funding increases, but also cost-reduction strategies that would allow scarce resources to be stretched further. This is particularly important in the context of changes to the federal tax code that will reduce the amount of subsidy available via the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program. Policy options considered include:
- Reducing site plan conditions for new affordable housing construction
- Waiving permit and tap fees for affordable housing projects
- Reducing use permit conditions for rehabilitation projects
- Modifying bonus density policy
- Pursuing community-serving real estate opportunities
- Offering property tax abatements/exemptions
- Expanding sources of funding for the Affordable Housing Investment Fund
Moving forward, members of the coalition will be available to work with County staff and board to further vet these proposals, and hopefully move closer to achieving the goals of the AHMP.
*If Arlington is successful in removing barriers to more production of naturally affordable housing types, the 600 unit annual target could be lower.
By: Michael A. Spotts
One of my New Years resolutions was to post to the blog more. While I'm not off to a great start, I'm not giving up yet.
today, I came across an article from Strong Towns contributor Andrew Price: Surprise Approaches to Achieving Density. In this article, he discusses the different forms that density can take (with pictures) and the problems associated with the tower-based all-or-nothing approach to density.
I offered my initial thoughts on Twitter (click through for full thread: https://twitter.com/MichaelASpotts/status/951851203511701504 )
Before elaborating further, I want to make it clear that I agree with the same caveat that was featured in the article. Towers can be fine, even preferable depending on the market context. Where land costs are already (and durably) sky-high, it can make sense to build up. However, it is important to avoid creating a situation - artificially through zoning - that makes high-rises the only economical form of multifamily housing. In addition to my thoughts on building costs offered on Twitter, I think it is important to add a note on the distributional impacts of this type of zoning dichotomy.
First, concentrating all density in a small area also concentrates the burden of paying for municipal services and infrastructure. The tax base supporting low-density neighborhoods can be insufficient to support the infrastructure supporting those neighborhoods. High-density neighborhoods may end up subsidizing low-density neighborhoods. In addition to concerns about the long term fiscal sustainability of this arrangement, it is even more problematic if rental housing that is home to a jurisdiction's lower-income households is concentrated in the high-density neighborhoods. This could lead to a regressive situation in which these households are actually subsidizing higher-income homeowners.
A second concern is with the balance of development across a region. By restricting development in some neighborhoods while encouraging it in others, municipalities may facilitate the concentration of capital in certain neighborhoods. While the amount of capital available for real estate development may not be firmly fixed, it is not unlimited within a market. An unbalanced approach to development and density can exacerbate wealth disadvantages and lead to disinvestment and decline in lower-demand neighborhoods that do not support high-density development. Meanwhile, as developers compete for a smaller number of sites where density is allowed and can be accommodated, gentrification can become a concern.
Therefore, while densification is often necessary and desirable, it is important to pay attention to how it is accomplished. In general, planners would be wise to recognize the limits to predicting where demand will flow and the second order consequences of planning and zoning decisions. This calls for a diverse range of development types and density levels within neighborhoods and across a jurisdiction, allowing for multiple "paths to success," even if development does not occur as predicted.