To better facilitate neighborhood growth, should we first start with small changes?

By: Michael A. Spotts, President

Yesterday, the Washington Post's Lori Aratani wrote about opposition to increased development in the Northern Virginia suburb of Reston. Reston is benefiting from the Silver Line expansion of the WMATA rail system, and more recent development (and plans for development moving forward) is somewhat more "urban" in nature. While some have embraced this, others are resisting the change in neighborhood form, with one local activist stating, "People who moved here bought the zoning."

This comment prompted me to think about the extent to which neighborhoods ("what you're buying into") are perceived to have permanence.  Let's put aside for a moment the notion that the true cost "buying the zoning" is likely to be beyond the means of all but the wealthiest when accounting for the costs of maintaining a development pattern. Even if that was attainable at a broad scale, I do not believe permanence of form is a healthy condition for communities. Whether in biology or real estate development, evolution is important for health and survival. However, there are policies and protocols in our municipal governance that can either promote adaptation or reinforce notions of permanence. To that effect, I'm including below my relatively informal Twitter thread from yesterday that discussed the problems with rigid zoning and building codes and how incremental change may be able to create a mindset that allows for more substantial change in the future

Twitter thread by Michael Spotts via SPOOLER

1. Per last RT, it is remarkable how durable "we bought the zoning, too" line of thinking is.

Jonathan O'Connell@OConnellPostbiz

If you don't want new development in your neighborhood then you don't get to have a new Metro system that the whole region pays for! …

2. We need to start combating the notion that community form will remain frozen in amber for all time, as it can lead to exclusion, decline, or both over a long enough time horizon

3. As much as we need a radical zoning/land use restructuring, in many places this is nearly impossible due to politics. We therefore need to first make incremental progress at adjusting this mindset.

4. If you're starting this process in a neighborhood that's getting redevelopment pressure, you may already be too late.

5. From a practical and social equity perspective, it's better to set precedent that change can come to all neighborhoods, not just the ones without wealth/clout to resist.

6. So this starts with small, incremental changes. Loosening setback requirements. Tweaking parking regs. Allowing ADUs.

7. Basically, for regulations that cause a property owner or homeowner to say to themselves, "wait, I need a permit/waiver to do that?!?", consider starting there.

8. You can shift the variance/waiver burden of proof from the citizen (prove why is this necessary and won't cause harm) to the govt/neighbors (prove, at your cost, why this will cause harm or is unnecessary).

9. Different communities will focus on different things, and that's good. But the main point is, if we want to more effectively and efficiently allow mixed-use, mixed-inc, missing middle, density, etc., we might first want to stop making people jump through hoops to add a fence. /end

Enterprise releases new report on equitable TOD

By: Michael A. Spotts, President
Twitter: @MichaelASpotts

Earlier this month, Enterprise Community Partners released the third installment of its Promoting Opportunity through Equitable TOD series: Navigating Federal Transportation Policy. During my tenure with the Enterprise Policy Development & Research team, I had the pleasure of working on this series, which also included reports on Making the Case and Barriers to Success and Best Practices for Implementation

In this latest report, author Ahmad Abu-Khalaf gives an overview of the ways in which federal policy promotes or inhibits the ability to create affordable, multi-modal communities with access to opportunity. In many ways, federal transportation policies can have just as much (if not more) impact on equitable housing outcomes than housing policies. For instance, the report highlights the impact of federal highway spending on suburbanization and the disinvestment of central cities during the 20th century. These decisions could had macro-level impacts sufficient to undermine even the most well-intentioned housing investments. Unfortunately, housing policy during this period (and in some cases, through the present day) were often malign, including the enforcement of racially-biased redlining practices.

Navigating Federal Transportation Policy provides details on how state, regional and local stakeholders can work to move past this legacy and create more equitable communities. It addresses three core categories of intervention: prioritization and planning, funding, and utilizing publicly owned parcels. In short, while the incentives built into many federal policies and funding programs generally make auto-oriented housing development patterns the "path of least resistance," progress has been made in recent years that creates a viable path forward for community developers and others looking to create more accessible, affordable development patterns. 

For more information, on this and other related reports, visit the Enterprise Policy Development & Research page

Additional research on equitable transit-oriented development and the use of publicly-owned parcels is also available on the Neighborhood Fundamentals Projects and Publications page. 

Follow Up: Tactical Transportation vs. the Megaproject in Arlington

By Michael A. Spotts, President

After considering yesterday's post on Tactical Transit vs. the Megaproject, I gave some thought to transportation infrastructure investments near my home in south Arlington, VA. I tweeted them out as a thread today, which I've embedded/copied below. 











A thread by Michael Spotts (via Spooler)

Thread- Yesterday, I wrote on the @nbhdfundllc blog about tactical approaches to local infrastructure and planning decisions, making the case that such approaches can be work as standalone efforts or as a complement to larger projects (…)

2- This had me thinking about a couple projects near my home in south Arlington, VA, one using the all-or-nothing "megaproject" approach, another more tactical

3- we live a short walk from Columbia Pike, which was supposed to get a mixed-traffic streetcar. It was highly controversial and debated for more than a decade, before getting cancelled at the last minute after a County Board election was won by an opponent.

4- a lot of associated planning efforts (including a form-based code with a strong affordable housing policy) were predicated on the streetcar, which caused some consternation when the project was cancelled, but it seems that after a brief lull development is picking up.

5- The County is working on "enhanced bus service" as a replacement and some utility work, but there's some local frustration that few transit improvements of significance have been put into place on the Pike

6- Then there's something the County tried in Shirlington, also close to my house - a pedestrian-friendly road lane reduction at a busy intersection. (…) 

7- Now there's a huge difference in scale, but I still think there's a lesson to be learned. The County went ahead with minimal forewarning and reduced the lanes through largely low-cost (and reversible) techniques.

8- People were mad at first, and the County billed it as an experiment. 8 months later, the lanes are still reduced and there's not much public convo about it. I haven't noticed many delays there of substance, and a brief scan did not yield any public plans to reverse it.

9- It seems that people adjusted, opposition waned, and pedestrians are better off because of Arlington's experiment. This brings me back to the Pike.

10- A lot of people vehemently disagreed about the transportation-specific impacts of the potential mixed-traffic streetcar. I wonder what would have happened if the County would have started to try testing different elements out to see the impact.

11- Could they have convinced the state DOT to let them try rush hour only bus/HOV3 lanes for a couple weeks? Could they have given a fare holiday to increase boarding/off-loading speeds? Could they have tested out any of the elements that go into gold standard BRT?

12- Maybe it would have ended the same. Maybe people would have adjusted to inconveniences and opposition would be reduced (or countered w/real-world experiences). Maybe dedicated lane could have entered the convo. Maybe they could have discovered BRT gave us better value.

13- I have no clue whether such an approach would make a difference. But in the future, hopefully jurisdictions will at least consider the tactical-incremental approach, particularly when the stakes/costs are so high. /end



"Tactical Transportation" vs. the Megaproject

By Michael A. Spotts, President
Twitter: @MichaelASpotts

Yesterday, Streetsblog published an article by Michael Anderson about San Francisco's protected bike-lane project, which utilized a "tactical" approach. Rather than planning every last detail then spending larger sums to build the project, the city agency initially relied on inexpensive methods such as temporary or semi-permanent infrastructure. This approach illustrates key lessons for those planning for housing, community and infrastructure development:

  • Trial, error and adjustment. Despite the tendency in planning to try to get things just right, development is necessarily messy. As I wrote earlier this month in the context of micromanaging housing typologies, over-planning reduces the number of viable "paths to success" and can yield unintended consequences. A tactical approach can allow for trial, error and the real-world testing of alternatives, without the enormous sunk costs and inflexibility of a build-for-permanence approach. 
  • Building a base of beneficiaries. Major projects (whether it is a form-based code, zoning change, light-rail project, or public park) can take a long time to plan and implement. When completion is a distant prospect, it is easy to see how status quo bias can take hold. A nearby resident might wonder whether the long-term benefits to be achieved (sometimes more than a decade out) outweigh the present-day inconveniences of a multi-year construction process and local tax increases. Quickly-instituted tactical investments start building a user-base right away. Furthermore, those users can quickly suggest improvements to the system based on reality, not theory. 
  • "Modest" projects can have huge impacts. Large scale rail transit projects get most of the hype, but bus riders make up the plurality of all transit users (47.6%), nearly as much as all other modes combined. The impact of bus service is magnified when one considers that many metropolitan regions and smaller cities lack the scale for an extensive rail network. Therefore, investments in improving bus service and redesigning bus networks may be able to impact a significant number of people for modest amounts of money. Furthermore, such investments can have positive social equity impacts, by spreading the potential benefits to people living outside of a specific corridor. 
  • "Tactical" and "Major" are not necessary mutually exclusive. Despite the headline of this article, tactical approaches can be a complement to (or core component of) major development efforts. Planners can replace expensive models/studies in part with pilot projects. For example, a bus system seeking to boost speed by investing in technology for off-board fare collection (or a proof-of-payment system) can test out how much time this would save by holding a time-limited "fare holiday" in which rides are free (eliminating the need to swipe a card). A planning department trying to diversify its housing stock could initiated a quasi-by-right, streamlined approval process for a specified number of non-conforming building plans. The information from these experiments could then inform the final plans/policies. 

In order to act boldly to improve community development and infrastructure, you do not always have to "think big." Sometimes it is more helpful to "act now."



Quick Links: thoughts on meeting missing middle housing demand

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. 

New for Shelterforce: Reversing the community benefits paradigm for publicly owned parcels

By Michael A. Spotts, President
Twitter: @MichaelASpotts

Last week, my former colleague Ahmad Abu-Khalaf (follow on Twitter at: @Ahmad_AbuKhalaf) an I wrote an article for Shelterforce about our past research for Enterprise Community Partners on utilizing publicly owned parcels to provide community benefits. In this article, we talk about successful public-private partnerships that have yielded positive results, but pose the question: are we missing an opportunity to more aggressively address gaps in wealth between communities and households? To answer the question, we put forward a potential new model:

What if instead, public agencies granted site control—and the ability to capture a greater percentage of value appreciation—to a mission-driven entity such as a large-scale nonprofit developer, community development corporation, cooperative, or community land trust? This community-based, mission-oriented master developer could then theoretically subcontract with market-rate developers for portions of the site from a position of strength, and ensure that the community-serving portions of the development are not marginalized. Over time, a successful development would not just provide affordable homes and community space, but it could also provide on-going dividends to the community that might otherwise flow to non-local corporations and shareholders.

For more information, read the full Shelterforce article to get our thoughts on what has worked in the past, what can be done to create a more equitable approach, and important considerations for moving a new model forward. You can also access the full Public Benefit from Publicly Owned Parcels series

People need to live somewhere: the unintended consequences of micromanaging zoning and building codes

By: Michael A. Spotts, President (@MichaelASpotts)

Yesterday, I sent a tweet thread in response to an article about potential zoning changes in Denver:
















In short, Denver is addressing complaints that developers are exploiting provisions in its zoning code that allow them to build internally-facing rows of attached housing on narrow lots. These “slot homes” can result in less-than-desirable street frontage. This is not an illegitimate concern – street level activation is important for creating a quality pedestrian experience and encouraging livability. The city’s response has been to add requirements to the code that require modifications to orientation and building form, while also expanding the number of areas where such housing could be built.

As far as modern zoning compromises go, this one seems reasonable. The zoning/land use policies become more restrictive in some respects, while more flexible in others. Perhaps it will solve this specific challenge. However, I can’t help but think that this intervention fails to get at the underlying issue: the current zoning code was not accommodating current demand (in this cases, homeownership opportunities in urban neighborhoods), so developers found a work around. This reminds me of Seattle’s “apodments,” in which developers responded to sky-high demand for housing by creating “tiny” units (effectively, modernized group homes) in predominantly detached single-family neighborhoods, to much public controversy.

When I discuss the impacts of neighborhood change, gentrification and anti-displacement efforts, I try to point out that we cannot only focus on making sure existing residents continue to have a place in the community (though that is critically important). Those moving in are real people with the same fundamental need for safe, decent and attainable housing as those already there. We can’t simultaneously complain about the stereotypical “hipster millennials” still living with their parents, while decrying it when they go out and seek housing on their own.* People need to live somewhere.

Which brings us back to zoning. When demand is sufficiently high but zoning overly restrictive, it is inevitable that people will try to find ways to accommodate that demand, even if it violates the “spirit” of the rule. And when the “spirit” of the rule prioritizes form and aesthetics over the need for shelter, something has to give. If a work-around can’t be found, there are negative consequences in terms of cost-burden, overcrowding and homelessness. When developers find a way to be creative, the established (often aesthetic) preferences can be disregarded. Furthermore, once a work-around is identified, there is likely to be a rush to replicate it as much as possible before changes are made in response to neighborhood criticism. Allowing a more diverse set of building typologies (and yes, higher-density) by-right would create a “safety valve,” potentially relieving demand pressures and permitting neighborhoods to evolve in a more natural way.

Note: This is a comment on the basic ability to find shelter – there have been legitimate complaints in some cases about cultural insensitivity when a demographically different cohort moves into a new neighborhood, particularly when the new arrivals are higher-earners.

Arlington reports progress toward achieving affordable housing goals

By: Michael A. Spotts

Earlier this week, I wrote about Fulfilling the Promise, a coalition report to assist Arlington County in meeting its ambitious affordable housing production goals, as outlined in its Affordable Housing Master Plan (AHMP)

This month, the County released its annual report, Preserving our Past and Building for the Future. The report tracks the County's progress on over 60 indicators related to the AHMP. There are a number of "big picture" datapoints that are - and should be - the focus of this report: the number of units produced, rent and home price trends, homelessness counts, etc. However, there are a couple additional points should not be glossed over:

  • The level of detail in monitoring and reporting by the County is commendable. Good data is critical for identifying needs moving forward and adjusting priorities and policies accordingly.
  • Given that there is no "silver bullet" to the County's affordable housing crisis, the County is necessarily addressing issues beyond the creation of committed affordable units. In addition to accessory dwelling units and parking requirements, one initiative that deserves attention is the Arlington Landlord Partnership Risk Reduction Fund, which encourages private landlords to rent units to homeless individuals and families. Though in its early stages, such inducements could be critical to helping a greater number of vulnerable households achieve housing stability. Though not addressed in this report, this model could also be applied more generally (with a shallower level of assistance) to encourage more landlords in high-opportunity neighborhoods to accept Housing Choice Vouchers or other forms of rental assistance.

For more information on the AHMP and related initiatives, visit:


Can Arlington scale up affordable housing efforts to meet ambitious goals?

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. 


Multiple approaches to densification are needed

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: )

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.