In “From SROs to Micro-Units,” Barbara Knecht (LF ‘93) looked at the past and future of micro housing in urban centers. In the following commentary, Eli Spevak (LF ’14) turns his attention to suburbs and smaller-scale cities. He argues it’s time to address the mismatch between the types of homes encouraged by codes put in place one or two generations ago and the needs of real people and households who live in the US today.
Neighbors bemoan the demolition of older homes and the ballooning scale of new ones - and worry for the character of their neighborhoods. Demographers see the trend toward more and smaller households–and wonder where we'll be able to find enough right-sized and affordable homes. Planners recognize that we can't rely only on high density centers and corridors to accommodate all expected new residents to growing cities; neighborhoods will need to play a role too. Environmentalists know that space-efficient housing (i.e. less square footage per person) is the most important thing we can do for our climate in the residential sector, yet average new home sizes are back up to record levels. And EVERYONE is concerned by rising housing costs and displacement.
Fortunately, there are some fairly simple ways to update regulations and allow the market to provide an expanded palette of housing choices. Such changes would help meet demand for smaller, more affordable homes within the single dwelling zones that constitute most of the land area in urban areas. And these changes can be made without compromising the character of established neighborhoods.
I believe that affordable and right-sized housing advocates need help from planners to address problems this large, dire and urgent, and here’s how.
- Support Accessory Dwelling Units as a popular, affordable, flexible, and discreet form of infill housing that matches well with emerging demographic trends in high-demand neighborhoods. If an ADU code has already been adopted but is rarely used, consider code enhancements to expand ADU market share.
- Encourage small house Pocket Neighborhood or Cottage Cluster development by offering density bonuses in subdivisions or planned developments in exchange for house size and bulk limits. Some codes allow twice the number of lots in exchange for home size caps of ~1200 square feet. Such codes offer financially feasible paths for developers to build right-sized homes for smaller households and support community-oriented site plans.
- Allow internal divisions of larger homes into 2 or more units while preserving their single dwelling appearance. This allows existing housing stock to adapt to changing market demand and can also reduce market pressure to demolish well-built older homes.
- Allow duplexes on corner lots in single dwelling zones where their appearance and impact are compatible with surrounding homes. Design standards can require each unit to be oriented to a different street, so the structure has the overall appearance of a house when viewed from either street.
- Adopt or expand As-of-Right zoning. The expense and unpredictability of discretionary land use processes are especially hard on small projects. Providing as-of-right options for accessory dwellings and other small scale in-fill housing models make it significantly more likely they get built in practice.
- Create zones where off-street parking minimums are reduced or waived. Off-street parking requirements can be onerous, particularly in established neighborhoods with small lot frontages. In many instances, adding a curb cut for off-street parking removes an on-street parking space, yielding no net gain in parking availability. Waiving or reducing off-street parking requirements for homes close to transit (or offering an option to provide off-street bike parking spaces instead) can be an effective way to support discreet in-fill density.
- Eliminate household size definitions. Free up spare bedrooms and get cities out of the “who’s married to whom” business by removing archaic household definitions from the zoning code. This would legalize coliving and other innovative, community-oriented housing models being pioneered in the Bay Area. Rely instead on existing noise, nuisance and building code regulations to address life safety and community impact concerns associated with larger households.
- Adopt Inclusionary Zoning, a land use tool used by hundreds of jurisdictions across the country to ensure that developers integrate a specified percentage of long-term affordable housing into larger residential developments.
- Scale System Development Charges or Impact Fees based on home size instead of the much more typical approach, where builders pay identical SDCs for 1,000 or 5,000 square foot homes. Scaling can be revenue-neutral, meaning that SDCs would be reduced for smaller homes and increased for larger ones. This would remove a significant (and perverse) incentive to build larger, more expensive new homes.
- Create a legal path for Tiny Homes. OK, this one might tick off a few neighbors. But it shouldn't, given the aesthetic pass we grant to thousands of (much uglier) Tuff Sheds and other un-permitted small structures in back yards all over the city. Tiny homes would need to meet standard sanitary and life safety standards, could be on wheels or ground bound, could be on their own or in small community pods, and would typically share a lot with a primary dwelling. Codes could regulate design, placement, and buffering–and ensure that they're safer than most older homes (which, we should remember, often quite legally have knob-and-tube wiring, single pane windows, no insulation...).
The evolution of our built environment is heavily influenced by local government regulations. For demographic, affordability and environmental reasons, the time is right to update these rules and expand our palette of housing choices. Let’s get to it!
For more reading:
The Roommate Gap: Your City’s Occupancy Limit (Alan Durning, Sightline Institute, 1/2/13)