Housing affordability is often treated as a “big city” problem. The reality is that housing affordability is a nationwide issue, affecting big cities, suburbs, and small towns alike. What’s a Strong Town to do? As with transportation, some like to write off housing affordability as a problem of insufficient funding. “If only we spent more money,” the thinking goes, “we could tackle housing affordability.” Indeed, more funding is needed for homeless shelters and housing vouchers for low-income families.
But this argument belies two key points: First, we realistically need far more new housing than subsidies could ever possibly provide. Second, policymakers already have a buffet of policies they could adopt that would increase housing affordability and accessibility without spending a dime of taxpayer dollars. If your town is serious about tackling the housing affordability crisis, consider adopting one or more of the following policies:
Adopt an ADU ordinance.
Accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, are secondary units that go in the unused attics, basements, or garages of single-family homes. Traditionally known as “granny flats” or “casitas,” ADUs are affordable-by-design thanks to their low construction costs and inherently small size. Beyond merely expanding the supply of affordable housing, ADUs also create a new stream of income for homeowners who may be at risk of displacement and put more housing in traditionally high-income, high-opportunity single-family neighborhoods.
Best for: Built-out towns with a lot of single-family detached housing
Example: Portland, Oregon
Lower minimum lot sizes.
Minimum lot sizes force homes to consume more land than residents might otherwise want. Since land is such a major cost in building a home, a large minimum lot size can substantially increase the cost of housing. If your town requires a minimum lot size in excess of 5,000 square feet for single-family homes, you should pursue reform with all due haste. More and more cities are dropping their minimum lot sizes down to as low as 1,400 square foot. Beyond allowing for more housing, smaller lot sizes also help to reduce suburban expansion and make infill easier, minimizing the strain on municipal services and infrastructure.
Best for: Expanding towns with remaining infill greenfield opportunities
Example: Houston, Texas
Eliminate minimum parking requirements.
As the urban economist Donald Shoup points out, there ain’t no such thing as free parking. Parking is incredibly expensive to build, as developers must either purchase more land for large surface lots or build costly parking structures. These requirements can—and often do—make apartments in urban areas financially and physically infeasible. Why not eliminate them? Let developers and residents—the folks with skin in the game—figure out how much parking is actually needed. As a happy side effect, you might get fewer people owning cars and more people walking, bicycling, or taking transit around town.
Best for: Built-out urban towns with lots of multifamily infill opportunities
Example: Cincinnati, Ohio
Allow residential development in commercial zones.
Retail is in a tough spot. With the rise of online shopping and shifting consumer preferences, more and more cities are dealing with the problem of underutilized retail space along major corridors. One way to deal with this—while also adding more housing—is to allow mixed-use multifamily development in these areas. This could kill two birds with one stone, putting blighted, underutilized land back to use as vibrant, new neighborhoods.
Best for: Towns with a lot of underutilized strip retail
Example: Lexington, Kentucky
Permit duplexes and triplexes in single-family zones.
Single-family zoning blocks the development of anything more than a single-family home—no duplexes, no apartments, no local retail. In many towns, these zones cover as much as 70 percent of developable land. Beyond blocking new housing, single-family zoning is a problem for two other reasons: First, it enforces a spread-out, auto-oriented, and costly-to-maintain development pattern. Second, it has traditionally been used to enforce economic and racial segregation. Simply allowing current single-family neighborhoods to host small multifamily buildings like duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes could be transformative.
Best for: Built-out towns with a lot of single-family zoning
Example: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Speed up the discretionary review process.
In some towns, all development proposals are forced to go through a long and complicated process of discretionary review just to secure permits. All of this time and added risk will scare off the small, local developers your town needs to incrementally grow. This is an easy fix: First, sit down with your planning and permitting office to make sure that review timelines are clear and tight. Second, cut out unnecessary discretionary review for small, compliant proposals and require public hearings sparingly. Finally, as much as possible, ensure that desirable projects can occur as-of-right.
Best for: Any town where the majority of development proposals must undergo discretionary review
Example: San Francisco, California
Give a floor area bump for desirable developments.
Many towns put so much stock in discretionary review because it gives them a chance to negotiate with developers for public benefits. But if there’s something that your town wants—like below-market rate units, or extra open space, or certain design standards—offer a bump in permitted floor area in exchange up front. This turns a zero-sum negotiation into a win-win situation: the community gets an amenity and the developer can build more apartments. Just be sure that the extra floor area is enough to cover the added cost.
Best for: Built-out towns with a lot of development pressure
Example: New York City
Allow more apartments in transit-rich areas.
Transit isn’t cheap to build and maintain. Yet many towns undercut its impact by restricting new housing near train stations and along bus routes. This is a major missed opportunity to create car-free housing and relieve traffic congestion. If your town has busy transit hubs, pay special attention to making sure that it’s easy to add mixed-use, multifamily development nearby. And if your state allows it, use that new development to pay for transit with a value capture tax.
Best for: Towns with rail or bus transit hubs
Example: Seattle, Washington
(Cover photo: Gateway College and Career Academy. Creative Commons License)