Sep 19, 2010

Growth management and Affordable Housing - do they conflict?

The above caption is the title to Brookings Institute publication by Anthony Downs.

In a 2003 symposium speech, he said, "The third tactic for lowering housing costs is reducing the size and quality standards required for new housing. This can be done by using manufactured housing, allowing creation of accessory apartments, constructing small housing units like homes built after World War II, and building more multi-family units. These arrangements can be carried out with mainly private financing. Yet manufactured housing, accessory apartments, and smaller homes are illegal in most suburbs, and more multi-family units are blocked by limiting land zoned for them. Ironically, these tactics are all quite consistent with smart growth goals."

A major point from this article is that the Zoning laws are one of the key obstacles to providing more dwellings and easing housing affordability.

Zoning Ordinances are typically intended to preserve the character of our cherished neighborhoods. Zoning does not regulate life-safety issues; that is the role of our Building, Fire, Electrical and Plumbing Codes. To rezone a parcel of land is to say that we are changing the uses allowed on it. There are always exceptions, but at worst rezoning would create a nuisance for adjacent property owners; not a life-safety safety hazard.

Given that the premise of Zoning is subjective, shouldn't it be the most flexible of the Codes or the easiest to amend? And yet a public Zoning forum would probably draw greater public interest, protest and outrage than a hearing to determine whether or not automatic fire-sprinklers and solar water heaters should be required in all single and two-family dwellings, whether attic insulation should be required, or should we require storm shutters on all new windows in Hawaii.

Interestingly, those items just mentioned either are currently required or are expected to be required in the near future.

As a community, how do we balance the need for Housing Affordability vs Energy Efficiency vs Life-Safety issues?