Why is it so difficult to add variety to the housing stock?

by Mary Hester & Emma Lane

As planners it is easy to assume that everyone would relate to the argument that low-density housing development is unsustainable, both financially and environmentally. Affordable ADUs, multifamily, and middle-density housing products can be made to work within our communities with the proper guidance, and are necessary to support skyrocketing housing demand. A report from the National Apartment Association states that the U.S. renter population has increased by more than 19.6 million people over the last ten years, and another report by the NAA states that the Denver Metro Area needs to construct 46,000 new multifamily units through 2030 to keep up with the rental housing demand. If there is such clear need for housing variety, why is there typically such opposition to adding variety to the housing stock?

The surrounding community is often a barrier in the construction of high-density, multifamily, and for-rent housing products; NIMBYism was selected as the largest barrier to multifamily development in a survey conducted by the National Apartment Association. People are often concerned with multifamily increasing crime rates, decreasing property values, and straining public infrastructure; however, these ideas have been disproven in several studies. Garnering community buy-in is an essential part of breaking down the barriers to housing variety.  One way to increase buy-in is to focus on community and stakeholder education through the promotion of benefits. For example:

  • Additional housing units brings new businesses to the area which in turn supports job growth;
  • Housing variety increases affordability which in turn can provide housing for essential workers allowing people to live closer to work and keeping more tax dollars within the community;
  • Higher density housing is more sustainable as it is an efficient use of land, infrastructure, and typically consumes less energy per unit than single family residential;
  • It is less expensive per unit to construct higher density housing than single family residences, especially if existing structures are able to be utilized.

Photo by Jed Owen on Unsplash, Waco, Tx.

Another barrier that prevents the development of high density, multifamily, and for-rent housing products is restrictive zoning at the local level. Lengthy and complicated processes through local governments make it difficult to rezone properties. Rezoning is also a high risk for developers and builders who won’t know the outcome of the public process before spending large amounts of money on the proposal. In order to mitigate some of these difficulties, planners need to critically examine their adopted plans, policies, and codes. There are many strategies that developers and local governments can apply to promote a variety of housing types. Some strategies include:

  • Doing away with single family zoning or allowing duplexes in all residential areas encourages the variety of housing options;
  • Allowing ADUs in all residential zone districts creates density in a sustainable and cost-effective way, while still keeping the character of a single family neighborhood;
  • Utilizing by-right zoning for multi-family products negates the need for the lengthy process and uncertain outcome of a rezoning;
  • Using adaptive reuse to create housing within an existing structure can encourage density in areas not previously considered for higher density. 

These are just a few of the barriers pertaining to housing variety, but there are so many more factors to consider and potential solutions available. As planners, we have a duty to serve our communities, meet their needs, and to educate them along the way. We must make a concerted effort to have these conversations, tackle plan and code amendments, and not be passive in the housing space. Your words and participation can and will help lead our communities forward.

Photo by Jeffrey Beall, 6-29-2005, Pride of the Rockies Flour Mill Lofts, Longmont Farmers Mill


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