Peter Reichard: How communities can change the playbook to expand housing options

Zoning decisions have excluded a middle range of housing options.

Scanning the older cities of Utah (or indeed any state) you encounter in the historic core a mix of lot sizes and uses. You might see small setbacks and often find single-family homes alongside small multi-family housing. Often, these areas appear designed for pedestrian commuting, shopping and recreation.

As you move away from the historic core into the suburbs, the old patterns dissolve into a new one: All of the residential lots are larger and the same size. Commercial uses are more rigidly segregated from residential. Houses are set back farther from the street. All of the houses are single-family, with zones set aside for larger multifamily, and there’s no place for small multifamily. Often, these areas appear designed to accommodate the automobile above pedestrians.

The newer pattern didn’t occur by chance. Beginning about a century ago with the birth of traditional zoning, our forebears chose this course.

Their choice was not frivolous. The policymakers of yore imposed zoning rules in order to guide development rationally, protect property owners’ interests, prevent the rise of slums, ensure the steady flow of traffic, provide for off-street parking and preserve quality of life.

There have been consequences. One of them has been the exclusion of the “middle” range of housing choices in many communities – dwellings that occupy the middle ground between single-family homes on large lots and large apartment complexes. Most residential land in Utah is zoned for single-family homes. For instance, more than 88% of residential land in Salt Lake County is zoned single-family. The economics of large multi-family have enabled these developments in recent years to flourish along transit lines and commercial corridors. But Utahns are generally not open to seeing large apartment complexes in their neighborhoods.

When it comes to developing something in the middle ground between large single family and apartment complexes, the possibilities for homebuilders are often limited. To develop duplexes or townhomes, for instance, they would in most areas need a conditional use approval or a rezone. That implies uncertainty, time and effort – and higher costs.

In November, the Utah Foundation launched a multi-part study, “Is the Middle Missing? A Guide to Expanding Options for Utah Homebuyers and Renters.” The newly released fourth installment, “Obstacles and Opportunities,” explores how Utah communities can open the way for new middle housing options.

One option is to ease parking requirements. Parking spaces eat up developable space and drive up housing costs. It is important for local policymakers to take a hard look at their parking needs to discover whether the requirements suit actual needs and whether the payoffs in terms of driver convenience are worth the tradeoffs in housing affordability.

Another option would be to change current single-family zoning to give homebuilders greater freedom. Upzoning to allow small multifamily (or smaller-lot single-family) in existing single-family zones holds the promise of creating new opportunities for both homeownership and renting. However, to avoid negative impacts on quality of life and neighborhood character, it may be prudent to begin by trading single-family zoning for two-family zoning and, if successful, build up to four-family zoning (or more, depending on the location).

One tool is what is known as an “overlay zone.” Overlay zones are adopted by local governments as special zones placed over existing zones to achieve a specific goal in certain areas. Overlay zones may be used to open the way for middle housing. They could allow middle housing in traditional single-family zoned areas, particularly those near transit and retail, around main street areas, in downtowns, and as transitions between more dense multi-family areas and single-family ones.

Form-based codes offer another zoning approach. Whereas traditional zoning requires that each area should have a singular use, form-based codes focus primarily on design and form, letting market forces determine use. In effect, a form-based approach allows developers to put their energies into placemaking, possibly opening the way for middle housing.

To be sure, traditional zoning can be an important tool for protecting Utah’s communities from inappropriate development. But it can also stifle agreeable housing solutions. Are there ways to increase homeownership opportunities and expand rental options without diminishing the character of our neighborhoods? Yes, if developers, policymakers and neighbors embrace creativity – and, in some cases, a more daring spirit.

| Courtesy Utah Foundation Peter Reichard has been named as president of the Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan research organization.

Peter Reichard is president of the Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy research organization. Reach him at peter@utahfoundation.org. Find the middle housing study at utahfoundation.org.