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  • Writer's pictureMichael Hays

Zoning Matters

Have you ever walked or driven past a vacant big box store or office park and wondered to yourself, “Why can’t that space be converted to a shelter or workforce housing?”

The answer, at least in part, is zoning. Don’t yawn. Zoning policy is often left to be decided at poorly attended meetings – mostly amongst professional staff. But it impacts what gets built in our neighborhoods and, ultimately, who can (and can’t) afford to live in certain zip codes.

America needs more housing—lots of it. In an article earlier this year, the Eviction Lab wrote, “We have millions of fewer housing units than we need, particularly affordable housing units. This shortfall has devastating impacts, especially for low-income renters facing ever-greater challenges securing safe, affordable housing. Yet despite the glaring need, building to meet this demand is often infeasible—if not outright illegal—because of local land use and zoning laws.”

The Eviction Lab has begun building a zoning database to help quantify “snob zoning” – or exclusionary zoning. To combat this trend, some communities – such as State College and Ferguson, Pennsylvania – passed inclusionary zoning ordinances.

Essentially, the 2011 State College law requires that new construction set aside 10 percent of total units as affordable for those living at low to middle income levels. This ordinance applies only to new construction of 6 or more units. If you look across the country, there is broad variation in the details of inclusionary zoning ordinances. Typically, affordability is determined as a percentage of the area median income (AMI). Additionally, the federal government uses a housing affordability standard of 30 percent – meaning that families or individuals should spend 30 percent of their income or less on housing.

Parking - A limiting factor

In Pottstown, a deal to convert an old warehouse to apartments fell apart after the developer could not meet the parking requirements. As the Mercury reported, plans called for demolishing one 7,000 square-foot building on the site, which would create enough space for 85 parking spaces, about half the number borough ordinances require.

“In order to get two parking spaces per apartment, we would need several acres of land. It’s just not that feasible with the current site,” Developer Judah Angster said in the article.

At a recent Norristown Planning Commission meeting, I encouraged the PC members to take a look at their municipal parking requirements. Currently, efficiency and 1 bedroom apartments require 1 parking space per dwelling unit (DU). Two to 4 bedroom apartments require 1.5 parking spaces / DU. In addition, for proposals larger than 16 units, an additional 0.25 parking spaces / DU are required.

To add one anecdotal example, I live at Bridgeport Suites – a 147-unit apartment development. There is always ample parking, where several connected lots boast 116 spaces. Under Norristown’s parking requirement, Bridgeport Suites would need to provide 184 parking spaces.

Fewer people drive when they live near mass transit or earn modest incomes.

According to the Montgomery County Planning Commission,* Studies have found that moderate-income households may own fewer cars than similar households with higher incomes. Workforce housing could be built with fewer parking spaces because of the likely decreased demand for parking. Doing this could save money since land otherwise used for parking could be used for new homes and other amenities. In addition, parking lot construction costs are very high. Depending on the cost of land and the type of parking proposed, costs per space can easily top $10,000.

In summary, land zoning is found at the intersection of public policy and real estate markets. What has been missing for years, in my opinion, is grassroots organizing and advocacy around the decisions that can help ease our affordable housing crisis.

I am looking forward to reading a new book by Richard D. Kahlenberg, Excluded: How Snob Zoning, Nimbyism, and Class Bias Build the Walls We Don’t See.

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