Density Doesn’t Have To Look Dense

Density Doesn’t Have To Look Dense

This summary was written by former New Jersey Future intern Tristan Harrison.

Missing-middle housing types. Graphic courtesy of Opticos Design. Click for a larger view.

Building appropriate housing densities in places with little buildable land has long been a difficult task for planners and developers.  At this year’s Redevelopment Forum, a diverse panel explored ways to accommodate the need for new housing without jeopardizing other community priorities.

Todd Poole, president of 4Ward Planning, noted that the need for moderate housing densities in New Jersey’s walkable, urban neighborhoods has become increasingly apparent in recent decades as the rate of cost-burdened households has grown alongside the price of the average home. At the same time, he said, a significant underproduction of new and diverse housing types has oversaturated the state with single-family homes. In order to provide a more sustainable and equitable housing landscape, he continued, the state could consider policies that encourage development of moderate housing densities that are more cost-effective and space-efficient.

Jim Constantine, principal at Looney Ricks Kiss, also illustrated the importance of newer, denser housing models for revitalization and community sustainability. The continuum of housing types between traditional single-family houses and multi-family buildings, commonly referred to as the “missing middle,” is often overlooked or prohibited in local zoning ordinances, he noted, pointing out that the lack of these less common residential types represents a missed opportunity to incorporate denser housing into well-developed areas. In fact, he said, missing-middle housing is often more affordable than conventional single-family homes, yields better fiscal outcomes for towns, and produces no aesthetic tradeoffs.

According to Constantine, the greatest strength of the missing middle is that it is very accommodating to growth, especially in built-out communities that think they have no room for it. Because of their small size and suitability of locations, middle-density housing types are particularly good at providing high-quality residences for students, seniors, low- and moderate-income residents, and, depending on their location, for carless households. In an economic climate where these demographics are increasingly struggling to afford high-quality housing in prime locations, an infusion of density in built-out, mixed-use, transit-accessible places can capitalize on existing infrastructure and satisfy the growing demand for walkable urbanism. In fact, he pointed out, these efforts are already under way in places like Portland, Los Angeles and Ann Arbor, where accessory dwelling units (ADUs) have gained enough traction over recent years to comprise a significant portion of those places’ affordable housing stock.

However, there are several obstacles that prevent widespread construction of ADUs and other missing-middle dwellings, especially in New Jersey. Development costs, including permit fees and land acquisition, for a significantly smaller-than-average home are the most pressing barriers. Additionally, some towns do not permit ADUs. To overcome these obstacles, Constantine said, New Jersey needs statutory-level action that will encourage adequate and sustainable housing production. In addition to permitting ADUs and other missing-middle housing types, local governments in transit-accessible neighborhoods could also waive a portion of their parking requirements as a way of lowering development costs for this type of housing.

Elizabeth McManus, Principal of Kyle + McManus Associates, further emphasized the ability of the missing middle to fit into the community character of existing places. Unlike new single-family homes, the construction of duplexes, micro-units, granny flats, and garage apartments in existing neighborhoods offers the ability to integrate new housing into the character of the community without eroding its aesthetic qualities. Preserving this quality is essential for the future of housing, she said, since a challenge for many planners is focusing on the aesthetics of a place in addition to the regulatory limits that they must consider when writing or complying with an ordinance such as lot coverage or parking minimums.

Mike Staton of CPC Mortgage Company offered an overview of the resources available to investors in and developers of missing-middle housing in New Jersey. Existing resources include small loan programs through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for small multi-family housing projects. Additionally, he said there is hope that a housing trust fund that Governor Murphy has promised to fund will earmark funds for small multi-family construction. Other more conventional funding sources include federal tax credits for historic preservation and brownfield remediation, energy-efficiency programs, tax increment financing, and Opportunity Zones. When used in tandem, these resources and programs can help alleviate the development costs of small buildings in areas of medium density – especially those areas that are economically distressed.

Poole pointed out that much of the projected growth over the next two decades will be driven by Millennials and Baby Boomers, who typically represent smaller households. Such trends give more weight to the idea that the missing middle may be the key to revitalizing New Jersey communities and ensuring that people of all backgrounds can live in high-quality homes in high-opportunity places.

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