Regional: RPA Report ‘Be My Neighbor’ (New York Metro)

The Regional Plan Association (RPA) is a planning organization for the New York Metropolitan Area including New York City, Westchester County, eastern New Jersey, and southwest Connecticut. Since its founding a century ago, the RPA has released a total of four major regional plans related to transportation, land use, and economic development. The Fourth Regional Plan, the group’s most recent comprehensive publication from 2018, provides a framework for equitable growth and development in the region. In July 2020, RPA published Be My Neighbor, a supplemental report within the larger Regional Plan.

Be My Neighbor calls for creating hundreds of thousands of new residential rental units in the New York Metropolitan Region over the next several years through new construction, additions, and conversion projects on existing single-family residential properties. By creating new units and legalizing existing unpermitted units in communities with higher opportunity and transit access in the region, RPA believes that positive health, education, social, and economic outcomes will materialize for lower-income residents of the New York Metro area. Allowing Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) by right in residential neighborhoods and providing technical assistance are seen as ways to help increase housing production through conversions.

One of the stated goals of the RPA’s Be My Neighbor report is to increase the diversity of housing products available on the marketplace. RPA cites demographic changes as a major driver of demand for rental apartments in low density residential areas. Increasing production, it is thought, will increase housing options for low- and moderate-income residents. Curiously, the report’s sole focus is on increasing the number of just one type of housing: dwelling units. In addition to representing only one of the many different ways to house people, dwelling units are also the most expensive.

The Costs of Dwelling Units
Buildings that contain up to two dwelling units are regulated under the International Residential Code (IRC). Multifamily construction, on the other hand, must adhere to the International Building Code. The IBC sets far more stringent standards and often requires hiring an architect. Multifamily buildings must have fire separation between units and common spaces, fire suppression systems like sprinklers, two means of egress, handicap-accessible units, and elevators in multistory buildings.

Even two-family houses require a minimum of 200 amp electrical service, whereas 100 amps is sufficient for a single-family dwelling. All dwelling units must contain full kitchens and bathrooms. Detached back yard dwellings require extending existing sewer, water, and electric service from the main house to the new unit, or establishing new connections to the street.

The construction of additional dwelling units can be very expensive – ranging from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars per unit.

Obstacles to ADU Development
The significant costs and physical changes associated with creating new dwelling units limits their adaptability. As a result, removing or modifying a dwelling unit to quickly accommodate changing household demands can be difficult. A homeowner’s ability to pay their mortgage may depend on rental income from a tenant since an ADU can significantly raise the value of a single-family property, for instance. As another example, the plumbing and electrical requirements of full kitchens in dwelling units may similarly limit the flexible use of rooms.

Financing the creation of ADUs represents another obstacle for many homeowners. While lending products to fund home conversions are increasingly available, many places still lack access to appropriate financing tools to fund the design and construction of ADUs. As a result, ADU construction has largely been reserved for wealthier homeowners who have access to home equity loans, personal savings, and other sources of funding for home improvement work.

Ways of Financing ADUs
One way to encourage more funding options for ADUs is to subsidize the provision of technical assistance to homeowners. Nonprofit, governmental, or other community entities can help single family property owners to plan, design, and finance individual projects. Alternatively, pre-approved plans for ADUs can be created by architects and made available to homeowners as another strategy to reduce costs, save time, and attract financiers.

Another way to make ADUs attractive to lenders is by liberalizing and universalizing land use regulations across a metropolitan area. By removing restrictions like owner-occupancy requirements, and lowering minimum lot sizes and coverage, and shrinking setbacks local governments and states can make ADUs more viable for longer-term financing. These practices have been implemented in places like Austin, TX, Denver, CO, Los Angeles, CA, Seattle, WA, and the State of Oregon.

Concerns with Liberalizing Land Use Regulations
Unlike the Western United States, the Northeast region is home to many small municipalities whose boundaries were established in the 18th century. Each of the hundreds of local governments located within the New York Metropolitan Area administers their own zoning regulations. Moreover, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey each have their own State Building Codes. Any attempt to liberalize and universalize ADU regulations across the region would likely require unified state legislative action.

ADUs and home conversions may help property owners and financiers to create wealth, generate passive income, and build equity while increasing housing options for moderate-income households. However, this will not address the affordable housing crisis facing low-income renters. Furthermore, removing owner-occupancy requirements from ADU regulations may attract rental property investors.

Since the Great Recession, institutional investors, acting through real estate professionals, have spent billions – often in cash – to amass vast portfolios of residential rental properties in the New York Metro. Upzoning residential neighborhoods may increase the value of properties and encourage large-scale investment firms to acquire residential properties many of which are currently owned by their occupants or hyper-local landlords.

This could further exacerbate income inequality, concentrate real estate wealth, and expand the rental class.

A Different Approach
In Be My Neighbor, the RPA is promoting the rezoning of single-family residential neighborhoods in the New York Metropolitan Area to allow for the creation of additional dwelling units on existing properties. This would be accomplished by permitting Accessory Dwelling Units and multifamily conversions. For the reasons stated above, this approach may produce undesirable outcomes, including attracting rental property investors, burdening homeowners with higher taxes and mortgage payments, and limiting the adaptability of residences over time.

It may very well be that encouraging multiple additional dwelling units on single-family properties throughout the region must eventually play an important role in comprehensively addressing housing issues. Growing preferences for renting and declining rates of homeownership may become a permanent trend in the housing market. Still, the first step in reforming land use regulations needn’t be abolition of single-family zoning districts. A more incremental approach may achieve many of the desired goals while avoiding political opposition.

Example of a split-level ranch home whose garage could be converted to an apartment.

Rather than encourage the addition of multiple dwelling units to single-family properties, the RPA might instead support the gradual upzoning of low-density residential neighborhoods. Eventually, single-family zones could allow multifamily housing, but not as an initial step. At first, property owners might be allowed to create an additional rental housing unit for a guest within their existing single-family dwelling. After evaluating the impact of this lower costs, less permanent, and more easily adaptable densification strategy, an accessory dwelling unit for a relative could be allowed. Next, two-family housing could be allowed, then multiple guest or accessory dwelling units followed by detached backyard dwellings, multifamily, and so on.

At every step, residents and homeowners, not planners or developers, ought to be guiding incremental upzoning processes.

State: Desegregate Connecticut Platform – Part 2

This is the second part of a two part series looking at the Desegregate CT platform. To read Part 1, click here.

• the declared policy of a political party or group.

Part 1 of this series attempted to strengthen the historical framework ungirding the Desegregate CT movement. This second part will take a closer look at some of the group’s policy recommendations.

Liberalizing Development Regulations
In essence Desegregate CT aims to liberalize what are, in the movement’s view, exclusionary and restrictive land use regulations and review processes across Connecticut. By streamlining zoning approval and building permitting procedures for housing development, the hope is that the supply and diversity of housing products available in the marketplace will increase. According to some theorists and analysts, increasing the provision of housing may slow the rise of, stabilize, or decrease the property values and prices of existing housing. Lower prices for homebuyers and renters may enable more people of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds to attain housing in formerly exclusive communities.

As Desegregate CT acknowledges on their website, liberalizing development processes alone will not solve the housing affordability crisis. At best, increasing the provision of housing products available on the market will marginally lower overall housing costs. Modest cost reductions may enable some moderate-income households, who can currently afford housing elsewhere, to move into more exclusive suburbs. Absent large scale investments in infrastructure, social services, and housing subsidies, however, low-income families without access to cars will likely continue to be excluded. To lower the price of extant housing and build supportive infrastructure, existing homeowners and taxpayers would need to accept both lower property values and higher taxes.

Desegregate CT’s strategy for liberalizing development processes in Connecticut includes Statewide design guidelines, regional planning bodies, and local zoning reforms. DEMOCRATIZE DEVELOPMENT believes each of these strategies is worth pursuing. Advisory design guidelines and model regulatory texts could serve a useful purpose today to advertise and promote best practices. The State’s Regional Councils of Governments currently play an important role disseminating transportation funds and conducting studies, but regional zoning boards may also be able to provide greater support and oversight for housing development and policy within their regions. Creating incentives for local zoning boards to adopt model codes at the municipal level may achieve many of the goals Desegregate CT supports without removing local control.

Statewide guidelines, regional zoning boards, and model codes may be sensible vehicles of reform, but the driving principles and recommendations deserve a closer look.

Form-Based and Transect Zoning
Use-based functional zoning, which has dominated since the inception of the planning profession a century ago, conceptualizes cities as instruments for industrial production and consumerism. Within Metropolitan areas, districts are designated by their functional use – whether heavy industry, light industry, warehouse, commerce, government administration, recreation, or residences for laborers, managers, or owners. This way of zoning asserts that to create a stable investment environment for housing finance, property values in residential districts must be protected. Protection, it was thought, could be accomplished by separating residential from commercial and industrial uses and multifamily from single-family districts. Use-based zoning tends to encourage sprawl, inhibit urbanization, and prevent change over time. The Euclidean zoned city aspires to be a machine inhabited by human gears.

Rural to Urban Transect Diagram (Congress for the New Urbanism)

Form-based zoning romanticizes the form of the pre-zoned industrial city organized around transit, walking, and distinct, but still connected, hamlets, villages, towns, neighborhoods, and downtowns. The urban-to-rural transect, the preferred conceptual tool of form-based zoning proponents, perceives cities as a series of spatial experiences produced by building and street types. Inhabitants of the ideal form-based city can experience seamless transitions between wooded back roads, quiet suburban streets with yards and houses, busy urban avenues and grand plazas, and intimate courtyards and pocket parks. Urban morphology, or change over time, is allowed but always towards a pinnacle of 1920s mixed-use commercial block real estate assets. The form-based city is a movie set inhabited by resident actors.

Cities ought to be a forum for physical manifestations of self-realization, cooperative action, and accumulation of experience over time. Sure, Connecticut’s towns and cities follow similar formal patterns, but those patterns did not result from legal prescriptions limiting building height, front yard setbacks, and uses. These patterns resulted from conditions, agents, and actions that existed at certain times and in a specific places. Euclidean zoning seeks to rationalize industrial urbanism. Form-based zoning attempts to prescribe ideal building forms in ignorance of the conditions, agents, and actions that produce those forms. Fundamentally, both land use concepts fail to differentiate between speculative development activity and community building.

Neither Euclidean nor form-based zoning provide adequate frameworks through which to reform Connecticut’s land use regulations.

Policy Recommendations
Accessory Apartment, Additional Dwelling, and Multifamily Units
On the one hand, the policy recommendations of Desegregate CT promote housing strategies and unit types that tend to cost less than new market rate development. These lower cost strategies includes small-scale development interventions, homeowner participation, and the conversion of existing spaces to more intensive use. On the other hand, by promoting additional dwelling units, multifamily construction, and professional real estate development, Desegregate CT is advocating for quite expensive strategies of providing housing.

The construction of single- and two-family dwellings are regulated under the International Residential Code (IRC). Multifamily construction must adhere to the International Building Code. The IBC sets far more stringent standards and often requires hiring an architect. Multifamily buildings must have fire separation between units and common spaces, fire suppression systems like sprinklers, two means of egress, handicap-accessible units, and elevators in multistory buildings.

Even two-family houses require a minimum of 200 amp electrical service, whereas 100 amps is sufficient for a single-family dwelling. All dwelling units must contain full kitchens and bathrooms, including the accessory apartments proposed under Connecticut Senator Anwar’s zoning and affordable housing bill, which Desegregate CT supports. Detached back yard dwellings require extending existing sewer, water, and electric service from the main house to the new unit, or establishing new connections to the street. The significant costs and physical changes associated with creating new dwelling units limits their adaptability.

The construction of additional dwelling units can be very expensive – ranging from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars per unit.

Transit-Oriented Middle Density Housing
Another recommendation by Desegregate CT is for municipalities to zone at least 10 percent of their land, including all land within a half mile of fixed-path transit stops (trains) and a quarter mile of commercial corridors for middle density housing. Defined as small lot single-family, houses with accessory apartments, or small house-scale multifamily buildings, middle density housing was a popular form of middle class housing prior to the advent of affordable automobiles and long-term, low-interest residential mortgages in the 1920s and 30s. Encouraging greater residential density around transit and commercial land is thought to promote ridership, mixed-use redevelopment, and more walkable communities to meet market demands.

Commentary on Policy Recommendations
Allowing accessory apartments to be developed by right (without a public zoning hearing) statewide, as Desegregate CT recommends, may empower some existing homeowners to accommodate an aging relative, an adult child, or a rental tenant on their property. Providing additional housing in this manner is often less expensive than new construction. Requiring all accessory apartments to be dwelling units with full kitchens, bathrooms, and private entries, however, imposes high minimum costs of construction that will likely prevent these units from being affordable to low-income households. High construction costs, lack of adequate financing products, and the difficulty of de-converting dwelling units will also discourage homeowners from building additional units.

The costs of architects, building code compliance, and full sanitary and cooking facilities make multiple dwellings the most expensive type of housing.

While some homeowners will likely create these apartments or backyard cottages on their property, the absence of owner-occupancy requirements may induce further speculative acquisition of residential properties by professional real estate investors. Since the Great Recession, international private equity investors have acted through real estate professionals to acquire vast portfolios of residential rental properties. Absentee landlords acquiring houses for their rental value may drive up home prices, property values, and property taxes for prospective homebuyers and existing homeowners while providing them little in return.

Enabling accessory apartments across the state and requiring middle density housing on 10% of all land, within 1/2 mile of transit, and 1/4 mile of commercial thoroughfares may be too aggressive as an initial goal. Each of these ideas makes sense to consider, but perhaps these provisions ought to be piloted in stages and evaluated prior to becoming permanent. Potentially, a first stage might allow an accessory apartment on properties near transit; followed by a second stage of accessory apartments on 10% of town land and one detached and one attached ADU on properties near transit; and a third stage of statewide accessory apartments, multiple ADUs on 10% of town land, and middle density housing near transit stops and commercial areas.

Model Codes in Connecticut
Developing and publishing model zoning provisions that local governments can adopt is an excellent idea. Existing provisions from within Connecticut are a good place to start. Promoting examples of sensible zoning regulations that will help achieve the admirable goals of Desegregate CT may be possible without following popular trends from other States.

In New Haven, for instance, all residential property owners citywide, including those within the City’s two single-family zones, are currently allowed to create additional housing units by right. Structural changes to residences require building permits and exterior changes require zoning review by the City. Nonstructural changes to the use of existing rooms, however, require only written approval from the enforcement officer. Furthermore, residential lots that do not conform to lot size or width in New Haven may, nevertheless, be developed with two-unit dwellings so long as other bulk, yard, and parking requirements are met.

These existing provisions are virtually unknown to planners in the city and rarely used by property owners. One risk of promoting these provisions, however, is that it may attract the interest of rental property investors. In order to discourage speculative acquisition of residential property, New Haven might consider limiting the use of these provisions to owner-occupied properties. Nearby towns like West Haven, Milford, Hamden, Branford, and Guilford have owner-occupancy requirements tied to their Accessory Dwelling Unit provisions.

Local communities across the state could benefit from adopting a version of New Haven’s accessory housing unit and nonconforming residential lot provisions.

Greater uniformity between zoning regulations in different towns of Connecticut may create a more predictable investment environment for developers who are active across the state. The benefit of uniform statewide regulations may be less important for encouraging local homeowners to create additional units on their property. At the same time, statewide commonality may help in developing pre-approved drawing sets and lending products for additional housing units that could benefit local homeowners. Owner-occupancy requirements would discourage speculation, but also make lenders less likely to loan. Luckily, New Haven’s accessory housing provisions allow for very low cost projects that may not require debt financing at all.

Desegregate CT strives to reduce residential segregation by socioeconomic status in Connecticut. The movement’s proposed method is to liberalize land use regulations statewide. Doing so may encourage developers, landlords, and homeowners to increase the supply of diverse housing types in the marketplace. In addition, new construction, redevelopment, and conversion projects are encouraged in low-density residential neighborhoods, near transit, and close to commercial thoroughfares. These strategies are seen as one part of a larger effort that includes tax reform, housing subsidies, minimum wages, and other work to be spearheaded by separate organizations.

Desegregate CT is wise to focus on one area within a larger effort. If the land use reform component, however, is not handled properly, others may end up exerting effort to address the unintended consequences of poorly planned land use reforms. For instance, upzoning low density residential neighborhoods may accelerate the dispossession of housing from owner-occupants by absentee rental property investors. Responding to the consequences of unleashing developers on residential neighborhoods may fall on tax policy reformers, Community Land Banks, housing subsidy programs, and workforce development efforts.

Desegregate CT, like other advocates of form-based zoning, see housing in terms of building types and cities in terms of spatial experiences – both of which are capable of physical change over time. This limited view of building typology and urban morphology results in developer-centric policies. Neither developers nor the marketplace can comprehensively address issues of housing affordability and residential segregation. To avoid repeating the planning mistakes of the past century, today’s Statewide land use reform efforts have to be resident-driven.

Residents, not academics, planners, or investors, must be empowered to lead Connecticut’s future development.