Sightline: design review makeshousing more expensive

The Sightline Institute had a good article this morning on how a “streamlined design review” process adopted in Seattle in 2011 helped reduce the number of new homes being constructed and extended the process long enough that some smaller developers got out of the business all together.

Many American cities, including Boston, are currently facing a lack of small-scale multifamily housing for people earning in the middle-income range. Thanks to inclusionary development policies, the huge boom in luxury housing has contributed to an increase in affordable housing, so at the upper and lower ends of the spectrum, the number of available units has increased.

But, because zoning codes allocate the majority of land to single-family homes on large lots, leaving only a small percentage for multifamily development (if any, as in some suburbs), the process of going through development review and permitting ends up taking so long that developers opt for what they could do as-of-right.

In Seattle, according to the article, disatisfaction with certain townhouse designs — specifically parking minimums that resulted in four townhouses over garages around a central driveway. Residents called them “four-packs” and thought they were ugly, so the new design review rules were created. The rules, however, were intended only to improve townhouse designs, not quash them completely.

The unintended consequence is an issue because townhouses resulted in the most new housing, while fewer units are produced in rowhouses and single-family houses, making housing more expensive.

Five years’ data make clear three things: First, Seattle’s 2011 multifamily code update boosted rowhouses but decimated townhouses. Second, requiring design review quashed the auto-court four-pack but spawned something worse in its place—the auto-court single-family cluster offers the unappealing site layout of what it replaced plus less housing and higher prices. Third, design review obliterated not only its auto-court, four-pack target but all forms of townhouses, including ones that would otherwise be expanding Seattle’s housing stock without propagating ugliness.

The implications for the Boston area are clear. The Boston Redevelopment Authority’s review process, to say nothing of actually getting building permits, takes too long and this contributes to the size of proposed projects and the rents developers have to charge in order to cover their financing, contributing to the overbuilding of luxury apartments. It also makes developers more risk-adverse with commercial spaces in mixed-use buildings, preferring a Starbucks or a bank branch that will keep paying rent even if its unsuccesful to taking a chance on a locally-owned business.

It also shows that the kind of single-family zoning in neighborhoods like West Roxbury or cities like Somerville, which mandate minimum lot sizes and limit the number of units for multifamily homes (in fact, many of Somerville’s triple-deckers are non-conforming to the current zoning).

While Boston-area cities and towns have more multifamily homes than Seattle, it’s also true that the missing middle continues to be missed. Single-family homes aren’t being replaced with new triple-deckers; older triple-deckers aren’t being replaced with rowhouses or townhouses.

Small, incremental development like that ought to be allowed as-of-right in all residential zones.



One thought on “Sightline: design review makeshousing more expensive

  1. The funny thing about the four-pack townhouses in Seattle is that they were exactly what the zoning demanded. There was a blog that demonstrated this by taking a typical Seattle lot an then carving off bits to account for all the zoning (setbacks, height limits, parking required, open space, etc), an the result left a suspiciously 4-pack-shaped box in which a developer could build. Thus, the much derided form was just a rational response of developers trying to maximize what they could build given zoning constraints.

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