August 2, 2012
Is Smaller Always Better?
As I mentioned in my first post, I want to use some of my time as a guest-blogger here to introduce a few projects I am current working on through the Furman Center. Today I want to talk about a fairly new project examining regulatory barriers to the construction of smaller housing units.
There has been significant discussion recently of the benefits of allowing the construction of very small apartments. In Boston, Mayor Menino has advocated the development of micro-units, smaller than those permitted by current regulations, targeted at young professionals. As reported on the PropertyProf Blog, San Francisco is exploring ways to reduce existing unit size minimums from 290 square feet to 220 square feet. In New York, Mayor Bloomberg announced a request for proposals to build an apartment building with units measuring between 275 and 300 square feet (currently units must be at least 400 square feet). The associated request for proposals for the project has already been downloaded over 1,000 times by interested parties throughout the world.
Parallel with this discussion of micro-units, a number of municipalities, both large and small, are rethinking regulations governing the construction of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in single family neighborhoods. Some communities, such as Santa Cruz, California, have gone further and actively encourage the construction of accessory dwelling units by providing technical assistance to prospective landlords, pre-approved designs, low-interest loan programs, and other resources. These units, which may be located over a garage or in a basement, offer opportunities for encouraging denser development and urban infill. They also are seen by some as a way to help seniors maintain their homes or “age in place.”
Efforts to encourage construction of smaller housing are motivated in part by the recognition that changing demographics and household composition have created a mismatch between demand and existing housing supply. A recent book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, explored the increasing prevalence of single urban dwellers. New York City’s Citizens Housing Planning Council raised attention to this issue through a recent project called “Making Room,” which enlisted a set of architects to propose different designs for innovative housing types that would meet these changing needs, but would demand regulatory changes in order to be built. The project recognized that many individuals, who cannot find housing that meets their needs, currently live in unregulated apartments within an underground housing market. These illegal conversions and other sources of affordable housing can create dangerous living conditions for occupants.
Smaller units – both in the form of micro-units in a multifamily development and accessory dwelling units in a single-family residential area – hold promise for serving a variety of needs: providing affordable housing, fostering greater density and more sustainable development patterns, increasing demand for mass transit in an area, and, as championed in Boston and New York, making expensive cities more attractive to young professionals who spend little time at home.
One supporter of the micro-unit proposal in New York was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying that “the city should ‘not be charged with regulating people’s preferences.’” This is, of course, the deeper question raised by changing the regulatory landscape to permit smaller housing units. Are these changes simply a matter of removing a (perhaps, to some, anachronistic or paternalistic) constraint on individual preferences? Or do the laws restricting this housing continue to serve an essential public purpose related to the health, safety, and welfare of residents? Commentators have noted that the zoning regulations that will be waived to allow the micro-unit prototypes in New York City were instituted in the early 20th Century to provide more humane living conditions, particularly through greater access to light and air. But modern construction methods and technology may provide news means to address these same health and safety issues, without returning to dreary and dangerous tenement living.
The discussion about changing regulations to allow smaller housing units is really just one piece of a broader question: do changes in living patterns, family composition, and technology demand a radical rethinking of the legal framework that governs urban life? Should the presence of vast amounts of currently illegal housing be seen as an indication that existing regulation is too strict and prevents the market from meeting demand? Are some regulations championed as serving goals related to health, safety and welfare, really more about the aesthetic or other preferences of existing residents?
To address the narrower regulatory questions raised by compact housing units, the Furman Center has begun a project, in partnership with CHPC, looking at a number of cities throughout the United States and examining regulatory barriers to smaller housing units, as well as efforts currently underway to change regulations or build these forms of housing. We are planning to study New York; Washington, DC; Austin; Denver; and Seattle, a mix of cities with varying degrees of interest and progress related to these issues. We will be examining a broad range of existing regulations, including zoning, building codes, accessibility laws, and occupancy regulations, that might prohibit or stymie the construction of these types of housing. Our goal is to outline the regulatory barriers that policy makers would need to address if they wished to allow more compact housing and to frame the questions that would need to be considered in conducting a more sophisticated cost-benefit analysis of the potential tradeoffs of changing these regulations, some of which may still serve a vital role in making cities more safe and livable.
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