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We often talk about how places can hack their zoning code to enable livability. The Project for Code Reform is taking this idea to the next level, helping cities look for the lowest hanging fruit on the walkability front. However, for places on the cutting edge of land use reform that have already adopted a form-based code, there’s a different sort of code hack.

As form-based codes celebrate their 40th birthday, there’s been plenty of time for some things to go wrong. A group of internationally experienced coders — Susan Henderson, Marina Khoury, Matt Lambert, Mary Madden, Bill Spikowski, and Hazel Borys — have compiled our top concerns. We intend to work with other coders to address the majority of these points at a Code Hackathon on June 12 at CNU Louisville.

Nothing cottagey about this courtyard housing in the St. James–Belgravia Historic District in Louisville. How would you code it? Click for larger view. Image credit: Hazel Borys

Seats are available for this June 12 Code Hackathon 202 session or if you don’t yet have a FBC to hack, you may want to join the June 11 Form-Based Code Bootcamp. If you can’t make it to Louisville in June, follow the Congress at hashtag #CNU27 for hacks to address these persistent problems:

#1 – FBC without Clear Desired Physical Outcome. Some communities issue an RFP to select a consultant before they’ve identified a physical vision for their FBC to carry out – and sometimes before they’ve even identified which parts of the community the new code will apply. In these cases, the FBC effort needs to begin planning and consensus-building.

#2 – Crazily Complex Codes. The complexity issue is perhaps the most troubling of today’s FBC problems. We’re seeing many codes with nested regulations and detailed typologies, which create ambiguity, frequently conflict with themselves, and can result in litigation. Ultimately, these practices creates codes that are difficult to understand by residents and challenging to build under by developers.

#3 – While We Are at it Syndrome. A second tier problem of codes that are too complex is failing to resist the temptation to solve every problem and fulfill every community aspiration. Better to nip this tendency in the bud rather than try to hack the code. This is particularly problematic when hoping that the new code will incentivize redevelopment and reinvestment without evenhandedly applying requirements like green building, affordable housing, and 1% for art.

#4 – Coding Too Tightly. Leave some room for development to stretch, with regulations like block sizes and density. It is not best practice to make assumptions about how the market will choose to build in defining density, like high surface parking requirements delivering half the density you need for a successful Main Street.

#5 – Implementation Failures. The majority of form-based codes apply to downtown, the town center, or the central business district, which further exacerbates the urban-suburban economic divide that is seeing poverty taking suburban flight. Implementation strategy should be about leveling the playing field for high-performance urban forms in more than one part of town.

#6 – Coding and Guidelines for Architectural Style. Excessive architectural specificity does not belong in municipal codes, unless the code covers a historic district — keep those for Homeowner Association agreements, if you must. The ambiguity of design standards and guidelines, including architectural ones, is a frequent problem in FBCs. Avoid the over-articulation requirements municipalities often impose to break down the scale of large buildings, often yielding sub-par results.

#7 – Conventional Parking Quotas. We know this may seem small, but it changes everything about the urbanism. When it’s a problem, it’s a political problem, not an author error. The approach to parking can reinforce or undermine everything else the FBC is attempting to achieve.

#8 – Layering FBCs on Top of Already Byzantine Regulatory Systems. Florida communities excel in this variant, where FBCs are sometimes overlaid on complex conventional zoning on top of overtly regulatory comprehensive plans. Good grief – no wonder such FBCs produce few tangible results.

#9 – Leaving Industry Out in the Cold. For most of the last 40 years, the majority of FBCs tend to write off industrial and other large format uses like big box retail, medical centers, and airports into special districts that are inherently auto-centric. With a strengthening in local goods-based economies along with clean industry and artisanal manufacturing, FBCs can safely and effectively reintegrate light industrial uses and even portions of medical centers and airports into walkable neighborhoods.

#10 – Mapping Errors. While this is not internal to the code writing, it can wreak havoc and has landed some codes in litigation. Many times, the mapping is left to the local government and the nuance of character isn’t always reflected in the map. Transitions between intensities must be carefully considered since locations of zone changes can make a significant difference in the success of the code.

#11 – Failure to Connect Codes to Climate Initiatives. Form-based coders have always been known as silo-busters, and yet most FBCs are very siloed from climate action plans (CAPs). Land use is not a big consideration in CAPs being adopted by cities, nor is affordable transportation prioritized. CAPs are performance-based, so we have to get better at measuring the particulars of the places governed by FBCs, which are usually the places that perform. FBCs should be written in ways that make it easier to keep score of climate impacts, otherwise they generally don’t count toward the CAP.

If you have already registered for the Code Hackathon CNU 202 session, please answer this survey to help us understand the issues you have encountered with form-based codes. We’ll try to aim our set of hacks at your set of issues.

Susan Henderson, Principal, PlaceMakers, LLC; Marina Khoury, Partner, DPZ CoDesign; Matthew Lambert, Partner, DPZ CoDesign; Mary Madden, Principal, Ferrell Madden; Bill Spikowski, Principal, Spikowski Planning Associates; Hazel Borys, Managing Principal, PlaceMakers, LLC

If PlaceShakers is our soapbox, our Facebook page is where we step down, grab a drink and enjoy a little conversation. Looking for a heads-up on the latest community-building news and perspective from around the web? Click through and “Like” us and we’ll keep you in the loop.

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“The best strategies are the ones that can be implemented.”

That’s a reminder from Jim Fox, director of NEMAC, the National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center at the University of North Carolina Asheville. Taking ideas to meaningful action is the bottom-line test of any plan. And it applies particularly to what is arguably humankind’s biggest challenge ever: the struggle to cope with the impacts of climate change.

In Part I of this series, I suggested how the obstacles to facing up to the challenge are essentially political ones, and I allowed as how doing politics is hard. In Part II, I’m counting on Jim Fox and colleagues to help us believe it’s not impossible.

To review:

“It is O.K, finally, to freak out” over climate change,” wrote David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warning in a New York Times opinion piece earlier this year.

What makes it “finally” is the steady data refresh on how fast we’re adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and how slowly we’re cobbling together strategies at a scale likely to lower the odds of catastrophic impacts. Key among the recent warnings is last year’s Fourth National Climate Assessment from the U.S. Global Change Research Program:

Earth’s climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization, primarily as a result of human activities. The impacts of global climate change are already being felt in the United States and are projected to intensify in the future—but the severity of future impacts will depend largely on actions taken to reduce green- house gas emissions and to adapt to the changes that will occur.

Okay, so how are we doing?

While Americans are responding in ways that can bolster resilience and improve livelihoods, neither global efforts to mitigate the causes of climate change nor regional efforts to adapt to the impacts currently approach the scales needed to avoid substantial damages to the U.S. economy, environment, and human health and well-being over the coming decades.

The progressively sterner warnings are ramping up the sense of urgency we’re seeing in mainstream journalism. Here’s a recent Washington Post feature, for example. And on April 14, The New York Times devoted most of its Sunday magazine to climate change topics. The attention seems to be having an impact in recent polls. Which would be good news were it possible to believe that public concern translates to public support for the policies and investments the National Climate Assessment calls for. Here’s Foster-Wells again:

In December, a national survey tracking Americans’ attitudes toward climate change found that 73 percent said global warming was happening, the highest percentage since the question began being asked in 2008. But a majority of Americans were unwilling to spend even $10 a month to address global warming; most drew the line at $1 a month, according to a poll conducted the previous month.

Politicians sense voter hypocrisy. That’s why Democrats and Republicans alike were dismissive of the House of Representatives’ more progressive members’ Green New Deal proposal. Costs too much. Steps on too many toes. Smells a little socialistic.

So where do we find traction on both strategies and implementation? Maybe among some surprising candidates, such as: insurance companies, national security analysts, real estate development pros, agriculture experts, Wall Street, transportation planners, even an international oil company.

Keep debating climate change all you want, they tell us, but they’re accounting for — and charging for — rising risks in their specialty areas.

NEMAC’s Jim Fox. Scorched earth hellscape digitally inserted for dramatic effect.

This is a good place to bring in Jim Fox and NEMAC. For the last dozen years or so, NEMAC has been developing and applying computer modeling and visualization tools to help clients analyze vulnerabilities to disasters of types. The focus of their work has shifted along with their client base, says Fox:

“A decade ago, we received work through contractual agreements with federal agencies and state governments. We started with basic education, answering questions related to ‘Did you know?’.  Now, half of our funding comes directly through local governments and regional partnerships looking for products and services to calibrate evidence-based policies and local actions. And the questions we’re answering are more related to ‘Why should we care?’ and ‘What can we do about it?’“

Not so surprising, given the fact that while climate change is the result of globally aggregated causes, effects are inflicted locally. “The topic has become more real to those feeling the increasing impact — and pain — from flooding, wildfires and other impacts,” says Fox.

If enduring disasters weren’t enough of an incentive for metros to begin thinking about long-run preparedness, there’s the increasing likelihood of a short-run price for foot dragging. Last year, Moody’s Investors Service, which provides risk assessments for the broader insurance industry, issued a warning that put future bond seekers on notice:

“Risk modeling and pricing will experience an extra layer of uncertainty since climate change tends to produce an unpredictable environment that makes assessing and pricing risk more difficult. Moreover, there is an increasing risk that pricing trends could consistently lag actual loss experience, which may force the industry to play ‘catch up’ in raising premiums to match increasing losses.”

That sort of notice gets the attention of senior staff and elected officials who might not otherwise consider climate change policy an immediate priority and goes a long way to explaining why “decision making is moving into the local scale,” says Fox.
Hence NEMAC’s expanding client list in coastal regions like South Florida and Charleston, South Carolina and in inland areas around Raleigh and Asheville, North Carolina, where flood events are growing concerns.

NEMAC helped produce a publically accessible online Climate Resilience Toolkit that plugs users into federal data sets that help them assess threats in their regions, suggests appropriate resilience strategies, and provides links to potential funding. In collaboration with its for-profit spin-off, Fernleaf Interactive, the public private combo has developed an even more specialized tool — AccelAdapt — that can be customized to integrate climate adaptation/mitigation strategies into local governments’ existing organizational structures and day-to-day operations.

AccelAdapt links directly to a city’s spatial (GIS) resources, allowing climate adaptation assessments and strategies to not only communicate directly with the city’s comprehensive plan and emergency management plan, but also stays up to date as threat data and property data is updated. In addition, the community can access a quantified assessment that exposes array of vulnerabilities city staffs and elected officials might not have anticipated, which forces them into a more comprehensive approach to the challenges. For instance, says Fox:

“Coastal communities are becoming increasingly aware of global sea level rise, but the nearer term threat that is causing more harm is related to increased flooding (which is driven by a changing climate causing more frequent and intense storms to dump large quantities of rain over several days). This is the issue that caused the recent flooding in Houston, as well as the massive flooding across the Carolinas. By having a tool such as AccelAdapt, communities can determine what they need to invest in now to build resilience, what to invest in next, and what they can wait to invest in at a time when more resources become available.”

This capacity for both analysis and application can provide the missing connections between concern and coordinated action. Cities and their regions present a political complexity that challenges strategic problem solving and that requires an alignment of interests for implementing solutions. They’re different from the global challenge primarily in the breadth of territory they’re responsible for. But there’s catalytic potential in what they can demonstrate — and what they might inspire at increasingly broader scales.

Examples of their success could be “the biggest little things” required to build confidence in solution paths and to respond meaningfully to the getting-to-scale concerns in the recent Climate Assessment:

“I think there are going to be winners and losers,” says Fox:

“The visionary communities with clear champions are going to be early out of the gate and be able to attract some of the limited funds that are currently available for this growing challenge. Other communities that won’t step up are unfortunately going to be the long-term losers. But this is true down through the ages regarding other changing realities. We all know the stories about communities that were not willing to read the writing on the wall regarding changing economies or politics and are no longer as powerful as they once were.

“But it is very encouraging to see communities such as Asheville, Charleston, West Palm Beach and Tallahassee taking leadership roles.  Note that these are medium size cities, ones that do not have the resources as their larger neighbors such as New York and Miami. But these cities and their leadership are passionate about the place they live, work and raise their kids.  They are devoted to keeping their quality of life high, and continuing to keep their hometown vibrant despite a growing list of challenges. Proactively facing current changing realities, and taking an informed view of the future, is ensuring that these cities will be on the list of winners for years to come.”

Ben Brown

If PlaceShakers is our soapbox, our Facebook page is where we step down, grab a drink and enjoy a little conversation. Looking for a heads-up on the latest community-building news and perspective from around the web? Click through and “Like” us and we’ll keep you in the loop.

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Back in 2011 when we were emerging from the Great Recession, I wrote an “End Is Near” post about the chance to make use of the crisis.

When you run out of all options except the ones that force you to think big,” I wrote, a little panic could be a good thing: “We are about to be freed to innovate, to become heroes even, by being stripped of comfortable delusions. Chief among them: Faith that somebody else will pick up the tab.”

The argument is unoriginal. Every big project requires a sense of urgency. Take, for instance, the project coming together in wrap-up episodes of “Game of Thrones,” where the threat of ice zombies wiping out all of civilization motivates feuding warlords to combine their forces in an army of the living to fend off the army of the dead. See also: Samuel Johnson’s 18th century observation about how “the prospect of a hanging in a fortnight wonderfully concentrates the mind.”

Click for source.

The bad news for us after the Great Recession and maybe for the assembled GOT forces in Winterfell is that a critical mass of heroes and heroic ideas doesn’t always materialize. Delusions persist. Especially when the zombies aren’t yet marching on the neighborhood.

Enough of us felt the Great Recession and its potential for disrupting lives to allow for a temporary breach in barriers to boldness. Rival political parties and the outgoing and incoming presidents signed off on an emergency agreement to pump hundreds of billions of dollars into the economy to avoid a slide into something worse.

In 2019, anxiety has metastasized. But now it’s unmoored. The things we have ample reason to fret over, including growing inequity issues unaddressed by the recession-era bailout, loom in times and places uncertain. We may acknowledge that some people in some places are going to pay terrible prices for our dithering. But when and where and who? The uncertainty permits a slow-walk from denial to doing something.

From a political perspective, stalling plays to our biases. We prioritize today’s emergencies over ones that seem far off. Big, scary stuff demands strategies at scale, like rounding up an army of the living. Which is no small task in an economy designed around short-term profits and for governments dependent on consent of the governed.

“It requires voters to accept ‘up-front costs that, if successful, will stave off never-to-be experienced long-term damage — policy for which election-oriented politicians can easily foresee receiving blame instead of credit.’”

That’s from a 2018 Washington Post opinion piece by Charles Lane. The interior quote is from public opinion researchers Patrick J. Egan of New York University and Megan Mullin of Duke University.

As you might suspect, Lane is talking about the ultimate high-risk example of political paralysis: The struggle to deal with the global impacts of climate change. Aggressive strategies to limit long-run damage, like slashing carbon emissions, he says, again quoting Egan and Mullin, “is a cause that ‘has no core constituency with a concentrated interest in policy change,’ while ‘a majority of people benefit from arrangements that cause’ climate change.”

This is a less than perfect time to be dealing with this stuff. Polarized politics already prevent us from addressing immigration, infrastructure, affordable housing, aging demography, health care, and other issues, each with their own steep price tags and accruing interest. Climate change won’t just add to the to-do list; it promises a multiplier effect, amplifying and accelerating crises already straining our capacities.

Retired Colorado State University professor and writer SueEllen Campbell, curator of 100 Views of Climate Change and a regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections, invites us to consider what we should already know:

“Just think about how disruptive wild weather can be: How the shelves of stores empty out of food, water, flashlights, batteries. Filling stations run out of gas. Roads are closed or jammed to a standstill. Power, phones, the internet — all out. Homes become flooded with toxic sludge or turned to ash piles and melted metal after out-of-control fire. Flooded farm fields. Frozen or flooded livestock. Fish without water. Whole towns brought to their knees. Businesses bankrupted by the costs of disruption and recovery. Helping agencies out of funds and staff. People dying because their bodies can’t cope with extreme heat or cold. Or they can’t move faster than wildfire or floods.”

That’s the here and now. “All these things are going to get worse as extreme weather increases,” says Campbell. “There are the things that happen more gradually”:

“Rises in hay fever, asthma, disease-carrying mosquito bites, heat stress on unborn babies and the elderly. We’ll have to rethink what plants will grow in gardens and farm fields, how to plan future access to safe drinking water, if it will be safe to travel to places where resources are even more strained.”

Add to that disruptions of economies at every scale and the social and political challenges of massive migrations of people away from danger zones to areas that may escape direct impacts of climate change but lack the resources to accommodate so many newcomers. The only sector of society specifically charged with figuring out and implementing comprehensive solutions to large-scale, long-term problems is government, which is currently hobbled by record low trust from those required to consent to solutions that are likely to inconvenience them.

Click for source.

No wonder, says author David Wallace-Wells, “It is O.K., finally, to freak out.”

The disruptions ahead, Campbell reminds us, “will come with questions for our hearts, how wide they will open, how well they will heal. They will test how imaginative we can be in creating new ways of thinking and doing and taking care. In summoning the courage we’ll need in going forward.”

In a second post, we’ll talk about ways the escalating sense of urgency is motivating some to address those questions — if not at the national and global scales that will ultimately be required, then at least as a demonstration of a path in that direction.

Ben Brown

If PlaceShakers is our soapbox, our Facebook page is where we step down, grab a drink and enjoy a little conversation. Looking for a heads-up on the latest community-building news and perspective from around the web? Click through and “Like” us and we’ll keep you in the loop.

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Between now and April 17, AARP, the largest advocacy organization for seniors, is inviting government entities and non-profits to apply for a Community Challenge grant. This program, now in its third year, is a good one. Not just for retirement-aged crowd, and not just for the support it provides for individual projects.

The grants encourage recognition at the community level of the sense of urgency shifting demography requires. And perhaps even more importantly, the program prods communities to shape and implement components of a must-do list for the must-face changes coming their way.

The grants are intended, says AARP’s online invitation, to target “quick-action projects that can help your community become more livable.” They are “small grants to improve housing, transportation, public space, smart cities and other community elements.”

AARP had me at “small” and “quick action.”

Danielle Arigoni, AARP

“We know that sometimes it takes a visible demonstration of a new idea to really galvanize concepts, spur excitement, and attract new supporters to get behind change,” says Danielle Arigoni, director of AARP’s Livable Communities Initiative. “That’s why we kicked off the Community Challenge program in 2017 with a focus on QUICK action. Our grants are generally funded within two to three months of the application being submitted, and we require that grantees complete their projects within four to five months of award.”

Last year, the grants spread $1.2 million over 129 projects. Taken together with the requirement that a project must demonstrate success within a few months, the limited funding imposes discipline to align vision, planning, and implementation cost-effectively. Bang for the buck, in other words.

And because the rules also prioritize proposals that increase the likelihood that an awarded small effort is an incremental step towards something with bigger community impacts, grantees are rewarded for leveraging the biggest little thing they can do right away.

This is a strategy we’ve been promoting relentlessly in this space. Here and here, for instance. It may be the only winning approach in cynical times.

“That kind of fast, catalytic investment has made a huge difference to a lot of communities,” says Arigoni, “and helped them demonstrate and build success for bigger efforts around placemaking, public space activation, bike/pedestrian enhancements, transit enhancements, and housing.”

For a list of projects funded in 2017 and 2018 grant cycles, go here.

“There is just no substitute for people’s ability to touch, feel, and see new ideas in action,” says Arigoni. “It’s easy for people to cast doubt on the transformative power of placemaking, particularly when they have come to accept their street network, their home, and their local public space as either the natural result of decline, or just the way it’s always been.

“To convert an unused alley into a well-lit common gathering space with string lights, mural and café tables, or an underutilized parking area into an intergenerational garden with raised beds, or the plaza in front of a local library into a musical park that invites people of all ages to make music together — well, that’s more convincing about the power of change than any article, speech, or proclamation.”

An additional bonus: The awarded projects, says Arigoni, tend to “cultivate partnerships across unlikely groups that outlive our small grant, and form the basis for longer-term change, and better mutual understanding.”

That would be a pretty good thing, given the current challenge of cultivating anything other than enmity, whether we’re talking debates in Washington or on local city council meetings. Seeing seniors in the vanguard of placemaking changes might be especially tough for elected officials and planning staffers who are accustomed to looking out on crowds lining up to oppose just about anything that threatens the status quo and seeing lots of gray hair. But the status quo is increasingly unsustainable. The impact of an aging population may be the ultimate unkickable can.

“Simple demographic realities confronting us as a nation sometimes create that common ground,” says Arigoni. “When people learn that by the year 2035, we will have more older adults than children, it’s a real wake up call to think about whether our communities are ready, and what we can all collectively be doing better.

“Recently,” says Arigoni, “our state office in Minnesota scored a major win by jumping into the fray around the MSP2040 Comprehensive Plan,” which ends zoning that restricts neighborhoods to only single-family detached homes.

“It isn’t that single-family homes aren’t great,” says Arigoni. “The Twin Cities just has an overabundance of them, they realized, and they need to re-focus their energies to diversify the housing stock, increase supply, and make housing more affordable. AARP in Minnesota was front and center in the campaign to educate people about the options — and we’re delighted the plan passed.”

Even more dramatic is the entry of California’s AARP organization in the state’s fierce debate over affordable housing. There, AARP has thrown in with the YIMBY’s, the Yes In My Backyard contingent pushing for higher density and a broader array of housing options near transit. (For an informative analysis of that debate and its implications beyond California, see Miriam Axel-Lute’s Shelterforce piece.

Laura Foote, executive director of California’s YIMBY Action, provided a compelling welcome to the AARP in a recent Curbed piece.

“Despite a lot of the rhetoric about older homeowners blocking housing, I think this recognizes that often older people feel just as trapped and stifled by the housing shortage as anyone else. Too many older people feel trapped in homes that don’t make sense for their lifestyles anymore but aren’t able to scale down to an apartment in their neighborhood. It’s hard to age in place and maintain friendships in your community if it’s either maintain a suburban household or move to an assisted living facility. AARP knows that so many older people want their kids, their friends, people in healthcare, and everyone in their lives to be able to live in their communities. What is the point of aging in place if it means watching everyone you love have to move away?”

In the next two decades, expect to hear that argument in a lot more communities. And AARP, through its Livable Communities Initiative, has been stockpiling research, case studies, and how-to advice to support informed advocacy. For instance:

Ben Brown

If PlaceShakers is our soapbox, our Facebook page is where we step down, grab a drink and enjoy a little conversation. Looking for a heads-up on the latest community-building news and perspective from around the web? Click through and “Like” us and we’ll keep you in the loop.

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The Users’ Guide to Code Reform leads planners through the code reform process, providing tools for governments lacking the capacity to develop a full form-based code.

The Project for Code Reform is one of the most important efforts we’ve had the privilege of contributing to in the last decade. We’ve spent most of our professional efforts crafting Form-Based Codes (FBC) for local governments, and while we still feel that is the zoning gold standard for placemaking, we realize FBCs are not accessible to many communities across North America for reasons of capacity—either staff or political. Increasingly, local governments want to align their zoning regulations with their goals for placemaking, incremental development, livability, and economic success. They realize conventional suburban standards have completely failed to solve for these issues; however, there are often gaps in political support, staff capacity, and budget to hire consultants for a major rewrite of their ordinances.

When you consider the 42,000 units of local government in the US, and the vast majority with limited budgets and staff, the issue becomes how to deploy zoning reform broadly, with the least impact on capacity. While most current zoning-focused RFPs include form-based elements, and the spread of FBCs has accelerated, thousands of municipalities and counties continue to guide development with zoning that is antithetical to community goals. At present, analogous to tech start-ups, FBCs have a scaling problem: how can we accelerate the reform of existing codes by local governments in a politically and economically sensitive way?

We began solving for this problem when we were commissioned by the Project for Lean Urbanism to write a Lean Code Tool a few years ago. Through this process we delved deeply into the issues of capacity with Jennifer Hurley and Ben Brown. The Lean Code Tool was concerned with simple hacks to existing codes, focusing on barriers to walkability, finance, and regulatory burdens. The tool was conceived as a way to evolve existing codes, step by step over time, increasing the aggressiveness of reform as capacity increases. We saw a very high level of interest in the Tool over the last two years, but the tool was oriented toward like-minded coders already familiar with the goals of the Lean Urbanism movement, without much additional background. The tool is straightforward and pragmatic, aimed for the implementer not a broader constituency.

Lynn Richards challenged the PCR team to think about ways to provide tools for a broader range of local governments to take ownership of their own zoning reform. The partnership with the State of Michigan (including the Michigan Municipal League and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation) provided an opportunity to craft a solution for a specific context. Through the PCR development process, we tackled the question of how best to address the needs of Michigan’s cities and townships, and heard the experiences of a number of localities at different scales. While we had expected to primarily hear about technical challenges, participating localities often discussed issues of capacity. We determined that the solutions need to scale along with capacity and complexity. Michigan had already seen a number of FBC implementations in communities with greater capacity. Simpler tools for lower capacity situations were the missing piece.

The Lean Code Tool gave us a framework from which to approach incremental code reform that we matched with analysis of the Michigan context. Aiming for a wider range of supportive actors in local governments, we expanded upon the technical aspects of the Lean Code Tool to produce an accessible, user-oriented guide that balances actionable reform with background and guidance.

The product is a usable tool for local government staff and elected officials, as well as planning consultants who work for municipalities. While created for Michigan townships, villages, and small cities, the code reform principles and techniques can be applied to communities throughout the US.

The Users’ Guide to Zoning Reform is broken into two critical pieces—one which allows a local government to solve for discrete, specific problems, and the second which provides a set of basic zoning district templates for common walkable place types within the state. If a planning director is building the case for reform with their elected officials, the first tool is the initial step. The Guide offers background on zoning reform, instructions and process, and a series of code reform steps addressing streetscape, form, use, frontage, and parking.

Mary Madden of Ferrell Madden, one of the primary authors, identified the importance of “knowing where you are” when you begin to solve for zoning problems. And some problems are very specific to main streets, or downtowns, while others are unique to the neighborhood. The concepts of Place Types is built into the Guide, targeting the code reform steps as well as helping local government understand and orient policy around the character of place. The process for using the Guide is to first determine where you are, then assess local support and capacity, and finally select solutions based upon a combination of the first two criteria.

For those with strong political support and staff capacity, a Resources section includes minimal model districts that can be combined to create many solutions for municipalities of different sizes. The Resources section includes instructions on how to map the model districts relative to place type. The model districts were crafted to be used for a simple main street condition by itself, for a main street plus adjacent urban neighborhoods, and for a complete downtown with adjacent urban neighborhoods. These districts aren’t examples of FBCs but are urban in character and simple in structure. It would be easy enough to add the illustrations if a local government had the capacity, but our goal was to develop districts that could be simple text amendments. The model districts are written to be as simple as possible, permitting good development but not guaranteeing it. They are very straightforward in structure and simplified to reflect common zoning practices. They cover intent, use, lots and yards, simple site development, parking, height, signs, and building standards. Landscaping and open space were deliberately omitted for simplicity.

The Guide leads users through the code reform process, and provides tools for local governments lacking the capacity to develop a full Form-Based Code. Through many discussions in the PCR process, we strongly agreed that not every community needs a full FBC. Given the time and resources required to overhaul zoning, we felt that the prudent approach is to eliminate barriers to desirable development first. The door remains open for FBCs, but learning from the Lean Urbanism Movement, it is the barriers to development that most degrade our cities and towns. The Guide provides a path to remove barriers and enact the minimal standards necessary to promote thriving downtowns, main streets, and adjacent neighborhoods.

Download your copy of The Users’ Guide to Zoning Reform.

Susan Henderson and Matthew Lambert

Susan Henderson Susan Henderson is principal and director of design at Placemakers, LLC, a planning, coding, marketing, and implementation firm. She is a board member of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

Matthew Lambert is a partner with DPZ CoDESIGN in Miami, Florida. He is a board member of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

This article was published on CNU Public Square.

If PlaceShakers is our soapbox, our Facebook page is where we step down, grab a drink and enjoy a little conversation. Looking for a heads-up on the latest community-building news and perspective from around the web? Click through and “Like” us and we’ll keep you in the loop.

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If you are involved in the world of city and neighborhood design, you probably know (or at least have heard of) the work of urban thinker, writer, lecturer, and city planner Jeff Speck. He has authored or coauthored a number of books in the field, my personal favorite being The Smart Growth Manual (2010, coauthored with Andres Duany and Mike Lydon), a basic introduction to the principles of strengthening, building, and designing nonsprawling communities.

That book was followed in 2012 by Walkable City, which I reviewed in The Atlantic Cities (now CityLab) and described as an excellent text designed to motivate city leaders and thinkers to begin making their communities more hospitable to pedestrians. Walkable City was a big hit in urbanist circles, justifiably so. But its scope was limited:  it didn’t really attempt to show practitioners in the field how to accomplish its goals. It contained no illustrations and very few examples.

Walkable Barcelona (photo ©2018 by Kaid Benfield. Click for larger view.)

Now Speck is out with a sequel, Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Places, intended to cure those limitations. If the purpose of Walkable City was to tell us why we need to make more people-friendly places, Walkable City Rules is intended to tell us how. To a great extent, it succeeds in its mission.

I absolutely love the format: The book comprises 19 sections or “parts,” each containing some three to seven “rules.” Each section (e.g., “Get the Parking Right”) is introduced briefly, and each of the rules it contains (“Eliminate On-Site Parking Requirements”) is presented in a two-page layout with a headline followed by a narrative explication, an illustration or two, and then a slightly longer and more precise restatement of the rule.

Unlike its predecessor, Walkable City Rules is full of examples and illustrations, including 120 full-color photos and figures. The volume is excellent for browsing and should make a great reference work. Indeed, I would encourage the publisher to follow up with a spiral-bound, loose-leaf edition, because the book would be even more accessible and useful to practitioners if the two-page layout for each rule could be displayed flat.

A walkable historic neighborhood in Asheville, NC (photo courtesy of Victor Dover. Click for larger view.)

It should be noted that the book is not modest in ambition:

“Walkable City Rules is designed to be the most comprehensive tool available for bringing the latest and most impactful city planning practices to bear in your community.”

Nor in the author’s assessment of what the book accomplishes:

“You should read this whole book—not because you need to, but because doing so will cause you to understand more about the practical aspects of city planning than 90 percent of the people currently engaged in that work.”

To be honest, I’m not sure I’m sufficiently qualified in the field of city planning to judge whether Walkable City Rules lives up to those lofty claims. But I think they are significant, not because of Speck’s largely justifiable pride in his work but because they signal that, its title notwithstanding, this work is about much more than walkability: it is about, as the subtitle states, “making better places” in a more comprehensive sense. Indeed, some of the discussion that is not about walking directly, such as the very good sections on attainable housing and transit, are among the best in the book.

In the section on attainable housing, for example, Speck comes out firmly (and rightly, in my opinion) in favor of inclusionary zoning, a practice sometimes maligned by otherwise progressive developers; he also supports “housing first” programs to address homelessness and recommends safeguards against displacement of lower-income residents as a neighborhood gentrifies. In a later section, he includes a much-appreciated (if brief) rule supporting preservation of older buildings.

More than anything else, though, this book is a manifesto for reforming urban transportation policy and infrastructure and, within that obviously important and highly relevant subject, about reducing the negative impacts of automobiles on walkability and on our cities. Of the nineteen major sections of Walkable City Rules, eight are devoted directly to cars and driving; over forty of the rules are devoted to the subject, and that doesn’t even include the related sections on transit, bicycling and sidewalks. For example, there are two sections and ten rules devoted just to the number and size of motor vehicle traffic lanes on streets. If you’re looking for ways to slow down the traffic in your city, you will find lots of outstanding information on the subject in this book.

Walkable City Rules recommends 10-foot lanes for motor vehicle travel (image courtesy of Jeff Speck and Cupola Media. Click for original.)

Only one of the nineteen sections is devoted to sidewalks, and it comes near the end.  (Bicycling infrastructure actually gets more attention in the book.)  But I liked it a lot, especially Speck’s strong advocacy of street trees:

“Among all the hundreds of physical assets that American cities do or don’t invest in, none is as consistently undervalued as street trees. If our leaders were to understand their true worth, street trees would receive many multiples of their current funding. Communicating this worth has to be central to any campaign to improve walkability and urban vitality.”

Speck notes that street trees protect sidewalks, reduce car crashes, shape space, absorb stormwater, absorb pollutants, reduce urban heat islands, improve property values, improve retail viability, and improve public health. I could add even more to that list, but it’s an excellent start.

As strong as Walkable City is with respect to the relationship between motor vehicle traffic and walkability, some of the book’s suggestions will seem counterintuitive to many pedestrians. For example, Speck generally disdains traffic signals on neighborhood streets, preferring stop signs. While I think that’s fine on lightly traveled streets, in my experience as a pedestrian I wish we had a few more signals, not less. I also love the “countdown clocks” at crosswalks that tell me exactly how much time I have to cross the street; Speck would do away with them (because motorists can see and use them, too). He also writes that confusing intersections may be safer than straightforward ones; when I’m out walking, which is basically every single day, I like predictability, not confusion. These are perhaps minor quibbles, given the book’s overall excellence in discussing street design and measures to make walking feel safer from speeding or wayward motorists.

To the extent I have other issues with Walkable City Rules, it is perhaps an indication of how much I liked its handling of subjects it emphasizes that I only wish it had discussed some issues that it doesn’t, or that it mentions only in passing. The most notable omission (and I had the same misgiving with respect to the author’s previous book, Walkable City) is the new book’s relative inattention to the considerable contribution that city nature (beyond just street trees) can make to encouraging walking and to making cities more delightful.

City nature supports walkability in Savannah, GA (photo courtesy of Ken Lund, Creative Commons.  Click for original.)

My colleagues at PlaceMakers and I have written extensively on the subject (see, for example, the discussion, research, and links in this recent article). The key to integrating nature into walkable cities, of course, is to do so in a way that enhances rather than conflicts with walkability and urbanity. Almost all of us have a favorite city park or three that does exactly that beautifully, though, and parks are just the beginning when it comes to the ways we can enjoy nature in urban neighborhoods. Add green city squares, community gardens, living walls, fountains, green streets, and even window boxes, and in my opinion you’ll have a more walkable and lovable city than if you don’t.

Walkable City Rules does include the discussion of street trees, and even a rule headlined “push for local parks.”  But the latter really only advocates sports facilities and playgrounds, not other kinds of parks. And there are a couple of parks cited and one shown in the very last rule (“Dream Big”), as examples of undertakings by visionary mayors. I just wish this issue had been highlighted with discussion, not just mention.

Other topics I would have liked to see in a work as ambitious as this include the effect of street crime (or worry about street crime) on walkability, how the shrinkage of in-person retail may be affecting otherwise walkable urban streetscapes, and what to do about the regressive nature of the parking and congestion pricing that Speck advocates. I have a feeling that this book, like its predecessor, is going to have staying power; maybe additional topics not thoroughly covered in this edition could be included in a later one.

All told, Walkable City Rules is a very good book, one I expect to return to often, especially when I want to be refreshed on the intricacies of roadway design and taming the automobile in urban environments. Speck is absolutely right in his belief (articulated in the book’s first five rules) that walkability is good for the economy, good for health, helpful in addressing climate change, helpful in addressing social equity, and good for strengthening community bonds. Walkable cities are better cities and, if your city follows these prescriptions, its work in creating a better habitat for people won’t be finished, but it would be off to a heck of a start.

Kaid Benfield

If PlaceShakers is our soapbox, our Facebook page is where we step down, grab a drink and enjoy a little conversation. Looking for a heads-up on the latest community-building news and perspective from around the web? Click through and “Like” us and we’ll keep you in the loop.

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I’m suspicious of the words “neighborhood character” in defensive mode. If they once signaled a community characteristic worth prioritizing, the’ve lately become weaponized. A dog whistle for opposition to everything from granny flats to transit to, you know, change. But I’m definitely okay when the character of the neighborhood in question embodies adaptation.

My current favorite example is in my West Asheville neighborhood. It’s a gas station/convenience store redefining the concept of “convenience” for a place in transition.

This is what it looks like from a distance:

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And this is what it looks like a little closer:

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Yep, it’s a pub + gas. Plus a dog-friendly beer garden and rotating food trucks providing the grub to go with the beer. A neighborhood hang-out and an occasional festival.

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The Brew Pump sits at a primary corner on Haywood Road, the commercial corridor that threads through old working class neighborhoods that supported its businesses in the days before West Asheville was annexed. And as is the case with Asheville’s downtown, West Asheville didn’t feel all that appealing for lots of years before its recent reemergence.

For the downtown, the turnaround started in the last couple decades of the last century, then boomed to such an extent the retirees and the millennials flocking to Asheville had to think about some other place to park themselves and their urban-ish lifestyles. West Asheville, with the bones of urbanity along Haywood awaiting renewal, was ideal. So it began to boom, as well, about the same time beer became a thing. A mega-thing.

Scott Shealy. Click for larger view.

“We were pretty in tune with what was happening in micro brews and the craft beer category,” says Scott Shealy, who with his dad and brother-in-law manage the company that owns the gas station-turned-pub and nine other stores. The others they lease. This one they run themselves – as much for the fun as for the economic return on innovation and adaptation.

“About five years ago,” says Shealy, “we noticed the changes along Haywood.” Instead of the usual traffic of gas-ups and a trip inside for a pack of cigarettes, “people were walking in, and they were buying local beer.”

Since it was about time for an update anyway, they decided to lose the laundromat that had been part of their old operation and expand cooler space for local brews. They found out that their license to sell beer would also allow them sell draft, so the obvious question: “What if we put in a little bar with bartenders?” And a roll-up window with a few stools for an outside bar?

Then, there’s that underused, overgrown outdoor area beside the building? What if that was a beer garden? And how ‘bout a food truck. Otherwise, Shealy reasoned, “there would be no reason for people to hang out.” And it was clear people were up for hanging out.

“For the first six months, it was kind of slow,” says Shealy. “Then things exploded.”

These days, the Brew Pump functions as a kind of unofficial town plaza. There’s a website for fans. They sell merch, including a $40 Brew Pump hoodie. Every Halloween, they close down the pumps for a West Asheville-style street party, which is reliably eccentric, even a little weird, but somehow in a family-friendly way.

Thriller Flashmob, Brew Pump, Asheville Halloween 2017 - YouTube

Shealy, a former assistant district attorney in Charlotte, probably wouldn’t call himself an urban theorist. But he and his family grasped the concept of walkability pretty quickly.

“The whole corridor has become a place where people bounce from place to place to place,” says Shealy. “We all share a lot of the same customers.“

When others want to know how to make it work where they have similar businesses, Shealy cautions them about context. “I really try to get them to understand this store is unusual because of the walkability, the proximity to other businesses, the residential neighborhoods.”

I think you could make a case that the old version of the convenience store accurately reflected the character of the neighborhood in the in-between time before the boom. But I’m betting not many would show up at a zoning hearing to argue for preserving it exactly as it was. Now, however, it’s on the way to becoming an icon. If something else eventually takes its place in a future transition, there might be a case for at least preserving it in a beer museum.

It says something about the power of urban context that you don’t have to defend in a comp plan.

Ben Brown

If PlaceShakers is our soapbox, our Facebook page is where we step down, grab a drink and enjoy a little conversation. Looking for a heads-up on the latest community-building news and perspective from around the web? Click through and “Like” us and we’ll keep you in the loop.

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I recently watched The Human Scale again, a film from 2013, and felt the anticipation building to meet Jan Gehl at the 26th Congress for the New Urbanism (#CNU26) in Savannah next week, and at home in Winnipeg in September. I’m sure Jan will bring us an update on his city planning work in the last five years, but the ideas he shares in the film are timeless. Until then, here are memorable excerpts from the film, and the Twitter accounts of the speaker, when I could find them.

We have known this about the motorcar: if you make more roads, you will have more traffic. Now we know about cities: if you make more places for people, you will have more public life. In cities that have done away with their pubic spaces, life has become totally privatized. ~Jan Gehl @citiesforpeople

If you are a Robert Moses-type planner, you want to separate things, and extinguish the possibility for life to pop up. A concrete system in equilibrium (the Moses legacy of things moving quickly) is not what makes the city fantastic. Before the recent prioritization of pedestrians and cyclists, the image of New York City was of a throng of taxis in Times Square. The brand wasn’t the pedestrian experience. ~Jeff Risom @risomj

We have made the human living environment deadly. And people see that you can’t build your way out of traffic. ~Mark Gorton @MarkGortonNYC

New York City streets used to be 90% used by pedestrians and 10% by drivers, but the space allocation was just the opposite. We redid the math. ~Janette Sadik-Khan @JSadikKhan

New York City is changing North America’s perception of what the city street is all about. ~Paul Steely White @PSteely

Times Square, November 2017, image credit: Hazel Borys

When you walk through a city a five kilometers per hour, it’s a very sensual and interesting experience. So we design cities for people at the scale of 5 km/h. Suburbs are made so that cars are happy going 60 km/h. That’s a completely different scale from walking. We are building for ourselves problems of obesity, social isolation and financial hardship with the patterns of our car suburbs. ~Jan Gehl @citiesforpeople

We’re going to have to almost double our global urban capacity in the next 40 years. Global urban population was 3.5 billion in 2012 and by 2050 is expected to be 6.5 billion. We don’t have the capacity to keep building like we’ve been building, so we must figure out how to do more with less. ~City of Melbourne’s Lord Mayor Robert Doyle @LordMayorMelb

Dhaka is the fastest growing city on earth, with 1,000 new residents per day. The patterns of growth are destroying the flavor of the city. Ignoring lower income people and prioritizing for the rich becomes a callous of your own making as a city planner. ~Iqbal Habib, Architect, Urbanisation and Governance Committee

In Dhaka, 5% of people use private cars, and 37% use the ricksha. But conversations are underway to try to ban the ricksha, increasing auto congestion, and marginalizing lower income individuals. The budget for pedestrians is $10 million USD, while the budget for flyover overpasses is $1 billion. We want to be free of the negative forces of economic colonialism – car-centric development – in Bangladesh. ~Ruhan Shama
Image credit: flickr user: Pyb

The things that we want when we think as people – instead of as corporations – are actually very, very common. ~Bob Parker Mayor of Chistchurch, New Zealand @bobparkerchch

Cities are full of overlapping memories; overlapping stories. The city is not just bricks and mortar. It’s about love. Of the people for their place. It’s not possible for the master plan to answer all the questions, but we can create a robust framework that allows life to take place. Invitations to walk. To sit. To stay. A better way to cross the street. A better way to live your life. ~David Sim on Christchurch earthquake

City life comes when you give people a chance to not plan everything. To just come and dance. ~Coralie Winn @GapFillerChch

It is so cheap to be sweet to people in city planning. Man is a very clever animal who knows what he likes, and when he is uncomfortable. ~Jan Gehl @citiesforpeople

5th Ave at W 28th St, New York, 2017, image credit: Hazel Borys

If you’re looking for tools to implement many of the ideas in The Human Scale film, definitely join us at CNU Savannah. You’ll find me in these sessions, among others:

CNU Form-Based Code Bootcamp
Tuesday, May 15, 9am – 5pm

202 / Workshop: Frontages, Frankly: How to Write a Character-Based Code
Wednesday, May 16, 9am – noon

FBC What’s Working, What’s Not, What’s Next
Friday, May 17, 8:30am – 10:30am

Liveable Cities for the 21st Century with Jan Gehl
Friday, May 17, 10:45am – 12:15pm

Engaging the Unlikely
Friday, May 17, 2-3:15pm

CNU Dance Party
Friday, May 17, 9:30pm

See you there!

Hazel Borys

If PlaceShakers is our soapbox, our Facebook page is where we step down, grab a drink and enjoy a little conversation. Looking for a heads-up on the latest community-building news and perspective from around the web? Click through and “Like” us and we’ll keep you in the loop.

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In the weeks before the Congress for the New Urbanism conference in Savannah, GA, May 15-19, we’re presenting interviews with experts contributing to a day-long exploration of “Affordability: The Intersection of Everything.” A three-hour morning forum on Thursday, May 17, kicks off the discussion, followed by two break-out sessions that afternoon. Below is an interview with Ahmad Abu-Khalaf, research analyst with Enterprise Community Partners. He’ll be on the morning kick-off panel.

Q: First of all, give us a sense of the context in which Enterprise considers the national shortage of affordable homes challenge.

Ahmad Abu-Khalaf, Enterprise Community Partners.

A: Enterprise is committed to creating opportunity for low-income people, and we believe that opportunity starts with an affordable, well-designed place to live. There continues to be  a national shortage of affordable homes, and nearly 11 million renter households are severely cost-burdened – that is, they spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing. Enterprise recognizes that these challenges have created a pressing need to identify innovative solutions for containing the cost of construction and expanding the supply of affordable homes. Therefore, Enterprise has led several efforts to boost the capacity for innovation on the local level through infusions of technical assistance and financial resources. These efforts include examining ways to increase cost-effectiveness in the affordable housing delivery system and identifying approaches to expand the supply of affordable homes.

Q: Can you provide more details about Enterprise’s efforts? Do these efforts identify emerging innovative strategies?

In 2014, Enterprise, in partnership with the Urban Land Institute Terwilliger Center for Housing, released a report, Bending the Cost Curve: Solutions to Expand the Supply of Affordable Rentals, which identified the cost drivers of rental housing development and made actionable recommendations for improving cost-effectiveness without sacrificing quality or resident opportunity.

Building on this research effort, Enterprise established the Expanding the Supply of Affordable Homes program, which provides research and implementation support to improve housing affordability through financial innovations, regulatory optimization, and development/preservation cost-effectiveness. Under this program, Enterprise has been undertaking research initiatives that explore innovative, promising tools for expanding the supply of affordable homes across the nation. Last year, we released reports on utilizing publicly owned parcels for creating affordable homes and preserving and increasing the supply of the small and medium multifamily housing stock, which provides 54 percent of the nation’s rental housing stock and is a key source of affordable housing. In addition, Enterprise conducted research on promoting opportunity through Equitable Transit-Oriented Development (eTOD), aiming at identifying barriers and best practices to expanding the supply of affordable homes near transit and navigating federal transportation policies and programs that can support eTOD. I am looking forward to discussing these strategies and highlighting best practices from across the country during the CNU forum in Savannah on May 17.

Q: What is the role of the federal government in funding efforts for expanding the supply of affordable housing? How can local jurisdictions support these efforts? 

Expanding access to safe, well-designed affordable homes is crucial for low- and moderate-income households across the country, and therefore the federal government needs to support that work. Federal funding is a key component in any effort to expand the supply of affordable homes, and we are thrilled that effective advocacy has led to significant increases in federal funding for housing and community development.

There were major policy wins for housing in 2017 and earlier this year: not only the Low-Income Housing Credit (Housing Credit) – which is the most important federal funding tool for affordable housing development – was retained in last year’s tax reform legislation, but also the 2018 omnibus spending bill included a 12.5 percent boost for the Housing Credit allocation over the next four years. Furthermore, the spending bill includes significant increases for many HUD housing and community development programs, including $1.36 billion for the HOME Program and $3.3 billion for the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program, the highest funding either program has seen in seven years.

Despite these positive changes, it is important to point out that more work is needed to address the negative impact of lowering the corporate tax rate from 35 to 21 percent in last year’s tax reform on the production of affordable homes. An analysis by Novogradac & Company notes that 12.5 percent increase in annual Housing Credit allocations for the next four years will not entirely address the reduced pricing for Housing Credits and therefore lower production of affordable homes – the estimated gain of 28,400 affordable rental units would partially offset the loss of nearly 235,000 affordable rentals over 10 years resulting from last year’s tax reform legislation, explaining that a 16 percent expansion of Housing Credit allocations is needed to sustain current production levels.

Many states and local jurisdictions across the country have adopted policies and created financial mechanisms that can boost the supply of affordable homes. Examples include creating public funding vehicles like linkage fees and affordable housing measures on ballots, utilizing land use controls like the adoption of inclusionary zoning, and leveraging existing assets like publicly owned parcels for affordability. On example is the city of Los Angeles’ recently adopted linkage fee that requires developers to pay $1 to $15 per square foot to generate funds for the city’s Housing Impact Trust fund. Another example is the recent adoption of Washington State legislation that requires the state to inventory underutilized and surplus property, creates a first-right-of-refusal for public agencies seeking to secure state land for affordable housing, and authorizes state and local entities to discount the price of land if it will be developed for a public benefit.

Q: What advice do you have for design, planning and policy-making professionals when it comes to expanding the supply of affordable housing? What’s in the way of accomplishing the desired goal faster?

A: It is important to continue advocating for boosting the federal funding for affordable housing and community development programs. Lawmakers are currently debating fiscal year 2019 appropriations and we encourage housing stakeholders to reach out to their Members of Congress to urge them to allocate more funding to housing and community development programs, which is crucial to expanding the supply of affordable homes.

Despite the recent increases in federal funding, the current levels are not sufficient to address the national shortage of homes that are affordable to low- and moderate-income households. Our daily Community Developments newsletters (sign up using this link) highlights opportunities for affordable housing advocacy, including national sign-on letters and “Dear Colleague” letters in the Senate and House.

Working with states and municipalities on identifying and implementing innovative solutions for locally-identified housing affordability challenges is also crucial. Even with increased federal funds for housing, state, regional, and municipal investments in housing programs are required to begin closing the gap. In addition to addressing challenges related to securing funding for affordable housing development, there is a pressing need to address challenges related to local regulations, such as lengthy approval and permitting processes that add cost, public opposition from nearby neighborhoods – the Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) effect, and design standards and land use regulations that can increase the cost of construction and inhibit innovative construction methods. These challenges can be addressed by working with local lawmakers on adopting legislation that remove barriers to expanding the supply of affordable homes.

Our field knows too well that proposals for affordable housing development often face opposition by local communities, especially in higher-income neighborhoods. However, as the more and more people struggle with cost burdens, localities have started showing more support for prioritizing affordable housing and allocating greater funds for housing production. Examples include surveys that show Denver’s voters support affordable housing and the prioritization of affordable housing by voters in New Orleans. Enterprise also has been working to help housing advocates shift the narrative away from consumer choice – that is, differences in affordability, quality and access indicate that the housing market is working as it should — and help audiences understand these differences are not an inherent or even an inevitable feature of market. One key element of this effort is highlighting the systems that create and enable inequality in housing to show that systems often determine outcomes.

Q: Would you like to share any resources (links to papers, reports, websites) that might be helpful to housing advocates, developers and policymakers?

A: I encourage housing stakeholders to sign up for Enterprise’s daily  daily Community Developments newsletter (using this link) and bi-weekly Capitol Express newsletter (using this link) for the latest updates on news and regulatory activities impacting affordable housing and community development. The research reports that I have mentioned earlier and additional publications are available on the Enterprise website, and advocacy tools and tips can be accessed on our website, the ACTION Campaign website and the HOME Coalition page.

Ben Brown

If PlaceShakers is our soapbox, our Facebook page is where we step down, grab a drink and enjoy a little conversation. Looking for a heads-up on the latest community-building news and perspective from around the web? Click through and “Like” us and we’ll keep you in the loop.

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In the weeks before the Congress for the New Urbanism conference in Savannah, GA, May 15-19, we’re presenting interviews with experts contributing to a day-long exploration of “Affordability: The Intersection of Everything.” A three-hour morning forum on Thursday, May 17, kicks off the discussion, followed by two break-out sessions that afternoon. Below is an interview with Jeff Staudinger, former Community Development Director for the City of Asheville and currently a consultant in affordable housing finance. He’ll be a panelist in the afternoon session, “New Housing Finance (Mostly) Without the Feds,” at 4 p.m.

Q: Lots of people who will be reading this Q&A are planning and design pros who’ve worked on affordability projects financed with considerable help by federal grants, perhaps passed through state and regional agencies. In the current era, it feels as if the prospects for federal financial support to close affordability gaps are going in the opposite direction of the growing needs. First of all, are we missing something about what’s happening in Washington? And if it’s safe to assume less help than communities need will be coming from Washington, where do you suggest communities begin to explore other options?

Jeff Staudinger.

A: The trend away from federal funding for new affordable housing has been going on for some time.

Although the passed and signed 2018 federal budget included an increase in HUD funding, including more money for the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, it did not undo the erosion of federal funds for housing that has been happening for years.

The federal HOME program has been operating at 50% of its prior funding since 2011. USDA RD direct multi-family loans and guarantees have decreased. An increasing percentage of those funds going to rehab old projects, which the Housing Assistance Council (HAC) found to be woefully under capitalized.

The federal Housing Trust Fund has been used primarily to fund Low Income Housing Tax Credits units for very low income households.

On the public housing side, the Rental Assistance Demonstration program (RAD) in which public housing units are converted to voucher units, has given public housing authorities greater flexibility to use their existing assets, but has provided little new funding.

The name of the game on the national level has been, and continues to be, the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program. Although the federal credit allocation has stayed stable at about $8 billion, fewer units are being awarded annually due to rising costs. Unit production is also affected by the pricing of the credits, which is a function of tax rates. So the recent federal tax legislation, substantially lowering corporate income taxes, is likely to affect LIHTC funding strategies.

Q: How about funding support at state levels?

A: State support has never really been a large factor in affordable housing production, with most states relying on federal funds. Some have provided additional tax credits or set-aside funds to leverage the federal funds.

Q: Which gets us to potential resources at regional and local levels.

A: Right. While the need to leverage federal funding is still a very important use of local funds, direct local support is becoming more and more important in producing affordable housing. More local governments are finding that, by using a combination of direct funding, tax incentives and regulatory relief, they can work with developers to produce affordable housing without the complexity and expense that is associated with the LIHTC program and other federal funding. They can also tailor their agreements to meet other local priorities, such as infill development and mixed-income housing, both of which can be tough to do with some federal programs.

Q: So how might local jurisdictions begin to stitch together these resources?

A: First, advocates, interested developers and local governments should start looking at successful models in other places – and, of course, make sure those strategies can be structured legally in their jurisdictions. I would share, however, that generally it is slow going. The LIHTC program pretty much stands tall as THE WAY to produce affordable housing in the U.S. The demand for local funds to leverage those credits is high. Competition is fierce, so local financial support (or land, or infrastructure) makes one developer’s application, generally, more competitive than another.

They should also start sharing among possible partners their needs, priorities and business models. An affordable housing market analysis, for example, often can provide a solid starting place for public and private sectors to mutually understand the extent of housing need within a market context. This tool can help clarify assumptions about what constitutes “affordability” in a particular community, for example.

A certain amount of mutual transparency is also useful. The public sector is tired of hearing developers say they can’t afford to build affordable housing; and the private sector is equally weary of public sector complaints about unreasonable profits. Barriers can be reduced when the understanding of mutual risks, rewards and opportunities are openly discussed.

I believe the public sector also has some level of responsibility to facilitate and redirect the almost inevitable neighborhood pushback to affordable housing development. This does not de-obligate the development community from proposing and delivering good developments. However, part of the reason housing becomes unaffordable is that NIMBY resistance becomes public policy.

Q: The NIMBY issue rises in just about every affordable community discussion. What does your experience tell you about creating an environment in which all perspectives are represented but no group is rewarded for paralyzing the process?

A: I think this is one of the most vexing questions for both developers and advocates. I remember Kennedy Smith saying “40% are for you, 40% against you, and your job is to get 51% of the remaining 20% on your side.”

That suggests it’s a battle, which it often is. Maybe there is another way. First of all, it is important for the developer to play by the rules and to satisfy all the requirements for clarity about his or her intentions. But the same goes for regulatory bodies. Does the project fit within a jurisdiction’s existing regulatory framework? Is it feasible without rezoning or variances, for instances? If the developer’s plans satisfy the rules to move ahead by right, no should be empowered to change development plans because they happen to live nearby and don’t want change. Elected officials need to get this, and developers need to help them.

Affordable housing advocates need to stand up and ask personal questions of those who are concerned or opposed. Can your children live near you? What happens if your circumstances change?  Would you have to move away?

This can create, at a minimum, some dialogue and maybe illuminate some shared values. The developer also needs to understand that conversation is better than confrontation. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. What doesn’t seem to work (or works only after a lot of cost and conflict) is a hard-core inflexible approach. The more developers know about the place where they’re proposing development, the better their chances to plan a project that meets the broad range of community perspectives about what fits. And I think the local government, if affordable housing is a priority, needs to stand up and say so and support solid projects both financially and politically.

Q: What are the options (Community Land Trusts, public-private partnerships, etc.) that seem practical? And what are the advantages/disadvantages of each alone or in combination? Any lessons learned from communities that have tried various approaches?

A: I think the keys to success to any option are partnership and accountability. This is because, frankly, local governments and developers need to work collaboratively to create affordable housing in most markets. Or, in other words, affordable housing will likely not be created unless there is a public/private partnership.

That said, there is a broad array of partnership options. These include:

  • Lender/borrower partnerships;
  • Tax incentive/performance partnerships;
  • Land ownership/lease and other time-defined use of land partnerships;
  • Developer/designer/contractor partnerships;
  • Tenant/ownership subsidy partnerships;
  • Regulatory incentive partnerships.

I am sure there may be others. Much depends on the parties’ perceptions of risk/reward, and the relationship to the larger economic and political context. For example, a local housing trust fund that makes direct loans to affordable housing developments is a widely replicated model program. Typically, the fund will agree to take a subordinated lien position to private funding sources (or bigger government resources), putting it at greater risk of loss if the project fails. Is this risk sufficiently mitigated by the upside housing production? This local fund may wish to try to mitigate its risk by requiring the developer to provide a personal guarantee.

The questions become: Does the upside of potentially low-cost and flexible public financing sufficiently mitigate the risk to the developer? How will the primary finance resource, be it public or private, view the local government’s engagement in the project? Are the terms and conditions sufficiently favorable that the primary financer will consider it is closer to equity than debt, reducing its risk, and perhaps allowing a more highly leveraged deal? And how will their regulators view this?

As you can see, the development of the right tools requires dialogue and, ultimately, flexibility to respond to the vagaries of the local situation.

Q: So the idea is to assure a match between a communities’ capacities and an appropriate range of options, right?

A: The community needs to ask a lot of questions, and be informed by research, such as the housing market analysis mentioned earlier, along with understanding the legality of what they want to explore. From that point, there are other important questions to consider:

  • What are the major affordable housing needs? Are they based in a revitalization, a sprawl, or a gentrification context? All of the above?
  • What is the scale of the affordable housing need?
  • What are the current demographic and economic drivers and the forecast?
  • Where will the community target its efforts?
  • Who will be the primary beneficiaries?
  • What other resources are or will be available?

Q: Do you have an example of a particular community in which this discussion is playing out?

A: Consider Asheville, NC, where I’ve been working as a City staffer and now as a consultant.

Asheville’s major housing needs are based on a growing tourist-based economy in an area with limited geography available for housing development. There is little existing dilapidated housing stock, and what is there is in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. The projection in 2015 was that by 2020 over 6,000 new residential units affordable to households making 80% or less of the area median income would be needed just to accommodate growth projections.

The existing housing developers dedicated to affordable housing are creating less than 100 new units annually. However, new construction of market-rate apartments mushroomed post-recession on major corridors south of the downtown. And lots of single-family market housing is being built in relatively nearby county locations.

Asheville has decided to target households at 60%-80% AMI, as well as to work with the local housing authority in diversifying public housing undergoing transition. It has also sought to incentivize developers in the private sector to include affordable units in new market-rate rental complexes. It has also looked to alternatives such as community land trusts to return home-ownership to low-middle income families.

Asheville has therefore put in place policy and funding programs that:

  • Encourage lender/borrower partnerships: Asheville has added $10 million to its housing trust fund (through an affordable housing bond) to significantly increase its ability to leverage new affordable units;
  • Established a tax incentive program (a “synthetic” Tax Increment Financing (TIF) program) for development that is targeted to location-efficient affordable developments;
  • Made city-owned land available for mixed-income development;
  • Conditionally allocated $1 million for Community Land Trust ownership;
  • Is investing in public infrastructure to enable a RAD conversion and expansion to increase a 98 unit public housing development to over 200 units, and helping therefore leverage LIHTC funding;
  • Provides additional incentives to partner developers who actively collaborate with the PHA to use housing choice vouchers.
  • Offers density-bonus incentives to reward infill developments along major urban corridors and in urban neighborhoods.

Notice that it does not provide significant incentives for housing rehab, except to assist special needs households to remain in their homes. It does not provide significant resources for new non-CLT ownership construction or financing. It does not have mandatory inclusionary zoning (NC has not enabled local governments to do so). It does not have rent control (specifically illegal in NC).

Asheville has responded to locally identified need with a number of incentives. It continues to cultivate developers and looks to actively collaborate with developers. One of the ways it will do that is by being one of the sponsors of an upcoming Incremental Development Alliance workshop and work with the National Association of Town Builders’ plan to meet in Asheville this fall.

Q: What needs to be in place (local regs, P3 relationships, etc.) to provide a foundation for new finance options? From your experiences with non-profits and with municipal and regional governments, what should local policymakers and potential partners anticipate (neighborhood concerns, questions from elected officials, etc.)?

A: Here are six suggestions, some of which recap points I made earlier:

  • Look for a shared understanding of what the local market looks like and, in that context, what the affordable housing needs are.
  • Understand local developer capacity within that market. This would include the capacity of both for-profit and non-profit developers.
  • Inventory government resources as those resources relate to the market analysis.
  • Explore the potential for partnerships. What resources are available from others, such as USDA, HUD, State housing finance agency, etc.? Have those resources been used locally? In what way? Lessons learned?
  • Evaluate the public perception of the importance of affordable housing, and work from that perception as a starting place for conversations between elected officials, neighborhoods, advocates, and developers.
  • Local developers should actively seek partnerships with local governments.  My sense is that locally-based developers may have more success in missing middle conversations, because they already understand the local political dynamics, the neighborhood concerns, and the priorities of other key partners like the banks.
  • Consider innovative approaches that show promising results.

Q: On that last point, are there experimental approaches that appeal to you personally?

A: I am particularly interested in how crowd-funding and affordable housing might intersect. I have seen examples of successful crowd-funding for neighborhood-based commercial ventures that seem potentially transferrable to neighborhood-scale affordable housing.

Many developers are clearly seeing that “small is beautiful.” 400-500 square foot apartments, once reserved for the elderly, are now being developed for young, single folks. Just five years ago, no bank in Asheville would touch this.

In the affordable realm, I think the time may be ripe for a new surge in limited equity co-ops as a homeownership alternative. I also think that public housing authorities should be seriously thinking how to integrate limited equity ownership options into their Rural Assistance Demonstration. The time to think that public housing is a short time alternative is long past. Communities wish to stay together. Community Land Trusts and Co-ops may be the way to do this.

The cost to create net-zero energy development is no longer the barrier that it was. I think forward-seeing financers will realize this, and that utilities will start seeing that as well. This goes hand-in hand with development that puts folks in easy reach of jobs, schools, goods and services. Developers and financers need to factor in the cost to live somewhere, not just the cost of rent or a mortgage. But the cost of developing on prime land in successful places is high. So how do we create new, diverse and affordable neighborhoods that are largely self-sufficient? I think this is an emerging priority.

Ben Brown

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