Through two discussion sessions and a survey on its online public input platform, the city of Asheville is soliciting feedback on strategies to increase housing density and, it hopes, ease the city’s housing crisis. At a July 14 meeting, city planning director Todd Okolichany quoted a 2015 housing report that showed up to 43 percent of those who rent housing in Asheville pay more than 30 percent of their income for it and are therefore considered “cost-burdened.”
Not only that, but those cost-burdened residents are the lucky ones who can find a place; the same report showed that only 1 percent of the city’s rental units are available at any given time.
In response to City Council’s direction on Feb. 23, the city’s planning and urban design department has been evaluating strategies for reducing the housing crunch. Two such strategies include relaxing some city building lot standards and incentivizing multi-family housing. The planning department hopes to bring revised zoning ordinances that reflect public input to City Council for its consideration in the fall.
“These two strategies are just the beginning of the conversation about how we can increase housing options, diversity in the city and how to use our land more efficiently,” Okolichany said at the July 14 meeting.
One strategy city planners are considering is reducing minimal lot living area — that is, allowing homes to be built on smaller parcels than the city currently allows.
This change would primarily affect larger lots by allowing more opportunities for subdivision. The minimum width and area of a building lot could be reduced by 20 percent, enabling some property owners to create new building lots on their property. Setback and parking requirements would remain the same.
“It would open up potentially about 10 percent of our housing lots – lots that are very large that could be subdivided,” planner Vaidila Satvika said on July 14. “A 20 percent reduction [in allowable lot size] could potentially free up 10 percent of new parcels.” He shared an example of a district where the minimum lot area is 5,000 square feet. If lot area and width were reduced by 20 percent, the minimum area would be 4,000 square feet, and the minimum width would shrink from 50 to 40 feet.
“Reducing lot standards could potentially open up different patterns of land use that we don’t see so much in Asheville, like attached single-family homes,” he said. The department would not apply this consideration to property that is affected by the steep slope ordinance.
Another possible change relates to what Satvika called “lot area averaging.” Under current zoning, if a property owner has a lot that is twice as large as required, setback requirements often prevent the lot from being subdivided if an existing home sits close to the middle of the property.
“What we are proposing,” explained Satvika, “is that, as long as on average you can meet the requirements, we would permit a smaller lot up to about 30 percent … so that we can have a more efficient use of land.”
Attendees at the July 14 session had plenty to say about tiny homes. “A lot of people want the possibility of smaller living,” one attendee noted. Tiny house proponents, she continued, aren’t necessarily focused on 120-square-foot dwellings or structures on wheels. But existing standards for lot sizes make purchasing a lot and obtaining bank financing for a small home of around 500 square feet nearly impossible, since the land often costs more than the dwelling.
Satvika also discussed strategies for incentivizing duplexes and other forms of multi-family housing. The specific zoning tweaks the planning department is considering, he said, would move city ordinances back in time to a version of its 1948 code. At that time, building additional units in districts that allow multi-family structures required only 500 additional square feet of lot area per unit. The current proposal is to allow builders to add one unit per additional 1,0000 square feet of lot area, assuming that other requirements such as setbacks and parking are met.
“What this could potentially unlock,” Satvika said, “is what is starting to be known in planning and housing as a ‘Missing Middle.’” According to Satvika, the “Missing Middle,” as defined by Opticos Design of San Francisco, is a range of multi-unit or clustered housing types compatible in scale with single family homes. Such homes could help meet the growing demand for walkable urban living.
Another strategy the department is considering is design guidelines for multi-family homes. Though the state removed the department’s authority to regulate the design of single-family structures, commercial buildings — including housing containing three or more units — can still be subject to design guidelines.
Some attendees questioned whether zoning districts might be modified to allow for multi-family housing where it is not currently permitted. “These are just sort of ideas that we wanted to share with the public and to get your input about what you all feel about whether we should change any of our zoning districts or not,” Okolichany said. “As far as changing zoning districts, it hasn’t been something that we’ve discussed.”
Asheville’s zoning history
“Back in the 1800s, when Asheville was founded, it was much more dense and compact,” Satvika explained. “This was before automobiles: People walked and rode their horses.”
In studying old tax maps, Satvika discovered that many of the lots back then were smaller than what is permitted today. “A lot of them were 20 to 25 feet wide,” he said. “They permitted multi-family housing in every residential district.”
Some houses from the period, he continued, looked like large single-family structures but housed five to ten separate families. The streets looked different, too, with structures placed close together. These neighborhoods were very walkable and, in their day, highly sought after.
So what changed?
Satvika explained that as the city started to expand, and people began using street cars and automobiles, land was developed less efficiently. “The proliferation of automobiles started to extend the way that cities like Asheville use land,” he said. “And zoning districts started to change, too.”
New zoning regulations separated different types of housing into separate neighborhoods. “So now we are not only separating our uses — residential from industrial — but multi-family gets separated into zoning districts, and even downgraded,” he said. “Then single-family becomes incentivized. When we look at our neighborhoods today, we can see the result. What that is, in large part, is that the density is quite a bit lower than even our existing zoning permits.”
The Planning and Urban Design department will host a second public workshop and information session on Aug. 11 at the U.S. Cellular Center from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Those wishing to give their input online can visit the topic at the city’s Open City Hall platform.