City solicits input on strategies to increase housing density

CLOSE QUARTERS: Older residential areas of the city are generally denser, with smaller lots and houses placed close to one another. City planners are considering targeted zoning changes to allow for increased density to ease the city's housing crunch. Photo by Virginia Daffron

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.

Lot standards

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.

Multi-family housing

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.

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About Jane Morrell
My name is Jane Morrell and I am a student from Troy University in Alabama. I am working as an intern for the Mountain Xpress over the summer. Follow me on Twitter @JaneMorrell2 Follow me @JaneMorrell2

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13 thoughts on “City solicits input on strategies to increase housing density

  1. Murphy

    Maybe they should worry about affordable housing options instead.

    • Andrew

      Increasing density is a strategy to help with affordable housing without the city having to fork over money or give tax incentives to developers.

      • Lulz

        LOL, increasing density is a way to ensure that those in government who have grown along with the construction boom continue to have a job lulz. But don’t worry because more tax raises are coming.

      • Murphy

        How does building closer together engender developers (or anyone building for resale or rental) to decrease their sale/rental prices?

        “The median sales price for homes in Asheville for Apr 21 to Jul 20 was $284,500 based on 58 home sales. Average price per square foot for Asheville was $194, an increase of 12% compared to the same period last year. The median rent per month for apartments in Asheville for Jun 21 to Jul 21 was $1,495.”

        Yes, perhaps more inventory might decrease demand, but a significant drop is doubtful…

        My friends in real estate tell me houses are selling in 24 hours of being listed countywide… no matter the condition.

        • dyfed

          Developers are not able to build anything “affordable” (as ridiculous and imprecise as that term is) if it is not financially feasible to build it. Either offer massive tax breaks which we can’t afford the create fewer and bigger housing units than we need, or let them increase supply—there isn’t a middle way. Removing height limits, allowing apartments, townhomes and multiplexes, removing onerous regulation of what residential uses are allowed where—this encourages neighborhood diversity, attacks ghettoization, increases housing supply and lets the developers loose to do their jobs and meet our needs.

          Doubtful it will happen. Asheville is a NIMBY city.

          • All true. Increased density would also allow improvements in public transport without massive subsidy.

          • luther blissett

            I mostly agree with this. The biggest density gains don’t come from high-rises, but from letting neighborhoods build up from one story to two or three, encouraging first-floor retail and upper-floor residential along retail corridors, and also a willingness not to throw away acreage in 330 sq. ft. chunks per parking space.

            That said, I’ll quibble slightly with “lets the developers loose to do their jobs and meet our needs.” We’ve seen how developers jump on a bandwagon and ride it till the wheels come off: nobody’s going to look dumb and damage their reputation for proposing a hotel project right now, while doing something different is more of a gamble.

      • NFB

        If density was the answer to the affordable housing crisis in Asheville than downtown would have the most affordable housing in town.

  2. MMH

    I was going to build a yurt community in westville for seasonal living by the month but CITY dictated that I must get rezoned from RM-16 high density to ‘campground’ status, which was not the need. With this nonsense, CITY is depriving 20-40+- people from
    seasonal habitation (8 months of the year) within the city near the river. The young hipsters L O V E this lifestyle.

    • luther blissett

      I’d make a joke about your in-tent, Yepper, but given the sanitation requirements for a “yurt community”, maybe you’re just porta-potty.

      • MMH

        was willing to provide 2 community bath houses with laundry !!! spent thousands with engineers drawings! could have put \
        22-30 yurts on 2 acres for cheap living but NO , ONCE AGAIN, the CITY had TOO MANY requirements that would cost WAY too much to do.

        • Lulz

          The city will regulate because it’s economically feasible, aka more money they collect, to do so and those politically connected make it so. Problem is and anyone with half a brain knows that in the coming years, downtown will transform from locally ran stores to chain owned merely because of the high rents. I don’t care what McKibbon said in regards to only allowing locally owned businesses in the former BB&T. By the time it’s said and done, either you’ll see a so called locally owned operation ran by one of the bigger brewers such as Sierra Nevada or an outright national chain retail store.

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