HIP Focus Area: Innovative Single Family Techniques

  • Encouraging housing diversity and affordable options in single family communities

Why is it important to plan using innovative single family techniques?

Single family techniques can encourage affordable housing options in both new and existing single family neighborhoods. Reducing land and infrastructure costs through small-lot housing alternatives and more compact development can translate into lower per-unit housing costs when compared with more traditional single family development. Some strategies can assist in creating affordable rental options, while maintaining the single family character of a neighborhood. In newly developing single family zones, jurisdictions can use a range of development incentives and other strategies to encourage projects that incorporate some homes affordable to moderate- and low-income households.

Single family techniques can add to the visual appeal and character of a neighborhood by providing a variety of house and lot sizes and styles. Added density that arises from compact forms of development can also help a community achieve its broader housing, land use, capital facility, environmental and transportation planning goals.

What are some strategies to encourage innovative single family development?

Measures to boost density and housing choices in single family zones are often implemented through ordinances that overlay or amend existing zoning regulations. Featured strategies include promoting accessory dwelling units, offering density bonuses or other forms of incentive zoning, reducing parking requirements and enacting a small lot ordinance. Developing a community outreach plan and strategy and design guidelines can also assist the process. 

Permitting accessory dwelling units, cottage housing, and townhomes provides new, more affordable housing types in existing single family areas, while maintaining the single family character of a neighborhood. Minimum density, small lots, flexible single family regulations, zero-lot line, short plat and lot size averaging policies permit moderate increases in density in both developed and undeveloped single family areas. These strategies encourage and allow infill development, which can add density and diversity to single family areas. Enacting policies and programs can help preserve existing affordable homes subject to redevelopment pressures.

Master planned communities and planned unit developments can provide a flexible regulatory environment to induce a range of densities, housing types and land uses within a specific development. These approaches can be used to promote diverse mixed-income, mixed-use communities by incorporating small lot single family alternatives like cottage units and townhomes, along with more traditional single family and multifamily housing forms, commercial development, services, open space and community facilities within the same development.

What do I need to know to get started planning for innovative single-family techniques?

Consider the single family neighborhoods in your community. Is existing density far below the maximum allowed in any areas? Is there development pressure on a part of the city that is already largely developed? Which single family neighborhoods in your city would benefit from more housing choices, including affordable options? What are the most appropriate areas to encourage added density in the context of the greater community plan?

Legal requirements. Some housing strategies adaptable to single family areas are either encouraged or required by state law. Comprehensive plans are encouraged to include “innovative land use management techniques” such as cluster housing and PUDs (RCW 36.70A.090). RCW 43.63A.215 requires cities with populations greater than 20,000 to allow accessory dwelling units within their single family zones. RCW 35A.21.312 requires cities to permit siting of modular housing units in areas zoned residential, in an effort to promote housing choices. Streamlined or consolidated permitting for projects with multiple permits is required by RCW 36.70B.210.

Development regulations. Many of the suggested strategies for encouraging innovative single family housing involve amending your community’s development regulations. A good place to start is by assessing your jurisdiction’s comprehensive plan, zoning code and other regulations. Goals in your comp plan may not be well implemented by current development regulations or may be precluded by restrictive zoning. Look for barriers in regulations that may unintentionally prohibit or discourage denser and more diverse forms of development in the single family areas you have targeted (e.g., setback, lot area, lot dimension and density requirements).

Development climate. It is important to understand the development climate of your community. If there isn’t much pressure for growth, these tools are not as likely to help you reach density and diversity goals. Plan on directing these strategies to zones where there is development interest. Speaking with developers could help you gain insight into where the proposed changes might work, or where and under what conditions they would be willing to create more diverse and denser developments. Efforts to promote efficiencies in the development process through streamlined regulations, SEPA exemption, permit prioritization and education of permitting staff can reduce overall project costs for the developer, with the savings passed on to residents. Combining these tools with incentives like density bonuses or fee waivers for units accessible to moderate- and low-income households may further induce builders to incorporate affordable units into their projects.

Education and outreach. Consult with block and homeowner groups in the neighborhoods where you are considering implementing new regulations. Speaking with affordable housing advocates could help identify strategies that would work best in the community. Techniques that encourage community acceptance partner well with strategies that preserve or introduce new forms of single family development. Using educational and outreach efforts when initiating new regulations can enhance community buy-in. Researching community opinion through survey tools, public meetings, stakeholder interviews and focus groups are the initial components of a community outreach plan. Completing a comprehensive outreach and education plan can build support for and acceptance of innovative single family techniques.

What are some key issues that may come up?

Citizen opposition. Citizen opposition to affordable housing and increased densities in single family areas could take many forms. Residents in the areas affected by these regulations may worry that the character of their neighborhood may change for the worse because different forms of housing could develop or new households may move in. Residents may perceive that property values may decrease because of these changes, or that new projects may be incompatible with the area. In the face of increased housing diversity and density, residents may be concerned about increased traffic on residential streets or scarcity of parking in the area.

Anticipating these kinds of comments and addressing them through Community Outreach Plans can build greater community understanding of the regulations and create a smoother, more predictable process. Conflict may be more likely to present itself at the time of development, rather than when the new regulations are created. If possible, proactively deploying an outreach and education plan before these types of projects begin can help diffuse conflict.