HIP Focus Area: Urban Centers

  • Encouraging residential development and affordable housing in urban centers

What are urban centers?

Urban centers are planning districts intended to provide a mix of housing, employment, commercial, and cultural amenities in a compact form. They support transit, walking and cycling. They are focal points of vibrant city life and activity, as well as strategic locations for accommodating a significant share of future population and employment growth. Smaller cities may have one center, such as a downtown core, while larger cities may have multiple unique centers.

Why is it important to plan for urban centers?

Concentrating growth in urban centers helps prevent sprawl and provide public services and infrastructure more efficiently. Co-locating housing with non-residential uses is central to developing successful urban centers.

Fiscal benefits. By focusing population and employment growth in urban centers, the community and region can efficiently prioritize capital investments and other public services.

Housing benefits. Promoting residential development in centers can help jurisdictions meet a number of housing and related planning goals. Centers allow for higher¬ density multifamily and mixed used development that can diversify housing stock, as well as accommodate growth. Workforce housing options in centers allow people who work in the community to live near their jobs. Central living can reduce transportation costs and improve access to employment, amenities and services, which may remove key barriers to affordability for many households. Housing choices in amenity-rich centers appeal to independent empty-nesters and younger households.

Transportation benefits. By locating housing near job centers and services, workers and residents can rely more on transit, walking and biking. Commute and trip distances are reduced, and more household errands can be accomplished without driving. 

Environmental benefits. Focused growth patterns may offer environmental benefits, such as reduced fuel consumption and improved air quality. Increased urban infill and redevelopment can reduce development pressure on greenfield, agricultural, forest and environmentally sensitive lands.

Affordable housing preservation. As an urban center develops, affordable housing choices may be threatened by redevelopment, rising land costs or disrepair. Planning for preservation of affordable units ensures that growing urban centers continue to provide housing options for all residents.

Which communities should consider planning for housing in urban centers?

Housing is essential to a center’s success as a dynamic urban place, providing the residential base to support local restaurants, shops and other amenities. Cities can also effectively address affordable workforce and lifecycle housing needs through residential development in centers.

Communities with any of the following issues should especially consider encouraging affordable housing in centers:

  • Significant numbers of households paying more than 30% of income for housing.
  • Relatively low supply of rentals at fair market rents.
  • Shortage of homes affordable to moderate- and middle-income homebuyers.
  • Rapidly increasing home prices and rents in the community. 

What are some strategies to encourage housing in urban centers?

Land and development costs can be significant barriers to affordable housing in urban centers. The toolkit’s strategies aim to incentivize and reduce the costs of dense and affordable housing development. Featured tools include density bonuses, incentive zoning, multifamily tax exemptions, and parking reductions. Design guidelines are effective in facilitating public input and creating attractive homes that suit the priorities and character of the community.

Other tools aim to further offset development costs and preserve an existing supply of affordable homes. Regulatory strategies like form-based codes, mixed-use development, infill development, no maximum densities, upzones, and rezones provide the framework to make urban development happen.

What do I need to know to get started planning for housing in urban centers?

Crafting a strategic subarea plan for an urban center builds the platform for coordinating center housing goals and strategies. Develop a vision and goals for the center. Consider the role the center has and will have in the city’s and region’s development. Affordable housing goals, as a component of overall housing goals, should be set to match local need. Once goals are established, a combination of regulatory and other tools can be selected to implement and support those goals.

Communities should consider the following while preparing or updating plans to increase housing options in centers, including affordable housing:

  • Housing vision and goals. What are the housing needs and gaps in the urban center and broader community? What mix of housing will help fill the needs (e.g., rental, ownership)? What are the target affordability levels (e.g., less than 50% of AMI, less than 80% of AMI, 80% of AMI or greater)?
  • Demographics. Who lives in the urban center and broader community? What demographic changes are anticipated that will affect the housing market (e.g., aging baby boomers, echo boomers, household size), and how can the urban center plan and regulations provide housing choices that fit future lifecycle housing needs? Family-Sized Housing: A White Paper & Action Agenda may be a useful resource if your community is focused on affordable market rate housing for families. 
  • Density. What is the as-built density of the urban center? How does it compare to planned densities? How much capacity does the urban center have as zoned currently? Is the market responding to planned densities? Are density bonuses or other incentives needed? Are there other ways to meet density objectives and allow flexibility (e.g., floor area ratios, no maximum densities)? Citywide density information can be found in buildable lands reports prepared every five years or calculated from assessor data and the zoning code. Density can be difficult to visualize without examples. Calculating the density of attractive and attainable on-the-ground examples may improve understanding and guide density requirements in the development code.
  • Building heights. What are current building heights? What are planned building heights? Are developments achieving the desired building form and character (e.g., bulk, under-building parking)? Are there barriers to achieving the desired scale (e.g., conditional height limits, parking requirements, use restrictions)? Reviewing development permits and the current development codes can help planners with these questions.
  • Infrastructure investment. Have transportation, water, sewer, parks and recreation, cultural facilities and other capital investments been made to support housing investment and development capacity? Regular capital facility planning through comprehensive plans and budgeting allows for monitoring of infrastructure investments.
  • Development interest. Will the current housing market support the proposed development pattern? What additional measures need to be in place to support or incentivize the planned development? How can urban center housing development be phased to achieve the desired results? Where little development has occurred, market feasibility information can be useful to determine the relationship of development standards to current and future market conditions, and when land costs or rental prices will support the desired form of development.
  • Permit process. Is the permit process fair and predictable? Have housing and mixed-use permits been processed efficiently? Would streamlined permitting assist with housing development interest? RCW 36.70B guides the permitting process and has set permit review times and procedures; a review of the local permitting process would help to identify areas that can be tweaked to produce better results.
  • Stakeholder input. What key stakeholders and interest groups should be at the table to discuss housing options in urban centers? How can stakeholder input shape plans or regulations to achieve the vision and goals? Housing advocates, developers, builders, and local residents should review all of the urban center questions, “lessons learned” in the development process and quality of development. They can help planners course-correct urban center plans and regulations periodically to make them more successful in attracting additional housing options including affordable housing.

What are some key issues that may come up?

When planning for housing in urban centers several issues could arise, including:

  • What goes first? If housing markets are not producing the desired density or housing form, local governments can foster developments through a combination of strategies, such as consolidating and selling surplus properties and making infrastructure investments. They can develop appropriate combinations of regulations and incentives, including density bonuses and tax exemptions. Proactively creating policies that encourage or mandate affordable units before development pressure really builds can help ensure development unfolds in a desired manner.
  • Will housing compete with jobs for space? Controversy may arise over the balance of employment and housing in particular areas of an urban center. There may be worries that housing will push out prime locations for retail, office and industry. Undergoing a market analysis and understanding the forecast of both employment and population can help local governments consider the best mix of land use and development regulations to absorb the growth. Horizontal and vertical mixed-use concepts can ensure that employment and housing are integrated in a way that maximizes success for both uses. Demonstrating how housing near jobs supports employment centers and businesses with a workforce and consumers is also important.
  • Will new development raise prices and taxes? New development and infrastructure improvements can increase the prices and value of existing development in the neighborhood. Gentrification is a valid concern, especially if attempting to preserve, as well as create, affordable units. See the tool page Preservation for suggestions on keeping existing units affordable. The tools in this toolkit aimed at developing housing for low-income households will help promote affordability. Other tools can ensure the long-term affordability of new units, such as affordability covenants and partnering with nonprofit housing developers.
  • Why is the urban center receiving so much attention – what about other neighborhoods? Urban centers are likely to receive a great amount of attention in the land use planning process and infrastructure investment over time. Some may question whether other areas of a community should receive a similar amount of focus or investment. Describing how compact growth is a more efficient use of tax dollars, focuses a significant portion of growth in a central place rather than through sprawl, allows community-level cultural and recreation opportunities, allows for a diverse set of housing choices as lifestyles change, and other points are discussed in the Citizen Education and Outreach process. Using the comprehensive plan and development process as stages for open citizen input can aid implementation and demonstrate how all neighborhoods are part of the community’s vision. Neighborhood-level planning or resource offices can help orient resources in more locations, with very local expertise.