Could Upzoning Increase Charlottesville’s Housing Affordability?

By. Neil Williamson, President

2019 Summer Economics Series: This summer The Free Enterprise Forum will examine a number of economic theories that impact business development, housing affordability, transportation, and quality of life in Central Virginia.  In all cases these issues relate to local government policy not any one particular project

From Minneapolis, Minnesota to Seattle, Washington to Charlotte, North Carolina to Eugene,Oregon, lawmakers are exploring expanding what can be built in areas previously designated for Single Family Detached homes only.

Modern OutlawMany misleading headlines from across the country (and political spectrum) suggest these “upzoning” measures will “effectively ban single family zoning”.

Technically, the headline is accurate, but the suggestion that “when you outlaw single family zoning only outlaws will have single family homes” IS WRONG .

Put bluntly, the government is not taking your single family house away, it is offering more housing choices to be potentially built within the Single Family Zoning designation.

Minneapolis is seeking to address issues such as housing, racial equity and climate change (sound familiar) with their Minneapolis 2040 Plan.  As a part of that larger plan, Last December, the Minneapolis City Council voted to get rid of single family zoning and allow residential structures with up to three dwelling units in every neighborhood.  image

Seattle, which failed to get a more comprehensive urban village plan endorsed, created Mandatory Housing Affordability for 6% of the City’s land mass.  Critics deem that it does not go nearly far enough.  Dave Ross from KIRO Radio interviewed Windermere Chief Economist Matthew Gardner:

“It didn’t go far enough.”

Gardner notes that roughly 70 percent of Seattle was owned, single-family housing prior to MHA’s passing, an approach that “made sense in the 50s, 60s, and maybe even the 1970s.” In today’s housing climate, though, he argues that it’s an outdated approach.

While MHA looks to reverse that trend in its own way, it’s also limited.

“The upzoning within the single family-zoned areas only applies to about 5 percent of that area,” he points out. “What happens … is you see a lot of pushback by neighborhoods, say[ing] ‘we want to embrace affordable housing, just don’t build it next to me.’ It’s a great shame.”

On Sunday, Oregon’s House Bill 2001, which requires cities with population greater than 10,000 or within Metro to allow duplexes in lands zoned for single-family dwellings within the Urban Growth Boundary, passed both chambers of the legislature and is headed to Governor Kate Brown’s desk for signature.

A New York Times Editorial Board opinion piece, Americans Need More Neighbors, strongly supports the need for more housing supply and endorses the upzoning concept:

Increasing the supply of urban housing would help to address a number of the problems plaguing the United States. Construction could increase economic growth and create blue-collar jobs. Allowing more people to live in cities could mitigate inequality and reduce carbon emissions. Yet in most places, housing construction remains wildly unpopular. People who think of themselves as progressives, environmentalists and egalitarians fight fiercely against urban development, complaining about traffic and shadows and the sanctity of lawns.

If a Single Family Home has two or three front doors, would it be impactful on your neighborhood?

Could those impacts be mitigated?

Should Charlottesville and/or Albemarle County become more permissive in allowing duplexes and triplexes in Single Family Zoned land in the urban ring?

What if it was also good for the environment?

imageThe Sightline Institute’s  Michael Anderson suggests allowing these products not only would positively impact housing affordability but might cut a block’s carbon impact by 20% . In addition, he highlights the transportation connections that happen in more dense communities:

When more people live within walking distance of any given street corner, that corner is more likely to get a frequent bus line, a local shop, a shareable car. Boosting the number of homes on residential blocks by one third (as on the Plex Block) correlates with a drop of about 1,000 miles driven per year per household, Margaret estimated last year—a 5 percent drop even after correcting for household size and income. If we’d assumed these new homes would otherwise have been built on the urban fringe instead of a close-in neighborhood, the contrast would be even sharper.

This density effect is probably strongest if it’s creating new options for living in a transit-rich, walkable area specifically for people who want to live a low-car life but couldn’t previously afford that sort of neighborhood. This, too, is exactly what duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes allow. By letting a few households split the high cost of land, they cut the minimum price for newly built market-rate homes and they boost the number of below-market, subsidized homes per public dollar.

The Free Enterprise Forum believes the concept of upzoning the urban ring should be explored.

While we recognize allowing such development does not mandate such density and it will likely only work in limited circumstances.  Even so, we have infrastructure concerns that should be a part of this community decision.

  • Can we calculate with any accuracy the maximum build out such a zoning allowance would cause?
  • How would such an action impact the 50 year water supply plan?
  • Can we project the number of additional schoolchildren (and costs) associated with the zoning change?
  • Can we accurately project the impact such a zoning change may have on housing affordability?

While we have more questions than answers, we hope the discussions can continue.

Respectfully Submitted,


Neil Williamson, President

Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and  Nelson County.


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