Innovative answers to city housing

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In April, Beacon led a study tour to North America looking at successful examples of medium-density development. Some of the approaches they saw have potential here.

Figure 2: The Station in Seattle – redevelopment on a brownfield site.
Figure 3: High Point in Seattle, a master-planned community.
THE 15 STUDY TOUR participants visited a wide range of housing developments and neighbourhoods in Victoria (British Columbia), Seattle and Portland – three cities that have a lot in common with New Zealand.

They were impressed by the innovative solutions to increasing density of existing neighbourhoods, ranging from adaptive reuse of commercial buildings to smaller co-housing developments. Also inspirational were the ways in which these cities have funded and incentivised affordable housing.

Similar challenges

There are many parallels between these three North American cities and New Zealand. All the cities are struggling with growth in demand for both rental accommodation and home ownership. An ageing local population is changing housing requirements, while Asian migration is also driving population growth.

All three cities have expensive housing markets where market models have successfully delivered to the middle and top end of the market but affordable housing is a real need. Young families, in particular, are struggling to enter the housing market.

All three are also earthquake-prone and face the challenge of being prepared for possible future quakes.

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Increasing neighbourhood density

Faced with population growth, the cities have introduced policies to increase density in existing neighbourhoods. Seattle, for example, is targeting a growth rate of 150,000–200,000 new dwellings in the next two decades, of which about 70% will be on land zoned for single dwellings.

On offer are a range of initiatives that include secondary suites in larger dwellings, laneway homes and incentivising developers to provide additional residential units as part of seismic retrofits of heritage buildings.

Heritage building seismic retrofits

Victoria introduced heritage tax incentives in 1998 to stimulate the rehabilitation of downtown heritage buildings. This assists building owners with the costs of seismic upgrading and encourages them to include residential apartments on upper floors or by adding floors to existing buildings. Thirty-four of Victoria’s 300 heritage buildings have been strengthened, with an additional 631 apartments delivered, bringing both increased density and mixed use into the inner city.

An example is the redevelopment of the New England Hotel during seismic strengthening (see Figure 1). Ground-floor space was occupied by retail with 22 residential condos on the second, third and fourth floors and a new fifth floor discreetly added.

Figure 2: The Station in Seattle – redevelopment on a brownfield site.

Secondary suites and laneway homes

Secondary suites – dividing up large heritage homes into rental units or strata title apartments – are prominent in both Victoria and Seattle. Rules allow developers and homeowners to raise existing homes 60 cm, enabling secondary suites to be built below the existing house without building outside the existing footprint.

Victoria calculates 90% of existing houses have the capacity for secondary suites, and with city grants to encourage homeowners, this policy has delivered 20,000 suites.

Laneway homes and garden suites – like a granny flat – are another option. The City of Vancouver allows rear garages to be converted to or replaced by laneway houses – a policy that has delivered 300–400 new homes in Vancouver.

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Mixed use encouraged

Encouraging mixed-use neighbourhoods has marked the redevelopment of inner-city buildings.

As heritage buildings are redeveloped, these cities are seeing residential increasingly combined with markets, civic buildings, libraries, schools, commercial space, retail and movie theatres. ID Village Square in Seattle, for example, includes family housing and childcare above retail space, a library, a community centre, a health clinic and other services.

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Innovative funding mechanisms

Of interest for New Zealand are the innovative funding mechanisms these cities have come up with. Developers and not-for-profits can access council housing funds as leverage to access federal funding (through IRS tax credits) and market funds.

The Seattle Office of Housing, for example, raises a housing levy that is approximately US$65 per annum per household. About 50% of funding for housing projects comes from the IRS tax credit programme via a discount on tax obligations. In Seattle, this approach has successfully created 14,000 housing units, most of them downtown.

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Mixed funding for affordable housing

One marked difference to New Zealand is the non-market and non-state provision of affordable and supportive housing. City policies aim to make it easier for developers and builders to meet housing demand for affordable ownership and lower-cost rental apartments.

Funding for affordable housing, in particular, often comes from a mix of federal, state and city sources as well as private donations, mortgages or investments. Portland requires each urban renewal project to set aside 30% for affordable housing. Council provides about a third of funding for these projects through a soft loan, which can be forgiven at 30–40 years.

Municipalities, state housing agencies and community-based providers all agree that household affordability has a strong correlation with proximity to work. Consideration of affordability needs to include transport costs, plus the social and health costs of longer commutes.

Figure 3: High Point in Seattle, a master-planned community.

Linking land-use development with transport planning and public transport  provision is critical to deliver both good quality of life and affordability.

The integration of transport planning with housing development has proved extremely effective in Seattle with development of light rail and clustering affordable housing in nodes around transport stations. An example is the Station at Othello Park, Seattle – a complex redeveloped on a brownfield site and linked to a light rail station, with 351 1- and 2-bedroom apartments (see Figure 2).

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Community concerns considered

Many of these city developments have taken steps to address community concerns about higher density.

Seattle’s High Point, a sustainable master-planned community, involved residents in the planning process. Feedback showed residents wanted traditional-looking neighbourhoods, and the result is a development that looks very similar to surrounding areas but has twice the density (see Figure 3).

In Victoria, the not-for-profit Pacifica Housing took steps to overcome local concerns in the development of Camas Gardens, a housing complex for homeless people, by holding open sessions and running local workshops to keep the neighbourhood informed.

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Articles are correct at the time of publication but may have since become outdated.

Figure 2: The Station in Seattle – redevelopment on a brownfield site.
Figure 3: High Point in Seattle, a master-planned community.