rezoning: overview » introduction » upzoning

In some communities, current restrictions on allowable densities may be acting as a constraint on the market's ability to respond to changing demand, resulting in substantial increases in home prices in places undergoing population growth, or mismatches in the available housing stock and current needs of residents. By revising zoning policies or reducing minimum lot sizes, required set-backs and/or street widths to allow higher-density development in appropriate areas, communities can facilitate the delivery of a greater number and variety of homes at different price points and catering to different populations.  (Learn more about up-zoning to help provide housing options for older adults.) 

When adopted on a large scale, rezonings to increase density in residential areas could increase the housing supply to such an extent that home price pressures are moderated substantially. When adopted on a smaller scale, however, it is less clear that this approach by itself will ensure greater affordability.

However, by combining rezoning with inclusionary zoning or other requirements or incentives to reserve a share of the newly created homes for working families, communities can ensure that even modest revisions to their densities can help to increase the supply of new affordable homes.

One of the greatest obstacles to increasing density in relatively low-density residential areas may be opposition from area property owners, who have concerns about the impact of new development on their quality of life and property values. Experience has shown, however, that higher density can be attractive and designed to blend in with, and enhance, the character of the community.

In addition, studies have demonstrated that single-family homes close to multifamily buildings appreciate in value at rates equivalent to, or higher than, those that are not near multifamily homes. Moreover, researchers have found no link between higher-density multifamily housing and increases in crime rates or traffic congestion. [1]

Solutions in Action
In 2004, the Fairfax County, Virginia Board of Supervisors approved a plan to rezone an area near the Vienna Metro public transit stop and substantially increase development densities.

By combining an older low-density subdivision that contained approximately 65 single-family homes with five acres that had previously been used for surface parking, the MetroWest redevelopment plan will provide approximately 2,250 new condominiums, apartments and townhouses, in addition to office and retail space.

During negotiations with the developer, Pulte Homes, the County secured an agreement that approximately 5 percent of new homes would be affordable, almost double the number required under Fairfax County regulations for development at this density.

Benefits of Higher Density Development

Cost of land - Land is one of the largest cost components of any new development; distribution of that cost among a greater number of households can reduce the per-unit cost of development and allow homes to be sold at prices affordable to working families.

Public services delivery - Building at a relatively higher density facilitates more efficient delivery of public services and infrastructure, such as trash removal and sewer systems, which can then be supplied at a lower per-unit cost.

Transit - Higher-density housing is better able to support dedicated public transit, helping to reduce individual transportation costs and the community's traffic congestion. When higher-density development is located near public transit hubs or work centers, it can also cut down on travel time for working individuals by reducing the time they spend in the car.

Environment - Higher-density development consumes fewer acres of land per unit and can be a strategy for preserving natural habitats in sensitive areas, particularly through the use of cluster zoning. Compact development can also help to reduce air pollution by supporting public transit that provides alternatives to individual vehicle use and, when combined with mixed-use development, integrating jobs, services and housing to reduce the distance households need to travel each day.

Walkable Communities - Residents of higher-density communities can often access an array of amenities on foot, without needing to rely on a car for basic goods and services. This convenience may be attractive to residents who simply wish to use their cars less frequently; and can be particularly desirable for seniors who wish to maintain their independence when they no are longer able or interested in driving.

Households that live in walkable communities may also be able to reduce transportation costs by driving less frequently or by getting rid of their cars altogether.

Housing Mix - Areas that allow homes to be built at higher densities are able to accommodate a greater diversity of housing types, helping households at all stages of life to find a home that meets their needs and preferences.

Click here to visit the Lincoln Land Institute site Visualizing Density (accessible with free registration), which provides a thorough guide to what different levels of density look like and how higher density development benefits communities.

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Rezone low-density residential areas to allow higher-density development
Many communities can identify land that is zoned for low-density residential use but could absorb higher-density development. "Upzoning" these areas allows more homes to be built per acre, helping to increase housing availability.

Other pages in this section:

Rezone underutilized industrial or commercial land for residential development
Comprehensive review of a community's land use policies may reveal areas currently reserved for manufacturing or industrial uses that could be appropriate for residential development. Rezoning some of those areas for new homes could help communities meet the demand for housing.

Click here to view other resources on rezoning.

[1] See Overcoming Opposition to Multifamily Rental Housing, a white paper by Mark Obrinsky and Debra Stein issued by the National Multi Housing Council, for an overview of the evidence refuting these arguments.