Building Rehabilitation and Infill Development
As an antidote to unplanned growth, smart growth takes many forms. One crucial solution is the rehabilitation of existing commercial and residential structures in urban areas rather than the construction of brand-new buildings on virgin land in fringe areas. Here are details and resources.
Affordable Housing Rehabilitation
The combination of suburban sprawl and urban neglect amounts to bad news for working families in their quest for decent, affordable housing. Disinvestment in cities causes the urban housing stock to deteriorate, while much of new construction is situated in distant suburbs. The solution is the rehabilitation of vacant or blighted urban structures, especially in areas with existing infrastructure such as transit lines, public schools, sewer and water lines, parks, etc.
In fact, many cities have begun to experience some recovery in the past 20 years. Following the pattern in New York's SoHo district and Portland, Oregon's Pearl District, underutilized industrial buildings in some cities are being transformed into loft apartments, often as part of mixed-use developments. Portions of cities depleted by the flight to the suburbs have been rediscovered by new residents willing to restore old houses and recapture their historic charm.
The problem with this process, often disparaged as gentrification, is that it frequently involves the displacement of low-income households in favor of more affluent ones. This tendency is so pronounced that living in a city is sometimes seen as a privilege, available only to those who can afford overpriced trophy houses and apartments in newly fashionable “historic districts.”
To avoid wholesale displacement, housing rehabilitation and conversion must be inclusionary to provide housing accessible to working families. That means that private development projects must have set-asides for low- and moderate-income families.
Key to this process in many cities are non-profit Community Development Corporations (CDCs). For more information on affordable housing initiatives, see Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and the National Low-Income Housing Coalition.
Inclusionary Zoning is a deliberate policy to include people of different income levels in developments that otherwise would probably include only market-rate housing. A typical goal is to reserve 15 to 20 percent of the units in a project for low- and moderate-income households.
As an incentive, developers may receive fee waivers, expedited building permits, density bonuses, or favorable zoning variances in exchange for agreeing to the set-aside. Some versions of IZ are mandatory; others are voluntary or incentivized. Some may require that the developer include and build new affordable housing units within the project, while others may instead allow the developer to contribute to an affordable housing fund.
Inclusionary zoning enables low- and moderate-income people who might otherwise be segregated to live in areas with more economic diversity. Besides the benefit of working families living in areas more likely to be rich in opportunity, it is also intended to reduce hyper-concentrations of poverty that are associated with elevated levels of crime. IZ does not directly address the structural causes of urban poverty or sprawl, but it does improve the quality of life for some families. See the website of PolicyLink for more information on IZ and its use in cities such as Cambridge, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.
Infill is the development of vacant or abandoned land in an area that is otherwise built out. This provides a number of advantages. First, it concentrates development in areas where infrastructure such as public transit and sewer and water already exist, rather than in undeveloped “greenfields.” In this way, traffic and air pollution may be reduced, and lower-income residents may gain access to a wider range of jobs.
Second, infill development improves the value of surrounding properties by eliminating vacant lots and abandoned buildings, which may be crime and public health hazards. That creates an incentive for other property owners to reinvest.
Third, infill development provides a greater range of housing types. Whereas suburban development tends to create single-family homes, infill development can result in a variety of housing types (such as apartments, condominiums, and townhouses), thereby increasing the appeal of neighborhoods. Larger projects often combine mixed commercial and residential uses (such as retail on the ground floor, with apartments above), thus bringing new jobs as well.
Unfortunately, infill development tends to be more expensive for developers because of factors like site cleanup, zoning permits, small-scale building, and costs associated with addressing community members' concerns. In the long run, however, infill is cost-effective for taxpayers. Building and maintaining new roads, sewers, fire stations and schools for sprawling areas costs far more, not to mention the other social costs of sprawl: air pollution, loss of open space, and inequality. For more information on infill development, see PolicyLink, the Center for Community Progress, and the Greenbelt Alliance.
National Vacant Properties Campaign
In cities that have suffered large-scale abandonment of homes and factories, public officials and non-profits have developed tools such as land banks to help stabilize neighborhoods. The National Vacant Properties Campaign of the Center for Community Progress has numerous tools and an annual conference featuring best practices.
For example, Genesee County (Flint, Michigan) Treasurer Dan Kildee (who later founded the Center for Community Progress) created an exemplary tax increment financing (TIF) district (under the state's brownfields act). The district consists of all the tax-delinquent and abandoned homes to which the County took title. The TIF was able to borrow money up front for housing rehabilitation, paying down the debt with the incremental tax revenues generated when the properties were returned to the tax rolls (either as reoccupied homes or as lots sold to adjoining homeowners). Now that's what TIF was really meant for!
Some infill projects involve brownfields, defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as “abandoned, idled, or under-used industrial and commercial facilities where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived environmental contamination.” Brownfields, which are disproportionately located in lower-income communities, are usually abandoned manufacturing sites. They are the opposite of greenfields, or undeveloped open spaces such as farmland.
When developers decontaminate, safety-test, and then redevelop the land for a new purpose like housing or retail, the community benefits in several ways. Brownfield redevelopment increases the health of a neighborhood by removing any contamination. It also enhances livability, promotes economic growth and creates jobs in the clean-up process, reconstruction and permanent new jobs at any businesses in the new development.
Building Code Reform
Among the barriers to creating affordable housing through rehabilitation are the costs associated with building code compliance. A growing number of states are reforming their codes to facilitate rehab, acknowledging that older structures should not be expected to meet the same standards as new buildings. See Good Jobs First's report Breaking the Codes for details.