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Breakthroughs: Successful Local Strategies for Affordable Housing
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  August 2005
Volume 4, Issue 4

Architectural Design Strategies Allow for Seamless Integration of Affordable Housing


Four years ago, in August 2001, an article appeared in the The Washington Post highlighting a program in which developers and Fairfax County, Virginia officials worked together to create a “Great House” – multifamily housing constructed to be both architecturally harmonious with other homes in the surrounding single-family neighborhood, and to comply with the county’s affordable housing and density bonus program. In addition, the Great House concept seeks to incorporate design elements that help ensure long-term compatibility with the neighborhood’s aesthetic values, thereby minimizing potential objections to multifamily housing. Since families have lived in these units for a few years now, we thought it would be worthwhile to visit a few of the sites to see if the original objectives are being fulfilled.

Fairfax County, Virginia’s Affordable Housing Program

Photograph of beige brick quadraplex.
Located just outside of Washington D.C., Fairfax County has a population of over 1,000,000 and a growth rate of over 3 percent during the last five years. In the early 1990s, local authorities enacted a program wherein developers provided affordable housing in exchange for increases in the allowable density for a development. According to Gordon Goodlett, Affordable Dwelling Unit Administrator for Fairfax County, officials revised the program in the late 1990s to make it more appealing to the development community. The revised ordinance reduced the compliance period from 50 to 15 years, and increased the minimum number of units to which the program applied from 15 to 50.

The program is voluntary. It only applies if a developer seeks a change in zoning or other regulation for developments of 50 units or more. The county uses a formula to determine the number of affordable units, rather than leaving the decision to negotiation between county staff and the developer. The ordinance balances the affordable requirement with an increase in the density allowed by the county. The county does not require that the affordable housing be comparable (in terms of size or amenities) with other units in the development; and they may be either rental or for-sale units.

Goodlett observed that another attractive aspect of the program is the flexibility that can be exercised in setting the sale prices for affordable units. He said that the county’s program has a maximum sale price for affordable units based on the size of the unit, but allows pricing adjustments for a number of different amenities. Such amenities might include unfinished basement or garage space, additional baths, or exterior architectural upgrades, such as a brick façade.

Market Concerns

“Still,” Goodlett said, “developers and the county were very concerned that the affordable units might appear out of character with the rest of the neighborhood.” The county wanted the affordable units to have the same look as other units in a development and wanted them distributed throughout the neighborhood. For their part, developers feared that the affordable units might have a negative impact on sales of market units. As a result of these fears, some developers offered to build townhouses in one section of the development.

Market Response

Photograph of beige brick quadraplex with eight mailboxes in front.
Dissatisfied with the status quo, a few creative developers conceived a design for affordable housing that eventually became known as the “Great House” – a multifamily structure that would be aesthetically and size compatible with the surrounding single-family neighborhood. One company, Edgemoore Homes, designed a quadraplex incorporating exterior aesthetics that blended almost seamlessly into the neighborhood. Each four-unit structure…

  • Has approximately the same total square footage as surrounding properties;
  • Contains two stories and has a brick veneer;
  • Incorporates bay windows and other offsetting features that break up the roof lines and façades; and
  • Includes garages and entrances that do not face the street.

Sue Robertson with Edgemoore Homes says it makes good business sense to participate in the program. These houses face less neighborhood opposition, and the county has assisted in marketing these units by selecting potential property owners and pre-qualifying buyers for the homes.

Another concept features a duplex design with entrances and garages facing different directions, thus giving the appearance of a single-family home. According to Stan Settle, Pulte Homes’ Regional Director of Operations, this duplex model fits in very well with the county’s requirements. “These well-designed units reduced local resistance, and we thought they would be a great asset to our single-family product in Fairfax County,” Settle observed. “The two-family home works very well in neighborhoods that are exclusively single-family detached housing.”

Continuing to Conform

Goodlett reports that since the inception of the program, four projects have used the Great House concept. On a recent visit to several of the sites where these units were constructed, we had to refer several times to maps of the neighborhood to ensure that we found the right units. The bay windows, entrances that face different directions, and garages that open from the rear of the structures continue to allow the structures to effectively blend in with others in the neighborhood. Off-street parking, in particular, results in less crowded streets. The only visible sign that these are multifamily units is the number of mailboxes that can be found out front.



Converting Motels into Affordable Housing Through Regulatory Reform

Mary Ann Walsh hates to see a good idea go to waste. When she saw that the owner of a rundown motel on Cape Cod had abandoned plans to convert the property into affordable housing, she decided to do something about it. Just as the permit was about to expire, she stepped in to rescue the project. As a first-time developer, she had the money to complete construction, but was not sure she could count on the town’s cooperation. Rather than obstructing her efforts (as she’d initially feared), she soon discovered that the Town of Dennis’ land use regulations would actually be of great help in her efforts to redevelop the property.

Dennis, Massachusetts’ Zoning Bylaw

Photograph of man standing beside two-story building with blue siding.
The Town of Dennis has a population of 13,900 residents and is located at the center of Cape Cod, 75 miles southeast of Boston. In 2001, the town faced two important housing issues. According to Town Planner Dan Fortier, the town wanted to establish guidelines that would allow them to exercise better control over housing development. In addition, the Town of Dennis faced a decision about the fate of a number of older commercial structures, such as hotels and motels that no longer meet the needs of the traveling public.

The town’s zoning bylaw, adopted in 2001, contains a number of new incentives to encourage affordable housing development. Many of the incentives focus on using existing structures and encouraging the creation of new housing within these underutilized buildings. Section 4.9 of the town’s zoning bylaw allows the Planning Board to grant special permits for affordable housing. To qualify, at least 25 percent of the for-sale or rental housing units must be affordable to those earning at or below 80 percent of the county’s median income.

Affordable Housing Apartment Regulations

The bylaw encourages developers to create affordable housing as part of a new or existing residential or commercial use. It contains specific minimum square footage requirements for units, depending on the number of bedrooms in the unit. One section of the ordinance also allows the Planning Board to approve proposals from developers to convert existing hotels or motels into dwelling units. The original version of the bylaw placed two requirements on such conversions. First, there were minimum square footage requirements for each unit. Second, the Board has the right to require that up to 10 percent of the units be two-bedroom units.

To encourage Affordable Housing Apartments, including the conversion of hotels and motels, the Planning Board can grant density increases and reduce or suspend the minimum lot area requirements. If the current use is nonconforming, the Board can allow a conversion of that nonconforming use to another nonconforming use, but only if it is dedicated for use as affordable housing. The Board also has the authority to reduce off-street parking requirements when the developer agrees to restrict more than 25 percent of the units to low- and moderate-income people, and can prove that the reduced parking is sufficient to meet demand.

The Board of Selectmen may act as a sponsor for certain affordable developments known as Municipally Sponsored Housing Projects. Should the Board deem the project worthy, it can reduce the minimums for the lot area per unit, the area of the entire tract, the lot area per bedroom, and can also reduce parking requirements. In this instance, the town requires that at least 50 percent of the units be affordable to those earning less than 80 percent of the median income, and that the remainder of the units be affordable to those earning no more than 120 percent of the area’s median. Now that the parameters have been set, let’s check back in with our intrepid developer to see how it plays out in practice.

South Cape Apartments

Mary Ann Walsh secured title to a 24-unit motel located on State Route 28 in West Dennis. The motel sits on commercially zoned land, surrounded by commercial uses. The previous owner abandoned any attempt to convert the motel, but Walsh stepped in with a plan to gut the entire building and create a mix of studios and one- and two-bedroom units. She also wanted to include a laundry.

During negotiations, the town allowed the conversion of the nonconforming use (motel) to another nonconforming use (housing) and reduced the amount of land required for each unit. Because the applicant could show that the structure was adjacent to a transit route, the town also agreed to reduce the number of required parking spaces. In return, Walsh must restrict 12 of the 24 units to those earning less than 80 percent of the median income. The owner also agreed to convert the motel manager’s unit into a two-bedroom unit. Currently under construction, the completed project will contain six studios, 17 one-bedroom units, and one two-bedroom unit.

When asked if she thought Dennis’ bylaw assisted in making the project financially feasible, Walsh responded, “Absolutely. This project would not have happened without the affordable housing bylaw regulations.”

The conversion of older motels into affordable housing is one tool that communities can use to promote housing for low- and moderate-income households. In undertaking such efforts, however, special care must be taken by communities to ensure that such housing is not only affordable, but that it’s developed in appropriate, ‘people-friendly’ neighborhoods, so that the resulting project contributes to the quality of life for both its residents and neighbors in the surrounding area.

Future Regulatory Reforms on the Cape

According to Dan Fortier, the results of the new bylaw have been somewhat mixed. The town is very excited that developers used provisions of the bylaw to create affordable housing. At present, the town has approved 128 new housing units under this bylaw, and 51 of these (39.8%) are deed-restricted to those earning less than 80 percent of median income. To date, 50 units have actually been built and occupied under the bylaw, with 19 of these (38%) deed-restricted. By the end of the summer of 2005, developers expect to finish 37 additional units of housing, with 19 of these (51%) deed-restricted. On the other hand, the town was disappointed that many of the new units created by the conversion of hotels and motels were quite small. In 2004, the Dennis Board of Selection placed additional restrictions on the hotel/motel conversions that utilize these ordinances, so that the town now requires a minimum size of 250 square feet. In addition, 25 percent of the units must be at least 700 square feet, and no more than 25 percent of the units can be less than 400 square feet. Walsh says, however, that these types of regulatory reforms are spreading to other communities on the Cape. Yarmouth is currently considering similar regulations to increase affordable housing, and it is hoped that other communities will soon follow suit.


Regulating Duplexes

Duplex housing has long been a path toward affordable homeownership. Early in the twentieth century, the great cities of the east met affordable housing needs by building hundreds of thousands of two- and even three-family (‘triple decker’) homes that housed a generation of newly arriving immigrants. As populations in these cities have changed, these homes have provided opportunities for homeownership and rental housing for new generations of immigrants.

Photograph of red brick two-story duplex next to a red brick two-story single-family home.
Such housing has long been seen as a way for people to purchase a first home, and build equity more quickly through rental income. Those wishing to purchase a duplex can use the income of the rental unit to help them qualify for a mortgage loan. Others consider duplexes as a buffer between single-family neighborhoods and more intensely developed residential neighborhoods or commercial and manufacturing land uses. How a community uses this type of dwelling to meet the community’s housing needs is reflected in its decisions regarding whether to allow duplexes in single-family zoned areas, to increase lot size requirements, and to create special duplex districts.

Unfortunately, in most developing suburban communities, zoning that allows duplexes (and other variations on the two-family home concept) has become increasingly rare. Fear of depreciating property values, a distaste for renters, an increased burden upon schools, and the desire to avoid changing the neighborhood’s ‘character’ have all contributed to reducing the number of locations where such housing can be built ‘as of right.’ Some communities have broken free of this somewhat myopic pattern by recognizing the importance of duplex housing, and the contribution that such housing can make toward meeting the need for affordable homeownership and rental housing.

Spokane, Washington

Authorities in Spokane allow duplexes in the most restrictive residential zones (CR, RS) under certain circumstances. Developers in CR1 zones can propose one- to four-family housing structures as part of an innovative residential development project. The residential lots in the development can be of any size, but overall density cannot exceed one dwelling per gross acre. Similar requirements apply to innovative developments proposed for the slightly less restrictive RS zone. Spokane only allows duplexes in areas zoned R1 if the property adjoins property zoned for business, commercial, or manufacturing uses. Spokane authorities allow two-family residences in residential zones that are less restrictive than the R1 zone. Owners may also build or renovate three dwelling units in certain designated zones (R2D) to encourage neighborhood preservation and reuse of older residences. Spokane also allows duplexes on smaller lots in the R2 zone if the lot contains at least 9,000 square feet and existed before 1958

Recent building permit statistics suggest that in 2005, Spokane’s ordinances allow the development of duplex housing. In 2000, duplex units accounted for 2.8 percent of all housing stock. For the first five months of 2005, duplex units represented 5.4 percent of all building permits.

Indianapolis, Indiana

Indianapolis allows duplexes in certain residential zones, but not in the most restrictive residential zone (D-1). In less restrictive residential zones, the city permits duplexes, but imposes certain limitations. Indianapolis allows duplexes only on corner lots and each unit must face a different street. In addition, the city requires slightly larger minimum lot areas and lot widths, as you’ll see in the table below.

Lot Areas and Widths in Indianapolis Single Family Zones
Minimum Lot Area
Minimum Lot Width
Single Family
Single Family
120 (on each street)

In subdivisions of five or more lots, the city will reduce the size of lot allowances for up to 20 percent of the lots, if the average of all lots remains at least 15,000 square feet.

Building permit statistics for the first half of 2005 suggest that Indianapolis’ ordinances allow the development of duplex housing. In 2000, duplex units accounted for 3.4 percent of all housing stock. For the first five months of 2005 duplex units accounted for 4.2 percent of all building permits.

Burlington, Vermont

Burlington authorities allow duplexes on lots in the most restrictive residential (RL) zone if the lot existed before 1973 and measures at least 9,900 square feet. RL zones have slightly higher duplex densities: 5.5 units per acre versus 4.4 units per acre for single-family homes. Burlington permits duplexes in all other less restrictive residential zones (RM, RH), as well as commercial zones in the city.

Recent building permit statistics do not point to a trend in duplex construction in Burlington. Although duplex units accounted for 7.2 percent of all units in 2000, the city did not issue a building permit for any duplexes during the first half of 2005. On the other hand, they only issued nine single-family permits.

St Paul, Minnesota

Authorities in St. Paul do not allow duplexes in single-family zoned residential districts. There is a zoning classification, RT1, that applies to one- and two-family dwellings. The city identifies certain areas where owners can convert larger houses from single-family to two-family residences as a means of extending the useful life of the property. St. Paul also permits duplexes in townhouse residential and low-density multifamily districts.

A comparison of requirements for single-family housing in the least restrictive single-family zones with requirements for two-family dwellings indicates that there are few additional requirements on two-family homes. The city’s requirement for minimum lot sizes and yard setbacks are similar for single-family and duplex housing.

St. Paul also has a traditional neighborhood district designation that allows for a mix of residential uses. The city allows single-family, duplex, and multifamily housing in each of three traditional neighborhood districts. In these zones, densities for two-family/townhouse developments are higher than those established for single-family developments. As in other communities, there are minimal differences for building heights, lot size, and yard setbacks.

Traditional Neighborhood Zoning Requirements
Building Type/Zoning District
Lot Size
Lot Width
6- 12 units
8-20 units
Single- family
6-12 units
8-20 units
Single- family
8-12 units
10-20 units


Recent building permit statistics suggest that in 2005, St. Paul’s ordinances do restrict the development of duplex housing. In 2000, duplex units accounted for three percent of all housing stock. For the first five months of 2005, duplex units equaled only one percent of all building permits.

Los Angeles, California

The Los Angeles code allows duplexes in single-family zones under limited circumstances. Each duplex lot must adjoin a commercial or industrial-zoned lot. Moreover, the lot on which the duplex is located cannot extend more than a certain number of feet from the less-restricted lot. Lot sizes vary by residential zoning district, but are similar for duplexes and single-family homes. The city also has a two-family zone (R2) wherein it allows two-family dwellings or two single-family dwellings on a single lot. Generally, minimum lot sizes in the R2 zone are 2,500 square feet per unit for both single-family and duplex housing.

Los Angeles’ building permit statistics suggest that in 2005 the city encourages the development of duplex housing. In 2000, duplex units accounted for 2.7 percent of all housing stock. For the first five months of 2005, duplex units accounted for three percent of all units that received a building permit.


While some different approaches are represented in this admittedly brief cross-country analysis, the ordinances adopted by these five cities have all been crafted to allow and ease the use of duplex housing. However, each ordinance places specific conditions on duplexes that can limit their use as a viable source of affordable housing. It may be that a kind of gradual introduction process could be at work in some of these communities, whereby local acceptance of these types of properties is being cultivated a little bit at a time.




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