The process of securing building permits and scheduling construction inspections often creates delays that drive up the cost of housing, and these delays can have a significant impact on a community's ability to keep housing affordable. Many large and small cities are using innovative online techniques to provide better access to their building departments and to reduce associated costs. Clearinghouse staff examined a number of these sites; some of the most interesting innovations are described below.
Other cities add additional functionality by providing streamlined methods of securing permits and inspection services. Pittsburg, Pennsylvania and Hampton, Virginia offer downloadable application forms that applicants can complete and mail or deliver to the local building department. Cleveland, Tennessee has fillable forms with an e-mail capability embedded in the form.
Other web-based tools are more sophisticated. In San Francisco, registered users can request electrical permits and pay inspection fees. Brevard County, Florida allows applicants to pay permit fees online and download and print building permits. Seattle, Washington allows builders to request inspections online and check on the status of a permit request. The Washington State consortium provides online information about completed inspections and what conditions the inspector found.
Jacksonville gives contractors with web-enabled cell phones access to the building inspection and permit status services that are online, including the ability to request inspections. Fairfax County, Virginia allows callers with any touchtone telephone to access similar services.
Pueblo County, Colorado uses e-mail to notify users when county departments identify problems or issues with the application. Fairfax County has an e-mail system to notify developers of announcements regarding building construction and land development. Saint Paul, Minnesota's site contains an electronic survey where users can express their opinions concerning the site.
Types of Permits That can be Secured Online
The types of permits vary by jurisdiction. San Francisco provides electronic services for electrical and plumbing permits. Brevard County allows contractors to secure permits for work that does not require plan review, including HVAC, pool resurfacing, and roofing work. New Castle County, Delaware; Seattle , Washington; and Long Beach, California also restrict online permits to those not requiring a plan review. Seattle allows online permits for electrical and onsite sewer repairs. Long Beach has online permits for construction, electrical, residential mechanical, and plumbing. Minneapolis, Minnesota has electrical, stucco/plaster, warm air ventilation sheet metal, mechanical, plumbing/gas fitting, chimney repair, roofing, and window replacement permits available online. Lenexa, Kansas encourages applicants to submit permit requests for all types of permits. The city's system allows for submission of plans and specifications online, together with the permit request.
To reduce processing times, many communities allow or require electronic payment of required fees. New Castle County requires contractors to establish an escrow account from which fees are deducted. Long Beach and Phoenix, Arizona allow those who use the system frequently to create an account with the city. All other users must provide the city with a credit or debit card. Brevard County and Saint Paul allow contractors to make online credit card payments for some or all of the approved permits.
Some communities allow the general public to search their databases for general permit information. Most communities, however, restrict the securing of permits by requiring user identification and a password. To obtain access, contractors must register with the city. San Francisco provides a downloadable version of the "Contractor's Agreement and Terms of Service" that contractors can complete and fax or email to the city. Brevard County and Long Beach both require contractors to appear at the building codes office and register in person.
Type of Assistance Offered
In order to make the online systems user friendly, most communities provide some assistance in navigating the website. Orlando, Florida offers a list of frequently asked questions and provides users with a voice response system that allows people to cancel construction inspections, obtain inspection results, pay fees, and file or check code enforcement incidents. Seattle's authorities describe the conditions under which a permit is required and provides a series of checklists for permit applications.
Since many systems don't allow users to access the data entry screens until they are ready to make specific requests, some communities also provide specific information on how to enter data into the online request system. San Francisco provides a series of screen shots to allow users to review the online data entry requirements. Missoula, Montana and Sonoma County, California use a system that contains a list of helpful hints users can refer to when entering information. Minneapolis has a "live help" function that includes instant messaging.
While electronic permitting has increased dramatically in recent years, many obstacles continue to constrain a thorough streamlining of the process. According to Eirene Oliphant, former codes official with the city of Lenexa, Kansas, state regulations require that plans contain the seal and signature of the architect. While the technology to create and transmit electronic signatures and seals exists, the state Board of Technical Professions does not recognize such signatures. Software that can read plans is often prohibitively expensive. The packages that are available mostly allow cities to read, but not edit, submitted plans. Oliphant also acknowledges that some contractors and some building officials remain resistant to submitting and reviewing larger projects online.
Local governments are increasingly using the power of the Internet to reduce the time and expense of securing permission to build or repair housing. As these constraints are overcome and technological innovations become more widespread, one more obstacle to the development of affordable housing will continue to diminish.
Faced with the increasing cost of affordable housing development, state legislatures are reacting by proposing ways to minimize the impact that government regulations have on those costs. Lawmakers from South Carolina, Illinois, California, Washington, New Jersey, Arizona, Ohio, and Massachusetts are among many who are considering statutory initiatives to reduce the impact that planning, zoning, infrastructure financing, and tax policies have on the cost of affordable housing. While these initiatives may not result in new laws in the state where they are being considered, they do offer ideas for others with an interest in pursuing legislative change.
Legislators in South Carolina have introduced a bill to require that local housing plans include an analysis of unnecessary regulatory requirements which add to the cost of housing. The
bill also calls for market-based incentives that local governments could use to encourage affordable housing development. The authors list a number of requirements that might be unnecessary, including minimum lot and building sizes; setbacks; open space, landscaping and buffering requirements, as well as requirements for parking, sidewalks, water and sewer lines, and drainage. They define "market-based incentives" to include density bonuses, relaxed zoning regulations, reduced or waived fees, fast track permitting, and design flexibility.
Several states are examining amendments to state zoning enabling laws. Lawmakers in New Jersey want to streamline the process for approving certain types of land uses in single-family neighborhoods. They propose that local governments permit home occupations as a by-right use, rather than a use that a local governing body must review and approve.
Several representatives in Washington State introduced legislation to allow, but regulate, the use of density bonuses. The bill acknowledges that voluntary mechanisms, rather than mandates, are the most effective method of encouraging private development of affordable housing. The bill would allow local governments to provide density bonuses of at least 25 percent for newly constructed, rehabilitated, or converted affordable housing.
Senators in California have introduced legislation that would amend the state'’s zoning enabling statute. If passed, the legislation would allow developers the option of creating a mobile home park as a way to meet the local government's affordable housing requirements.
In Iowa, legislators are considering a bill that would reduce pressure on nonconforming housing. The legislation would forbid municipalities or counties from requiring the removal of a legal nonconforming building by an amortization ordinance. Such ordinances currently allow continued use of the structure for only a limited period, at which time the use must be discontinued, without compensation.
Several states are considering various approaches to financing public infrastructure. Ohio is considering a bill to regulate the imposition of impact fees. Under the bill, the state would allow local governments and school districts to levy impact fees only if the local body has land use and capital facilities plans that identify needs for future public facilities. Local governments would also have to enact an impact fee resolution that describes the improvements that will be financed, the amount of the fee, and other restrictions. The bill also regulates the fee amount and requires the local government to provide credits for contributions and refund any amounts not used on needed improvements. In Illinois, a House resolution established a school impact fee task force to consider the problems associated with impact fees.
The New York State Assembly considered a bill that would authorize cities, towns, or villages to utilize tax increment financing for the construction of affordable housing, water and sewer lines, storm sewers, road and sidewalk construction, gas and electric lines, or other site improvements that are necessary for development. Massachusetts will reimburse communities for additional schooling costs associated with moderate-income higher density neighborhoods that are part of a smart growth district.
Several states are considering revisions to the state's tax policies as a way to reduce the cost of affordable housing. Illinois legislators want to expand the definition of those who qualify for a freeze on the homestead exemption by including those with disabilities. Senators in Arizona considered a bill that would change the state’s sales tax law. The new section would exempt from the state's sales tax products sold to nonprofit housing developers who provide housing for those with incomes below 80 percent of the area median.
The New York Assembly is considering legislation that would provide tax benefits to those who create accessory housing. If enacted, it would allow local governments to exempt from taxation the increase in value of a single-family home that would result if an owner added an accessory dwelling unit. Such exemption would last for ten years. New York is also considering a bill that would exempt certain developers and purchasers from the state's one percent mortgage tax. Those who purchase affordable housing and fall within certain income guidelines would qualify for the exemption. Developers who create housing for those who have income below a certain threshold also qualify for the exemption.
As part of their effort to reduce the impact of manufactured housing park closings, Oregon legislators have suggested creating a tax credit for qualifying individuals who are forced to move from closed parks. The bill would also provide a tax incentive for owners of the parks to sell such land to tenant associations or similar organizations.
Legislators in Washington State introduced a bill that would allow taxpayers to deduct donations to certain nonprofit organizations from their state gross income. Qualifying donations would go to 501 (c) (3) organizations that use a majority of their resources for the development, rehabilitation, or preservation of affordable housing.
States are approaching regulatory reform from a number of perspectives. Whether it's reforming planning and zoning policies, finding public infrastructure financing alternatives, or revising the tax code, each of these reform efforts has increasing the availability of affordable housing as its ultimate goal.
Regulatory Reform is Making Room for Manufactured Housing
Since the enactment of the HUD code for manufactured housing in 1974, and the promulgation of minimum wind standards for manufactured housing in 1994 for areas subject to hurricane- or tornado-force winds, it is difficult for any locality to restrict the siting of manufactured homes in residential areas based on any health or safety rationale. Such restrictions persist in many communities, however, and may form a significant obstacle to affordable housing.
The regulatory reforms included on the list below came from various state and local governments. We present Idaho's and Arkansas' state legislation first. In different ways, these statutes prevent local governments from entirely prohibiting manufactured housing. The local ordinances that follow were selected because they combine permissive planning and zoning for manufactured units with limits reflecting traditional zoning concerns, including aesthetics.
Idaho's Building Code Act (House Bill 586) was signed into law in March of 2002 and became effective later that year. Under the bill, each local governing board is now required to permit manufactured homes in any single-family residential zone, except for historical districts. Local governments are allowed to establish standards requiring manufactured homes to match the surrounding neighborhood. Standards include an excavated and backfilled foundation, a pitched roof, and at least 1,000 square feet of living space. In addition, the roof and siding must be of similar appearance to other houses in the community. In locations where it is also required for non-manufactured housing, the homes must have a garage or carport.
In 2003, Urban Planning Associates created a list of sample regulations that local governments could use to meet Arkansas' Affordable Housing Accessibility Act. Act 624 of the Arkansas General Assembly requires that cities enforce zoning regulations to permit manufactured housing on individually owned lots in at least one residentially zoned district. The General Assembly approved the Act in March of 2003, and it became effective in October of the same year. Suggestions for meeting the requirements of the Act include creating a district that permits site-built housing, manufactured housing, and modular housing. Yard requirement suggestions are not included, as the individual city is usually responsible for making those decisions. Suggestions for zones that allow multi-section, but not single-section, manufactured homes include a 20 by 20 foot minimum dimension, shingle roofs, a carport or paved drive, and an acceptable foundation. Homes must be new and under warranty or inspected by city officials. If these suggested regulations are to be considered by any city, the city attorney should first review and approve the proposed regulations.
Jacksonville permits both manufactured and modular homes in residential neighborhoods. The applicable regulations are contained in the city's Aesthetic Ordinance for Single Family Homes. The ordinance requires that manufactured and modular homes be similar in exterior appearance to other houses within the neighborhood. This is satisfied by meeting certain minimum requirements, including minimum dimensions for square footage and exterior façade, specific lot grading, and additional construction site specifics. Homes must have permanent foundations and meet the average number of projections on the facade as found in the neighborhood. The ordinance includes specific criteria to compare homes with other single-family homes in the neighborhood.
Since 1997, Spokane has allowed single-family manufactured homes on any lot in any residential zone, except for historic districts (Spokane Municipal Code). Zoning regulations are contained in Chapter 19 of Title 11, Regulation of Building and Land Use. Manufactured homes must meet a number of minimum site standards. Spokane's minimum site standards include having exterior siding that is similar in appearance to conventional residences, paved off-street parking, a permanent foundation, city water and sanitary sewer hookups, and compliance with all setback and height requirements. Furthermore, during the permit review process, the urban design staff will certify that the home is compatible with the character of the surrounding neighborhood, in terms of architectural style, roof line, window placement, porches, landscaping, and garages.
Kern County, California
Kern County's Zoning Ordinance (Title 19 of the Kern County Code) permits manufactured homes in single-family neighborhoods, including the most restrictive zone, known as the Estate Zone. The manufactured home must be certified under the National Manufactured Housing Construction and Safety Act of 1974. In addition, the home must: be installed on a foundation that meets the California Health and Safety Code, be no older than 10 years, and have a width greater than 16 feet. Kern's requirements include a number of architectural standards to ensure that the home is visually consistent with neighborhood exterior appearances. The roof must meet a certain minimum pitch, be composed of customary shingles, and have a one-foot eve around the entire perimeter. The exterior siding must be non-reflective and customary, and the skirting must match the siding. For any manufactured home not meeting all the specific requirements, the home may still be allowed upon approval of a conditional use permit.
Regulations regarding Aurora's policy on manufactured housing can be found in Chapter 90 of the city's Code of Ordinances. The city allows manufactured housing in single-family zones, but must be compatible with other houses in the neighborhood. Compatibility is established by meeting a number of requirements. Manufactured homes must be at least 24 by 36 feet in size, must have a pitched roof, and a permanent foundation. In addition, the home must have appropriate landscaping, and be architecturally compatible through the use of color, materials, and features. Lots for manufactured homes are subject to a number of specifications, unless they were put into place before 1997. Accessory structures are allowed, provided that they are at least five feet from the house. Specific setbacks and spacing regulations are included in the ordinance.
The ordinances and acts highlighted here provide a glimpse of how to implement requirements for manufactured housing at the state, county, or city level. The states highlighted here have each created laws requiring local communities to allow manufactured housing, while maintaining the local character and addressing the surrounding communities' interests. The cities and counties described in this article allow manufactured housing in residential zones, provided they meet a number of minimum criteria set forth in the zoning ordinance. If your community has enacted similar measures, please let us know by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.