Is infill development a solution to affordability?

  • Cities across the country are looking at infill development as a way to create more walkable neighborhoods, but concerns about congestion and changing the feel of a neighborhood often follow many infill projects.

Rising prices in cities have been driving many people to the suburbs lately. This is the solution and cycle that occurs over and over.

Prices go up, people flee to outlying areas and brave crushing commutes in exchange for affordable housing and enough room. Prices fall and people cluster back toward the urban areas.

What if there’s a third option?

A new report, Right Type, Right Place: Assessing the Environmental and Economic Impacts of Infill Residential Development through 2030 from nonprofit, nonpartisan group Next 10 focuses on California, but it also contains wisdom that could be applied to other housing-starved areas.

The report suggests that one option for areas focusing on both sustainability and compact walkable neighborhoods is an increased focus on infill development, or creating housing in vacant, underused lots among older existing properties in established urban areas.

The report says that developing the right housing in the right places is a way to meet the state’s long-term greenhouse gas reduction goals that include getting 50 percent of all energy from renewable sources by 2030 and cutting petroleum use in half.

The study found that an infill-focused housing growth scenario provides the best outcomes for meeting the state’s climate goals while also producing economic benefits.

The study estimates that this path could avert emissions from 378,108 passenger vehicles and from burning over 201 million gallons of gasoline annually.

It would also result in higher annual economic growth, more tax revenue and lower overall construction costs — and infill households would drive roughly 18 miles less per weekday than non-infill houses.

The report used three scenarios, a baseline in which development follows the same patterns as 2000-2015, a medium scenario in which much more development occurs in infill areas than has historically occurred and the target scenario in which all new development occurs in infill areas of California.

The medium and target scenarios have more multifamily housing than the business as usual estimate. In the target scenario, both rent and housing prices are higher in the infill areas, but this is offset by savings in transportation and utilities.

To encourage infill, the report recommends changing zoning to allow for more multifamily use, reducing parking requirements and allowing increased density, while shortening overly lengthy permitting timelines.

Improving transportation options in infill areas is also recommended. As recent political battles throughout the state and indeed, throughout the country have shown, zoning and nimbyism (not in my back yard-ism) run rampant. People may want affordable housing, but they don’t want it near them.

Is infill enough? 

Although the amount of California households has continued to rise, the amount of construction has not kept pace with growth.

A recent survey from the Bay Area Council found that the number of millennials who want to leave is now up to 40 percent. The desire to leave was directly linked to how much they are spending on housing costs.

Among respondents spending 60 percent or more of their income on housing, more than half are planning an escape.

Infill alone is not enough to solve the problem because it still doesn’t fully address the problems of high rent and home prices that is the driving reason for housing affordability concerns and general unhappiness with city living.

Infill also faces resistance in areas where there isn’t already a lot of multifamily housing. Some people are concerned that a massive amount of infill will change a neighborhood’s feel. However, as populations shift, many people will have to adjust to the ways in which a city handles change.

Cities around the country are taking a closer look at infill for the same reasons mentioned in the report.

It provides jobs, eases commuting woes and can raise property values in depressed areas. As the Next 10 report shows, a mixture of policy updates, private investment and public support are necessary for substantive change.

Deidre Woollard is the co-founder of Lion & Orb, a real estate public relations company. Follow her on Twitter @Deidre.

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