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Zoning, density linked to affordability

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Examining Affordability
This is the third in a series of articles looking at various aspects of affordable housing in Yellow Springs.

When the Board of Zoning Appeals denied a homeowner’s application last week for a density variance to construct three more homes around his existing home on Marshall Street, the board was adhering to the strict criteria of a Village zoning code intended to discourage density, according to Village planner Ed Amrhein.

Even though current Village Council supports this type of infill development to increase affordable housing options in the village, Benjamin Booso’s plan to build three detached single-family homes on two replatted lots was denied in a 3–1 vote. The project’s rejection may be symptomatic of a deeper problem, Amrhein said.

“That’s a zoning code that’s not working,” and has restricted infill development in the village for decades, he said. “There’s a contradiction between the stated desire for higher density and the code.”

Changing the zoning code to allow denser infill development was suggested in the recent Village/Township visioning report. And the draft Village-Township comprehensive land use plan encourages development through infill and greater density within the village.

More infill housing units, whether for rent or purchase, may be critical to increase the amount of affordable housing available to young families wishing to live in the village, according to several realtors, landlords and affordable housing advocates. Denser housing development, including multi-family, attached housing and detached housing built on smaller lots, keeps unit costs low, making housing more affordable.

“What we need to do is a lot more multi-family or duplex attached,” said long-time realtor Bambi Williams. “The more of them, the more families we can accommodate.”

Zoning and density

How much density is allowed in the village and what is being done to encourage more dense infill development?

Most of the village’s housing units, about 73 percent, are single-family detached units according to 2000 census figures. About 22 percent of all units are attached units of nine or fewer, totaling 357 out of the 1,660 housing units in town. Less than 6 percent, or 93 units, are attached units of 10 or more.

Multi-family developments are prohibited in some areas of the village. They are not allowed in the approximately 600 parcels zoned residence A. Greater density is permitted in residence B, in which there are about 840 parcels. And the highest density development is allowed in residence C, encompassing about 160 parcels mostly near downtown.

Many of the Village’s zoning regulations go back to the 1956 Village charter, developed in a time when zoning codes were written to separate buildings with different uses, like those for residential and business. The standard for minimum lot sizes in the village, which is 50-by-150 feet, can be traced back to early platting by Moses Grinnell and Judge Mills in the 1850s, according to Amrhein.

However, the Village’s Planned Unit Development, or PUD, ordinance can be used to increase density on a given parcel, though the process has become slow and burdensome in recent years, according to developers Jonathan Brown and Suzanne Clauser.

“We didn’t want rampant development in Yellow Springs without limits, but we needed to have some things that were appropriate to the ambience of the village,” said Brown of his developments, among the densest in the village. He has been frustrated with the slow approval process, which can cost developers time and wreak havoc on their budget, he said. While Clauser, who built the Stancliff community using a PUD, understands the importance of working with Village commissions, outside developers may be discouraged to build in Yellow Springs due to its slow pace, she said. Planning Commission meetings are held only once per month.

But the PUD concept remains valuable, said Brown, who has used it for several developments, including Littlewood, Southwood, Park Meadows and Thistle Creek.

“I was looking to provide housing that was affordable for young families,” Brown said of his Littlewood project on West Center College Street, completed in the late 1970s. “One way to do that was to use the PUD law that was in place in Yellow Springs at that time that allowed you to use smaller lots, but you put in a common area.”

Increased density reduces the infrastructure costs, which can translate to lower housing prices, Brown said. In addition, in several of his neighborhoods households share maintenance costs, which reduces their monthly expenses. In Park Meadows, monthly homeowners association dues cover outdoor maintenance as well as any repairs to utility equipment, which Brown said he believes is one reason the complex remains so popular and affordable.

In addition to new multiple-unit developments, infill units can be built around the community using existing zoning codes. Lot splits, where land is divided from existing properties, and more carriage houses built on lots are good ways to use the village’s land, according to Williams. And by reducing minimum lot sizes, Amrhein estimates that more than 30 substandard lots in town could potentially be built on.  

The rental option

Many, though not all, multi-family housing developments are rental properties, which have their own challenges. Several area landlords and housing advocates said Yellow Springs needs more rental units. Renting can be a temporary measure and is, for some families, the only way they can afford to live in the village, according to Home, Inc. Director Marianne MacQueen.

“The affordable housing field is re-examining home ownership — there are people for whom it doesn’t seem to work,” MacQueen said. “For some people home ownership isn’t for them, especially those with fairly low skills or interest in maintaining a house.”

The median mortgage payment in the village is $1,132, more than twice the median rent. Most renters in town, 52 percent, pay between $350 and $649 per month for rent and utilities, according to 2000 figures. Comparatively, only 13 percent of households pay less than $700 for their monthly mortgage.

According to MacQueen, rental prices in the village are less inflated compared to home prices. However, prices remain higher than many nearby communities, according to a recent rental survey completed by the Greene Metropolitan Housing Authority.

The medium range cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Yellow Springs is $425–$672 compared to $381–$418 in Xenia, $335–$441 in Fairborn and $402–$471 in Beavercreek, not including utilities, according to the 2009–2010 survey. A two-bedroom apartment in Yellow Springs is around $572–$839 and $760–$1,023 is the medium range for a three-bedroom.

In Yellow Springs in 2000, 37 percent of the housing units were rentals, slightly higher than the national average of rental units. But most of these were one- to two-bedroom apartments, which may not accommodate the needs of many families. In 2000, 80 percent of all rentals are occupied by one or two people compared to two-thirds of owner-occupied houses. Houses that may accommodate larger families typically start at $1,000 or $1,200, according to landlord Bob Baldwin.

“People looking for houses in the range of $700 to $900 can’t rent a house for those prices,” Baldwin said. “If they want to live in Yellow Springs, they may have to settle for an apartment.”

Baldwin and MacQueen see the need for more rental units in town to meet the demand.

According to Theresa Dunphy, the rental property manager at Dunphy Real Estate, rentals get snatched up quickly when they come on the market, and though there are typically more properties to choose from in the summer, she has just three available now.

“Things move pretty well in town unless they have certain quirks like not allowing pets, or not having a washer and dryer hook up,” Dunphy said, adding that it’s helpful if people have several months to locate a suitable rental.

In addition to more units, rental properties need to be safe, affordable and available on a long-term basis, MacQueen said.

“It is an option for people to rent but a problem is that you can’t control whether you continue to live there and that can be a hardship,” said MacQueen, who moved 10 times in 30 years of renting in Yellow Springs.  

In addition, health and safety issues must be addressed in many rentals, which share a village-wide problem of deferred housing maintenance, in part due to an aging housing stock. The result is that it can be challenging to find family-friendly rentals at affordable prices, MacQueen said.

Renting is also a way for new residents to become accustomed to the community and its housing options.

“Rentals are a good opportunity for people to get into town and get exposure to what’s here, where they might want to live and get familiar with the community,” said Dunphy, who sees an influx of new residents each summer as people come to enroll their children in the Yellow Springs school district. While the average renter stays between 12 and 15 months before either purchasing a home in town or leaving the community, some of her tenants have stayed as long as 15 years.

“They like the nature of renting,” she said of long-term renters. “They don’t want to have to worry about taking care of the house, taxes, insurance. For some people it works well for them and they don’t need the commitment of ownership.”

For those with the lowest incomes, renting may be the only option.

“People that are at 50 percent of the area median income or lower are best served by rental housing because it’s almost impossible for them to qualify for a loan, particularly in the past few years,” said Greene Metropolitan Housing Authority director Susan Stiles. Greene Met provides vouchers to about 20 households in Yellow Springs, which the households use to reduce their monthly rents.

Confronting density

Yet an increase in the village’s density through the development of new units for rent or purchase may not be acceptable to all residents, many of whom have objected to new housing projects in their neighborhoods. Brown faced opposition to many of his developments, which were opposed by neighbors and planning commission members because of potential drainage issues and other reasons, he said.

Home, Inc. has recently tried to develop two infill rental unit projects on Davis Street and Xenia Avenue, which were not completed due to zoning constraints and vocal neighbors, according to its director, Marianne MacQueen. Home, Inc. is now pursuing revised plans for each parcel. MacQueen and Brown noted that several existing multi-family projects in the village couldn’t be built with today’s regulations.

“By design, intent and people working at it, we’ve become our own enclave,” Williams said. “Some people that live here want to keep it that way.”

Council member Lori Askeland has further suggested requiring less frontage and parking in the Village zoning code and reviewing the PUD’s effectiveness. Amrhein and Village Manager Mark Cundiff plan to propose to the Planning Commission immediate changes to the zoning regulations to avoid a potential repeat of last week’s variance denial. And because of the increased awareness of the ways that the zoning code works against higher density, a complete re-write of the code is in Council’s 2011 proposed budget.

In light of potential opposition to new, denser development within the village, Askeland said that “it takes public education and that’s slow,” and that Council and commissions need to stand behind their policy decisions when working with developers.

In the end, current residents may have to make sacrifices to increase the town’s ethnic and income diversity, ensure a viable school system and maintain Village services like utilities by increasing affordable housing development, Askeland said.

“It’s good that we have a place where seniors are comfortable,” she said, referring to the community’s aging population. “We also want to be attractive to young families that have a desire to live here.”

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