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Form-based codes can turn land use policy into affordable housing strategy

Earlier this month I was a panelist on an interesting webinar about how jurisdictions are linking “upzoning” with affordability. When localities in various parts of the country relax zoning restrictions, they are ensuring that some of the new value created for landowners leads to new affordable housing. Though not new, this concept, sometimes described as “land value capture,” has been gaining traction as a strategy for creating inclusive communities over the past few years. Indeed, the research I conducted for our report “After the Downturn” (PDF) found that most, if not all, of the new inclusionary housing policies we’ve seen since the recession are based on this principle.

Arlington County provides an exciting new example of land value capture in action. Just before Thanksgiving, the county adopted a new form-based zoning code for residential neighborhoods along the Columbia Pike corridor. Like many form-based codes, Arlington’s new form-based overlay increases residential development potential through greater heights and densities. What’s distinctive is that it includes both affordability requirements and affordability incentives.

Developers seeking to redevelop residential properties along Columbia Pike are required to set aside between 20 and 35 percent of net new units for affordable housing. The exact affordability requirement is tied to the additional development potential provided at a given site. In addition, the code provides parking and height bonuses for developers that volunteer additional affordable housing.

A growing number of jurisdictions across the U.S. are adopting form-based codes. A recent estimate suggests that more than 200 were under development this past year. While not all form-based codes expand heights, densities, and overall development potential, many do. This suggests to me a growing opportunity for win-win strategies for producing affordable housing in 2014, following Arlington County’s recent example.

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