Housing Policy Choices from Regenesis Reno 3 May 2022

 

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The primary source of this content is from The Affordable City by Shane Phillips. Many members of the Regenesis Reno team contributed to the content below to conform to current political and other conditions at the local and state levels. Therefore, much of the content is not approved by Shane for use nationwide. Many of the other policy recommendations included in his book are not listed here.

 

Shane and other Regenesis team members have had conversations with many of the 18 elected leaders of the three jurisdictions of Washoe County: 

 

  • City of Reno 

  • City of Sparks

  • Washoe County 

 

Functions such as Health, Schools, and almost all Human Services are controlled by the County Commissioners. However, for the purposes of housing policy, the County Commissioners only have primary jurisdiction over the unincorporated portions of the County.

For readers interested in offering opinions:

Subject to implementation details, please indicate if you support all 20 policy choices. If not, please select the choices you don’t support. We will follow up with you to better understand your point of view. Please send your ideas to gordongossage@gmail.com

1) Eliminate Density Limits in Most Places

 

Eliminate density limits within one-half mile of any bus line with frequent stops. Maintain setbacks, floor area ratio, height restrictions, lot coverage, and other design constraints as desired. Consider a moderate floor area bonus for multifamily buildings—for example, a maximum of 2,000 square feet for single-family units, 2,500 square feet for duplexes, 3,000 square feet for triplexes. Allow the development of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in all three jurisdictions – or only in selected neighborhoods, if necessary. Conversion of existing space (e.g., recreation rooms, garages) into ADUs on parcels that permit residential uses.

 

2) Eliminate Parking Requirements 

Eliminate parking requirements for all new development – or if necessary, within one mile of any bus line with frequent stops. Consider incentivizing the use of on-site parking spaces for car sharing and allowing for their use by the general public (not just residents of the new building). Also consider establishing paid parking districts in areas concerned with overuse of on-street parking such as the MidTown District, and allocate parking passes according to street frontage (i.e., a parcel with 100 feet of street frontage would be eligible for twice as many parking passes as one with 50 feet of street frontage).

 

3) Increase Funding for Direct Rental Assistance

Aggressively lobby at the federal level to establish the Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8) as an entitlement for all households earning 30 percent of the area median income (AMI) or less (extremely low income, or ELI). Later, increase the eligibility threshold to 50 percent of the AMI (very low income, or VLI). As VLI households are phased into the entitlement program, ensure that existing voucher holders earning between 30 percent and 50 percent of the AMI are able to retain their vouchers. Pilot private sector housing vouchers voluntarily paid by employers with 50 or more full-time equivalent (FTEs). Initial guidelines could be an annual contribution totaling $1 per day, per FTE working in the previous calendar year.  Rather than all of their employees being eligible, vouchers could be given to employees most successfully accomplishing the organization’s goals, or as a recruiting tool.

 

4) Allow Micro-Units and Co-Living Spaces

 

Allow micro-units—individual, fully separated housing units (including their own kitchen facilities and bathrooms) as small as 250 square feet—and co-living spaces (which include bathrooms, kitchens, and other shared spaces) as small as 150 square feet anywhere housing is permitted.

 

5) Increase the Affordability Covenant Duration

 

When state or local funds are used (or public land is contributed) for the development of income-restricted affordable housing, or when affordable units are required of privately financed developments by density bonus or other programs, require affordability covenants last 99 years, or be made permanent, if possible. Consult with subsidized housing developers on policies required to make this policy successful. Buildings including covenanted affordable housing may still be redeveloped in the future but must include one-for-one replacement, at a minimum, or fees adequate to wholly subsidize the construction or acquisition of replacement units in the vicinity.

 

6) Eliminate Discrimination against People with Housing Choice Vouchers

 

Establish rules prohibiting discrimination against users of Housing Choice (Section 8) Vouchers in rental housing and adopt stiff penalties for property owners who violate them.

 

7) Increased Zoning Capacity

 

Upzone to allow for a housing capacity at least double—ideally triple—that of the existing population and housing stock. (More on this “zoning buffer” concept here.) This should take into account demolitions that may be necessary in the course of redevelopment. It must also ensure that rezoned areas are viable for development—for example, that they are not former industrial waste sites, physically infeasible sites such as hillsides, publicly owned parcels that government doesn’t intend to redevelop, located where land assembly is essentially impossible, or already intensively used or developed.

 

8) Upzone Many Places at Once

 

Distribute increased development capacity broadly, to many different neighborhoods and across large parts of each neighborhood for which zoning is changed. This does not mean spreading rezoning evenly across the entire city; rather, it means avoiding concentrating most or all increased capacity in a small number of neighborhoods. (This is also discussed in the zoning buffer publication linked above.)

 

9) Focus Upzoning in Accessible and High-Opportunity Areas

 

When distributing increased housing capacity across the city, allocate a disproportionate share to areas where residents have higher income or wealth, jobs are more concentrated, and transit or transportation options are most accessible. This does not mean that lower-income or less job-rich communities should be avoided entirely. Cities might consider developing a scoring matrix that weights neighborhood affluence, job concentration, and transit accessibility approximately equally, ranking neighborhoods on the basis of their scores, and then allocating increased housing capacity disproportionately to those neighborhoods that rank highest.

 

10) Find the Upzoning Sweet Spot: Not Too Big, Not Too Small

 

At the parcel level, increase development capacity to a level that is financially feasible for redevelopment on the basis of the land and development costs. Except in highly urbanized locations, a maximum floor area ratio (FAR) between 2.5 and 4.0 should be appropriate in most cases. Height restrictions, density limits, setbacks, and other regulations will generally be unnecessary.

 

11) Allow Housing in Commercial and Industrial Zones

 

Allow residential uses in industrial and commercial zones, including 100% residential buildings along secondary commercial corridors, where there is a risk of oversupplying retail and office space that may then be left vacant.
 

12) Buy Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing with Public Funds

 

Use local, state, and federal funds to acquire existing low-cost housing. Acquire and convert existing buildings into low-cost housing at an appropriate level of renovation. Individual properties may be operated with a mix of market-rate and below-market units with a target of zero operational surplus revenues (i.e., any surplus is spent on deeper and broader subsidies for below-market units). Alternatively, properties may be operated at a surplus that is used to repay up-front acquisition costs, to acquire additional properties, or both.

 

13) Make Development Approvals “By Right”

 

Streamline review processes and eliminate discretionary approvals to the greatest extent possible. This can be accomplished by incorporating resident and stakeholder feedback into clear and objective community planning documents rather than individual projects. Given timing, this could be explored initially during the current feedback process for the yet to be approved Washoe County Master Plan. 

 

14) Speed Up the Entitlement Process

 

Set a goal of approving the vast majority of discretionary projects (and housing units) within three months of application submission. Allow top employers, nonprofits such as the Community Foundation of Northern Nevada, and developers to pay for additional staff hours within the three jurisdictions to process applications faster, including third-party consultants hired to fill gaps in staffing or surges in applications. All work by these consultants would be completely controlled by staff within the three jurisdictions. 

 

15) Explore Other Ways to Bring Down Development Costs

 

Establish a public agency division within the three jurisdictions funded with Federal money dedicated to researching and approving new construction methods and materials and assisting developers who wish to try innovative strategies. Work closely with private-sector partners to identify opportunities and consider establishing a rigorous “unsolicited proposal” program to generate ideas for new approaches.

 

16) Increase Existing Density Bonuses

 

Enact a density bonus program that allows for increased density, floor area, lot coverage area, and height, as well as reduced parking, setbacks, fees, and open or common space, in exchange for on-site affordable units. Density and floor area bonuses of 50–80 percent and height bonuses of one to two stories may be secured in exchange for 10–15 percent of units affordable to low-, very low, or extremely low income households, or 20–30 percent of units for moderate-income households. Although there are currently density bonuses within the three jurisdictions, explore a selection of more aggressive versions across the country and decide if they are appropriate here.  

 

17) Prioritize Displaced Residents for Affordable Housing Placement

 

Low-income residents displaced by redevelopment prior to the adoption of rules such as right of return and temporary rental assistance should receive priority placement in new and existing affordable housing developments. To the extent this can be made mandatory for nonprofit-operated affordable housing, it should be. Where state or federal laws prohibit such preferential treatment, public officials should work with private multifamily owners with income-restricted units that have been produced without public subsidy (such as through density bonuses) to encourage preferential placement for displaced low-income households. Educate our neighbors throughout the three jurisdictions that “gentrification” is best defined only as when current residents who prefer not to move are displaced. All revitalization efforts should avoid displacement. New development is NOT gentrification, if it benefits current residents as well as their new neighbors with all stakeholders fully participating in co-creating the new community.

 

18) Offer Free or Reduced-Cost Legal Counsel to Residents Facing Eviction

 

Establish a right to counsel (RTC) program for residents facing eviction. If funding is limited, consider initially restricting the program to households earning 30 percent or 50 percent of area median income (AMI) or less. As a starting point, the program may also be piloted in communities with the highest rates of eviction or eviction filings; a benefit of this approach is that it creates a control group against which the jurisdiction can measure the effectiveness of the program. 

 

19) Enforce Housing and Building Codes

 

Increase code enforcement staffing to a reasonably high ratio of staff to rental units using other jurisdictions across the country for benchmarks initially and with stretch goals in later years.  Require residential property-owning limited liability companies (LLCs) to reveal the identities of their owners and agents. Institute high fines for property owners who violate code enforcement standards, with escalating fines for repeat offenders. Create a process for owners of unpermitted dwelling units (UDUs) to bring their units into the formal housing market. Consider income restrictions high enough to encourage enrollment in the UDU program but low enough to discourage future development of unpermitted units.

 

20) Minimize Impact Fees and Charge Them Equitably

 

Convert all existing fees into per-square-foot fees rather than per dwelling unit or per bedroom. Consider reducing or eliminating fees for developers of projects that voluntarily agree to specified rent levels (not formal “low-income” and “moderate-income” rates, but less than the prevailing market rate in a given location). Assess impact fees at the issuance of a certificate of occupancy or, at worst, at issuance of a building permit, not at the time of application or any other preconstruction phase. In places with impact fees for larger multifamily buildings, also include a fee of equal or greater value on smaller multifamily and single-family construction. Each of the three jurisdictions may consider exempting small multifamily buildings in high-cost, high-opportunity neighborhoods to encourage more housing construction than in lower-cost, lower-opportunity locations. They may also consider limiting this exemption to only those properties that maximize a parcel’s allowable density.