Building Codes: The Good and the Bad

Recently, Rosanne Haggerty of Community Solutions argued here on Rooflines that outdated building codes—including things like minimum sizes and parking requirements—were limiting the amount of affordable housing that could be built in New York City. She went so far as to say it was one of the major impediments:

“Of all the things that get in the way of better and more affordable housing options, the biggest obstacle may well be the tangle of building, zoning and occupancy regulations governing what can be built and how it can be used.  Regulations dictating density, minimum room sizes, parking requirements and how many unrelated adults can live in a single unit clutter the housing landscape everywhere, directly shaping and limiting our housing choices.”

We asked our readers in a survey whether this meshed with their experiences.

I wanted to share two detailed and very different responses we got, both from Newark, N.J., that outlined two very different aspects of the question:

Abbott Gorin, a former member of New York City's Housing Litigation Bureau and a present staff attorney with Essex Newark Legal Services in Newark, New Jersey, argued for caution in trying to adjust building codes. He wrote:

I would contend that it is a dangerous thing to start monkeying around with lot and construction standards in order to address the need for affordable housing. There is the danger of letting the dragon into the palace, i.e. real estate developers will go to the lowest common denominator in developing new construction. We even saw some of this with the Nehimiah Homes in East New York, Brooklyn. Despite the fact that it met the need with low income housing certain “innovations” such as the central water pumping plant may not help the residents over time. I believe there is more hope with relaxing building codes concerning the conversion of solid existing buildings. We saw this with the experimental SRO being built along the Grand Concouse in the Bronx. We know the existing building is solid, and by adapting that building for alternative use, we are not building a housing stock that will become obsolete in the future.

And yet, says Kimberly El-Sadak of La Casa De Don Pedro, a Newark CDC:

The off street parking requirements in the City of Newark as part of the new building design requirements are a significant cost driver for our organization in building affordable housing. We typically build new two-family homes which require one parking space per unit. However, parking must be enclosed within or to the side of the dwelling. On a typical 25×100 lot, this results in a deep tandem garage and having to build upwards to three stories. With the new building code requirements, a three story residence now requires a sprinkler system which in turn needs a larger (read: more expensive) water connection. While there is an exception to the parking requirement if the residence is built within 1,200 feet of a light rail, commuter rail, or PATH station, that covers very few areas.

These two sets of concerns are not, I think, mutually exclusive, and I don't think Haggerty was arguing that we dispense with construction standards at all. But the conversation needs to be had. How does it play out in your work? Is it different in weak markets and hot markets? Take our survey.


Photo Credit: The Domestic Transformer, 2007. Architect: Gary Chang Hong Kong Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York (Hong Kong)

Miriam Axel-Lute is CEO/editor-in-chief of Shelterforce. She lives in Albany, New York, and is a proud small-city aficionado.


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