Seeking True “Multifamily” Housing

City planners and real estate professionals use the term “multifamily” to describe apartment and condominium buildings. But is there a greater misnomer in our field? Most of our nation’s apartment […]

City planners and real estate professionals use the term “multifamily” to describe apartment and condominium buildings. But is there a greater misnomer in our field?

Most of our nation’s apartment stock is comprised of one- and two-bedroom units better suited for singles and households without children than for families with children. Homes with three or more bedrooms are a decreasing share of multi-unit properties. According to recent Census data, the construction of three-plus bedroom units fell to 12 percent of total multifamily construction in 2014—its lowest share since 1991. In the 25 largest cities, family-sized three-bedroom units comprise just 5 percent of the non-regulated rental market, according to a recent analysis in Governing.

Given the small share of family-sized units in many large cities, it is not surprising that the same analysis found that most for-sale three-bedroom units are priced out of reach for young and modest-income families in many large cities.

This past November, the city of Emeryville, Ca. took action to turn this trend. City leaders passed one of the first policies in the U.S. requiring three-bedroom and two-bedroom units in new market-rate construction. In any new, multi-unit building of 10 or more residential units, no fewer than 15 percent must have three or more bedrooms, and at least half of all units must have two or more bedrooms. The policy is similar to the approach used in nearby San Francisco, where recent neighborhood plans such as the East SoMa Area Plan require that 25-40 percent of the units in new housing construction be 2 or more bedroom.

Earlier this year, Emeryville also adopted new Family-Friendly Residential Design Guidelines, which encourages multifamily developments to include such features as:

  • more play areas for children that are safe and visible from major spaces in the homes
  • visible places where pre-teens and teens can gather;
  • high-quality sound-proofing materials and enclosed entry foyers to reduce noise and increase privacy;
  • parking for family-friendly units near hallways and elevators; and
  • in-unit or common-area laundry machines.

Emeryville was not alone in seeking ways to become more family-friendly in 2015. In April, Washington, D.C., created a new zoning overlay with modest density incentives for three-bedroom units in its growing, Southeast Federal Center neighborhood. More recently, the District used its PUD-inclusionary housing policy to condition zoning flexibility for a luxury housing development at Union Market on the developer’s commitment to build nearby twelve affordable, three-bedroom townhomes with front and backyards, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity. The video documenting the developer’s partnership with Habitat makes a compelling case for flexible inclusionary housing policies that can generate more affordable family housing than would be otherwise possible.

Increasing the availability of family-sized housing is just one piece of the comprehensive approach needed to create family-friendly cities, as was made clear at a national convening held last year co-hosted by the UC Berkeley Center for Cities + Schools, Enterprise Community Partners, the National Housing Conference, and the National Resources Defense Council. This convening highlighted ways to link affordable homes with good transportation and quality public schools to attract and retain diverse families.

Affordable housing, good transportation, and quality public schools can seem like a tall order, but cities have tools at their disposable. The recent policy experiments of cities like Emeryville and Washington, D.C. highlight the power of zoning in achieving these goals, and provide food for thought for other cities thinking about how to enable more families to stay and thrive.

Photo credit: Greenbelt Alliance, via flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

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