Restrictive design rules have created an affordable housing crisis in many parts of the country, argues Andres Duany, a pioneer in the new urbanism movement and a leader in much of the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast.
Many communities have zoning rules that only allow one kind of new housing: detached homes on lots larger than a half acre with deep set-backs between roads and buildings. Building codes often add requirements for expensive construction methods or overly spacious units. These restrictions drive up the price to rent or buy housing. “The codes are being so gold-plated,” said Duany, co-founder of Miami-based Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. (DPZ), an architectural firm. “The government has made it virtually impossible to build affordable housing without subsidy.”
Such tight rules tend to create a housing monoculture that is vulnerable to sudden changes in the housing market. Conventional zoning also favors automobiles and creates communities where residents have to drive out of their neighborhood to shop for many necessities. That puts even more pressure on lower-income families, requiring residents to own one or more cars at an average cost of about $9,000 a year. “Housing tends to be much more affordable if people don’t have to own so many cars,” Duany said.
In Gentilly, a New Orleans neighborhood nearly emptied by Hurricane Katrina two years ago and now wracked by a severe shortage of housing, Duany has a different sort of community in mind once the area is rebuilt.
Architects and residents have drawn a fresh map for the flood-ravaged streets on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, including a new town center to be built on land now dominated by parking lots, abandoned strip malls, and damaged single-family houses. The plan would tuck parking into spaces behind the shops and mix affordable rental apartments among the townhouses and repaired homes.
The long-term plan for Gentilly would create a neighborhood where residents can walk to many shops and services. It would also, once the challenge of rebuilding damaged homes is completed, create a healthy housing market that offers choices affordable to people earning a broad range of incomes, Duany said, ranging from apartments, townhouses, and small detached houses to larger single-family homes.
Communities need a new set of rules and codes that are more flexible and responsive to the needs of neighborhoods, Duany believes. “The government is causing a lot of the problem by demanding too much perfection,” he said.
These words might sound strange coming from Duany, co-founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism, an organization with a reputation for demanding strict adherence to an oldfashioned ideal of town and neighborhood.
DPZ’s design for the town of Seaside, Fla., which arguably created the first large new urbanist community in 1980, was used as the setting for “The Truman Show,” a movie about a character trapped in an artificial, perfectseeming world.
But Seaside’s perfect world could only be created in a part of Florida that had no zoning laws to interfere with DPZ’s plan. Also, many of Seaside’s ideas that seemed revolutionary at the time— or reactionary, to some critics—have since entered the mainstream of contemporary development. That includes concepts like setting apartments over shops and creating a town center that is friendly to pedestrians and densely developed in the middle of the community.
“His great contribution is his critique of landuse planning,” said Alexander von Hoffman, senior fellow at Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, of Duany. Other new urbanist ideas, like putting people earning different incomes into the same development, have been tested in the rough give-andtake of negotiations with the people who live around Duany’s planned projects.
Many of the communities that have created regional or neighborhood plans with DPZ have made strong commitments to mix incomes by including affordable housing in new development. For example, DPZ led a regional planning process in Davidson, N.C., that resulted in the formation of the Davidson Housing Coalition by town officials. The coalition created an inclusionary zoning ordinance that requires 12 percent of all new housing to be reserved for lower-income families. The coalition also produced 32 rental bungalows affordable to very low-income residents. That’s an impressive result for a city of just 8,300 people.
DPZ also helped craft the design criteria for the federal HOPE VI program to rehabilitate distressed public housing into new mixed-income communities.
A new model
But to put these plans into effect, communities must agree to change their rules to allow a greater range of housing types and housing densities, depending on the neighborhood.
“The big solution is going back to the last time it worked: You have to go back to before the codes became gold plated,” Duany said.
To help communities change, DPZ helped create a set of model zoning rules of its own—a package of statutes called the Traditional Neighborhood Development Ordinance, a prescription for pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use, compact urban growth, including affordable apartments.
If necessary, communities that adopt DPZ’s ordinance may include inclusionary zoning laws that require affordable housing units in any large new construction projects, as did Davidson, S.C.
The changes Duany proposes “would allow the market to do more to provide affordable housing,” said von Hoffman. “He’s quite eloquent, and he makes a very good case.”
A growing set of municipalities across the country have incorporated DPZ’s ordinances into their zoning codes. DPZ also developed a comprehensive municipal zoning ordinance called the SmartCode, similar to the Traditional Neighborhood Development Ordinance.
These model statutes ask communities to plan to build housing that’s affordable to all people in the community. They also attack the foundation of the housing crisis, by planning for more housing than conventional zoning would allow and creating apartments, small houses, and townhouses that will naturally sell or rent for less than super-sized single-family homes with half-acre back yards.