• Eric Bethany

Housing Choice and Resilient Communities

Resilience” is a word that’s getting a lot of use lately, at a time when our healthcare system, economy, and mental and emotional fortitude are being tested as they never have before. As it is doing so effectively across all facets of life, the coronavirus pandemic is highlighting the importance of widespread affordable housing, especially in walkable, complete neighborhoods. Right now, as people are being laid off or losing revenue from their business, many are not going to be able to keep up with their rent or mortgage payments. As we’ve written extensively, we believe the best way to support the proliferation of affordable housing in walkable areas is through the expansion of Housing Choice – more housing options of varying sizes and types, on a variety of lot sizes, connected to the community via a variety of mobility options. In light of recent challenges facing society, we took a look at Housing Choice from a slightly different perspective and asked the question, what does a resilient community look like?

When we were crafting the mission of KUA over the last year, we worked to distill our goal into as few words as possible. What qualities do we try to introduce and reinforce in neighborhoods through our research and design work? We came back with three words: vibrant, lasting, and inclusive. We also think any community that can achieve those qualities also qualifies as resilient. Everyone can recognize a place that’s vibrant; the tricky part is figuring out the design and policy mechanics that create those outcomes.

One critical, but often overlooked, component of resilient places is physical and service infrastructure – utilities, sidewalks, street trees, as well as critical services like emergency services, waste collection, and school buses. An economically-resilient place is able to generate enough in revenues (taxes) to pay for the long-term maintenance of these complex systems. If a place is not financially sustainable, it will not be able to pay for ongoing service needs or invest in infrastructure investments needed to support future growth. Sprawling, exclusively single-family development simultaneously generates very little tax revenue relative to the amount of space it takes up and requires more material – pipes, power lines, concrete, asphalt, etc – per household – a double whammy. In contrast, dense and diverse residential development produces more tax revenue and utilizes infrastructural investment more efficiently. Housing Choice isn’t just better for the wallets of homeowners and renters – it’s better for municipal budgets.

The cost of infrastructure is something our friends at StrongTowns and Urban3 have been working on for years, and they’ve produced excellent research and visualizations that are worth reading. Using their work as a starting point, we’re focusing on these links between infrastructure and Housing Choice. We incorporated this for the first time in a recent presentation given to the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Land Use Coordinating Committee.

The video link to the presentation is available for free here (you just have to fill in your name and email address to get access). Our presentation starts just after the one hour mark. Geoff Koski does a great job talking about the role his firm, Bleakly Advisory Group, does in analyzing market demand for housing for cities and towns across the region. Margaret Stallings, Principal Planner for Cherokee County, speaks about how her county is trying to get their hands around housing demand and growth challenges in a suburban/exurban area of Metro Atlanta.

The coronavirus pandemic is putting a spotlight on the outcomes – positive and negative – of our urban development patterns. It’s causing us to think critically about our lifestyles on both a societal and personal level. We’re all experiencing this in real time, and the KUA team is talking every day – albeit via Microsoft Teams – about the discussions happening in the urbanism community. The relationship between pandemics and urbanism, and the weaknesses the virus and the lockdown are exposing in our urban form and policies, were not topics that were on our radar before, but they certainly are now. We’re looking forward to publishing some of those thoughts on the blog soon. In the meantime, everyone stay safe, stay healthy, and stay home.

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