Vancouver, Cincinnati Show Cities Can Improve Land-Use Regulations

Housing affordability is a big issue in cities across the country. Numerous officials at all levels of government want more public funding to build affordable housing, but money alone won’t solve the problem. Land-use regulations that restrict where and how housing can be built are a big reason why housing is so expensive in many places, and many cities are realizing this. Vancouver, Canada and Cincinnati recently made positive changes to their zoning rules and parking requirements respectively, and other cities can learn from them.

Minimum parking requirements force developers to provide a certain number of parking spaces when building new residential units or commercial space, which reduces the amount of land available for the buildings themselves. This means less useful space, lower density, and ultimately higher prices.

Moreover, developers already have a strong incentive to provide the appropriate amount of parking—they want to maximize the value of their development. There is no need for a one-size-fits-all regulation that in most cases mandates more parking than is needed.

Cincinnati’s city council recognized this, and recently voted to eliminate parking requirements that required one space per apartment and one space for every 400 feet of retail space in some of the city’s most walkable neighborhoods. While this is a good first step, other cities such as Buffalo and Hartford have gone even further and eliminated parking requirements citywide. Houston is also currently considering eliminating parking requirements, and hopefully it follows the lead of these other cities and does so.

In other news, Vancouver’s city council recently voted to allow duplexes throughout the city. This is great news for people who want more affordable housing since duplexes tend to be cheaper than single-family homes. Cities that want their neighborhoods to be accessible to people of different occupations, incomes, and education levels need to allow a variety of different housing options, and permitting duplexes is part of such a strategy.

Duplexes are also an important component of incremental development, which is development that occurs slowly rather than in big bursts via mega projects. Adding a few duplexes to a neighborhood every year doesn’t cause the same level of upheaval as larger projects and thus gives established residents more time to adjust to the changes that inevitably occur in any thriving city, which can reduce concerns about gentrification.

As in Vancouver, some residents and planners of Minneapolis also want to allow more housing density in the city’s neighborhoods but are experiencing pushback. A new comprehensive city plan that called for allowing fourplexes—four-unit buildings—throughout the city, even in current single-family neighborhoods, was criticized by some and as a result the fourplexes were replaced with triplexes. But another worthwhile proposal to eliminate off-street parking requirements is still part of the plan.

It’s encouraging to know there are so many people who want more housing in their cities. There will always be people who argue against more density, either because of worries about congestion, neighborhood aesthetics, or city finances, but if we want housing to be more affordable we need to build more of it. Hopefully the success stories in places like Vancouver and Cincinnati are just the start of bigger reforms.