Affordable Cottage Community Spotlights Benefits of Reduced Zoning Regulations

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Zoning restrictions are one of the obstacles challenging housing affordability, often favoring single-family homes and limiting higher-density multifamily buildings. This has become particularly noticeable in areas of high growth, such as Boston, where nearly half of the city’s residents are rent burdened because multifamily developments are very challenging to produce in the area. One project that highlights how reduced zoning restrictions can benefit development of creative and effective housing options is the Boiceville Cottages in Brooktondale, N.Y. [caption id="attachment_15799" align="alignright" width="300"] The Boiceville Cottages project was so unique and well executed that it has become a tourist attraction for the area.[/caption] With a nod to the gingerbread-style cottages in the children’s book "Miss Rumphius," NAHB member Bruno Schickel of Schickel Construction Co.— the owner, designer and builder of the cottages — developed a 140-unit pocket neighborhood complete with brightly painted exteriors and whimsical architectural details. The pocket neighborhood was built on 40 acres and incrementally financed over 20 years. The neighborhood is built in a rural town where zoning remarkably still does not exist, and thus did not require master planning or development standards approval. Without any regulatory requirements needing local and community review, the developer was able to invest more money in good design for the built environment, and rapidly respond to market demand by adapting the phasing of construction and types of units built. In 1996, construction began with three prototype cottages. Each subsequent year, Schickel built more cottages and improved from previous iterations based on tenant feedback and market demand. All units are market-rate rentals and vary in size from 550 to 1,150 square feet. Rental types include studios, one- and two-bedroom cottages, and three-bedroom townhouses. The most popular unit is the 650-square-foot, one-bedroom cottage known as the "tiny house." The layout of the site is an important factor in the project’s success of community building. Small clusters of three cottages are repeated throughout the neighborhood and encourage daily interaction with neighbors while enhancing the sense of community. Additionally, the community center acts as a "third" place, where tenants host gatherings, exercise in the gym and work using free Wi-Fi. [caption id="attachment_15798" align="alignleft" width="287"] The development does not include any public roads or driveways, so nothing was required of the municipality in terms of construction and maintenance.[/caption] The extensive green spaces, including mowed lawns, nature paths and personal garden beds allocated to each tenant, foster a greater sense of community by physically interconnecting the various places and individual cottages. Also, a flexible pet policy and two dog parks are main draws for renters. Surface parking is distributed throughout the site. The developer is responsible for all ongoing maintenance, instead of the municipality. Widespread enthusiasm for the project draws diverse demographics interested in "living small" within a larger community. With two universities nearby in Ithaca, graduate students account for approximately 20% of tenants. Working professionals, small families and seniors are significantly represented in the community, where rents range from $1,225 month for a studio to $1,895 month for a three-bedroom townhouse. "Lack of zoning really allowed enormous creativity and flexibility to modify, change and improve the development over time," said Schickel, noting the seven-year construction time frame and minimal approval process. "Lack of zoning also allowed me to create a new model of how to do rental housing," he added. "It’s been wildly successful. The people who live there absolutely love it, and it’s really become a much-loved place by the general community." The property has recently been used as a model example for a proposed development in nearby Lansing, N.Y. Unlike the Boiceville Cottages, however, the Lansing project, a planned development of senior cottages by Beer Properties on a similarly sized 41-acre lot, has been met with considerable opposition by residents in the adjacent neighborhood because of the increased density the planned community would add to the area. The developer has resubmitted a new proposal for the property, which was purchased in 2017. The new plan would shrink the size of the development from the originally proposed 108 units, which would have created clusters of pocket neighborhoods comparable to the communal appeal of the Boiceville Cottages, to 84 single-family and two-family units on clustered home lots to create a more conventional layout. The municipality’s final decision may take months. To learn more about the Boiceville Cottages project, download NAHB’s recent report, "Diversifying Housing Options with Smaller Lots and Smaller Homes."

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