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Unpacking a Form-Based Approach to Regulatory Barriers


In Depth

Unpacking a Form-Based Approach to Regulatory Barriers History

Multistory mixed-use buildings. Developmental and economic metrics in neighborhoods with form-based codes compare favorably with those of neighborhoods under conventional zoning.
Image Columbia Pike Penrose square waiting 4 bus via Flickr by Brett VA / CC BY ( Image has been cropped and retouched.

Unlike conventional zoning, form-based codes are less concerned with regulating and segregating building uses and instead seek to create pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use neighborhoods. For example, when zoning focuses more on building height, placement, and scale (as with a form-based code) and less on the number of units per acre (as with conventional codes), developers are better able to provide a wider range of housing types alongside compatible commercial and transportation options.

In September 2021, the Form-Based Codes Institute (a program of Smart Growth America) released a report that examines the effect of form-based codes on several developmental and economic metrics between 2010 and 2019, including land value, tax revenue, rents, and demographics. To understand the impact of form-based codes, the report compares neighborhoods that have adopted form-based codes with nearby conventionally zoned neighborhoods in four cities. The four cities represent various communities in different parts of the U.S., including suburban corridors and small downtowns in metropolitan areas and neighborhoods in legacy and Sunbelt cities.

The form-based code adopted in the Madisonville neighborhood of Cincinnati, Ohio, allows missing middle housing, including cottage courts, duplexes, and townhouses, which can be more affordable than single-family detached housing. The code further supports affordability through relaxed parking requirements. The report notes that Madisonville had twice the rate of population growth, a higher number of building permits issued, and more multifamily construction than the comparison neighborhood of Pleasant Ridge.

In Arlington, Virginia, the Columbia Pike form-based code requires 20 to 30 percent of new housing units to be affordable to households earning up to 60 percent of the area median income. In addition, development rights can be transferred from properties in areas favoring low-density development to areas where higher densities are planned. Columbia Pike has experienced job growth rates that are higher than those of the Lee Highway comparison area, stable or increased median household income, modest population growth, and an increase in multifamily housing development. Housing for diverse income levels has been better accommodated in the Columbia Pike area than in the Lee Highway comparison area, and the city has encouraged Columbia Pike’s transition to a mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented area, according to the report’s authors.

The Near Southside neighborhood in Fort Worth, Texas, adopted a form-based code that supports revitalization and equity. For example, regulations for accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are very permissive. ADUs in Near Southside are not restricted by size and can be built by right, including in a detached backyard structure, above a garage, or as a separate unit within the principal dwelling. The form-based code also facilitates multifamily construction by offering density bonuses for open space and eliminating off-street parking requirements for most developments, which generate savings that potentially can be passed on to tenants or homeowners. The authors note that multifamily rents decreased 2.5 percent in Near Southside while increasing 8.2 percent in the comparison community, the master-planned AllianceTexas. In addition, 12 new multifamily projects were completed in Near Southside as the unemployment rate declined by 39.4 percent.

In Palm Beach County, Florida, Delray Beach is using a form-based code to promote density and encourage affordability for the local workforce. Under the code, market-rate developers can increase the number of units in a project (often by 20%) if a certain percentage of units are affordable or workforce housing units. In addition, the code relaxes parking requirements if a development is close to public transit, reducing the overall cost of development to the potential benefit of future tenants or homeowners. In Delray Beach, rents increased 7.1 percent over 10 years compared with 17.6 percent in nearby Boynton Beach even as median household income increased 43.8 percent in Delray Beach and declined by 10.9 percent in Boynton Beach.

Overall, the report found positive economic, equity, and affordability effects in the areas studied. The four study areas with form-based codes saw greater increases in construction activity — especially multifamily development — than did the comparison areas with conventional codes, which the authors attribute to the higher level of by-right development options that form-based codes offer compared with conventional codes. Because form-based codes allow a greater density and diversity of permitted housing types, developers were better able to provide diverse housing options and accommodate households of differing sizes and incomes. Among the areas studied, average rents in multifamily buildings increased by 8.7 percent in neighborhoods adopting form-based codes compared with 16.6 percent in areas governed by conventional codes. In addition, because form-based codes tended to ease barriers to development, the increased capacities of developers to meet housing demand resulted in lower rent increases for multifamily units in areas governed by form-based codes than in comparison areas. Consequently, researchers did not detect signs of gentrification or displacement in case study areas with form-based codes.

Click here to access the report and information about how form-based codes address regulatory barriers. Find more plans, regulations, and research that state and local governments can use to reduce impediments to affordable housing at HUD USER’s Regulatory Barriers Clearinghouse.

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The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.