Greater Orlando planners working together to find affordable housing solutions

GrowthSpotter contributor

In an effort to combat Central Florida’s affordable housing shortage, city planners in Orlando and neighboring counties have been formulating potential solutions, including code amendments, which could help close the gap between slow-growing incomes and fast-rising rents.

“We review all new developments and have found the market is really good at supporting huge apartment complexes and single-family homes, but the market rates are not affordable to many of our residents,” City Planner Elisabeth Dang, who works in Orlando's Comprehensive Planning, told GrowthSpotter.

“We’re hoping to encourage the market to build the types of units that are naturally less expensive.”

While a household should spend no more than 30 percent of its total income on housing costs, in Orlando roughly 24 percent of all rental households were spending 50 percent or more of their income on housing, according to city planners and 2015 U.S. census data. 

Dang, and her cohorts in Osceola, Orange and Seminole counties have been researching in concert as part of a regional affordable housing group to come up with several fixes, long- and short-term. The most accessible, she believes, is one that would allow existing homeowners to build accessory dwelling units – an option that’s currently out of reach for many.

“Laureate Park and Baldwin Park are two neighborhoods with special zoning,” Dang explained. “Their districts allow builders to put those units in when buyers purchase a new home…. Quite a few of those people opt in.”

Owners of older homes, however, are often left out. 

“You need to have a really large lot, and most aren’t big enough. So we’re putting together some code recommendations to allow homeowners to build accessory apartments – like a backyard cottage – at their homes … so the character of a single-family neighborhood will remain the same but we can actually increase the number of units in that neighborhood.”

The proposed code would allow for an additional 500 square feet on any conforming single-family lot and could be a first-wave solution, Dang said, since it would allow homeowners to hire contractors and do it themselves. But carrots for developers are thick in the mix, as well.

“We’re also looking at code changes for townhomes,” she said. Although many developers have been coming to planners with creative ideas, current regulations are often prohibitive.

“With the new proposal, we’ll be able to approve those types of projects more easily, to do things like a 10-unit townhome developments on a one-acre lot. It would create more options for those leftover parcels we have throughout downtown to develop creatively and put in townhomes.”

For multifamily buildings, mixed-income requirements are a possibility, as well. The group’s suggestion would be tied to projects in need of a density bonus.

“The city’s code is pretty generous and most projects have enough allowable density within their zonings that they can build their project,” Dang explained. But for the projects that need additional units – she says these come up several times a year – they’re proposing 10 to 20 percent of bonus units remain affordable according to housing department definitions.

“It won’t be for every project at the start,” she notes, but it would be a start.

“We can see how it goes in terms of operations and working with developers, as the paperwork and leasing of these units can be challenging. We’ll be able to work with a small number of these developers at first, and then once everybody’s more onboard with it, the City Council can consider whether we’d require this for every project. But that’s further down the road.”

A Regional Housing Workshop will be held on April 11 at the Winter Park Community Center. Each jurisdiction will present its plans. There will be panel discussions on the economics behind the issue.

“It’s already booked full,” said Dang, but the workshop can be viewed online on Mayor Teresa Jacobs’ YouTube Channel. Questions can be tweeted in real-time.

All proposed solutions will be presented to Orange County's Municipal Planning Board in May.

“We are confident these can be reviewed and approved,” she said, adding that if code amendments are adopted within the next six months, new construction projects could be underway by 2020.

“This is a regional process and the city of Orlando is not alone in dealing with it,” Dang said. “We’re hoping to work with our partners so that you’ll be able to do this type of development in many jurisdictions.”

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