Townhomes the Answer to Housing Affordability?

Timothy L. Coyle
Consultant specializing in housing issues

Is downtown only good for rental housing and lofts?  Or, are California urban areas ready for something new?

Throughout the West homebuilders are turning to townhouses as a way to build smarter and more affordably.  For years, townhomes have appeared as a housing choice in master-planned communities throughout east-coast developments.  Indeed, most so-called cookie-cutter housing projects in the East offered high-density rental or condos at one end of the affordability spectrum and detached, single-family homes at the other end.  Townhomes, in the middle, were then showcased – largely for first-time homebuyers.  

Now, as western-state localities are calling for higher densities in connection with new development, townhouses may soon come into vogue.  This would help in housing-starved California where, over the years, a sort of manifest destiny has led to substantial demand for detached, single-family homes – at the expense of multifamily – and the proliferation of corresponding single-lot subdivisions.

In California, building at higher densities is desirable.  True, land costs are where the real savings come from.  But, construction costs can be reduced, as well.  For permitting cities and counties to play along requires enlightened zoning and an easing of some building standards, like floor area ratios (FARs) and others.  The results are compelling, however:  Lower prices and more affordability.    

A townhome is a single-family house configured in a multifamily style.  Typical townhouses have at least one common wall – hence, allowing multifamily construction.  They are usually smaller than single-family homes and almost always have more than one floor.

Common walls aren’t new to California, either.  For years, duplexes – even tri-plexes and four-plexes – dotted the housing development landscape.  Mostly used as rental housing, this kind of construction was considered high density.  These multi-unit developments were popular until they became frowned-upon by local neighborhood groups.  

Master-planned communities like Daybreak – a few miles south of Salt Lake City – is an example of what can happen when localities give project developers special zoning and building-code exceptions, that are passed along to homebuilders.  The Mews Townhouse Units at Daybreak is a successful development that is affordable to entry-level buyers.  

“The uniqueness of the Daybreak community is the diversity of housing types,” noted W. Don Whyte of Deseret Cattle & Citrus, who was involved during in the project’s development.  “It (The Mews) filled a void in terms of size and location. It feels comfortable and walkable, even though it’s a high-density project.” 

The Mews development is made up of individual buildings, each containing two to three units – with two to three bedrooms – and is bordered by a light rail station and a park.  There are just three floor plans in units running from 968 square feet to slightly over 1,400 square feet.  Many of the homes were designed to match historical neighborhoods in the state – utilizing large front porches and garages on alleys.  The Mews community is divided into neighborhoods, designated as villages.  

Whether or not townhome developments like The Mews at Daybreak take hold in California depends mainly on two things:  1) will local governments adopt the creative zoning and construction required to make them work; and 2) will the building industry or, better said, will homebuyers embrace them?

In the meantime, we’ll see if the two parties – locals and homebuilders – are willing to experiment.

For more on The Mews at Daybreak visit opticosdesign.com/work/daybreak-mews-homes/.

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