In the zone: Archaic zoning regulations can hamper construction of new infill housing
Infill housing is a powerful means for metro areas to revitalize communities, say proponents of the practice. But in some Cleveland inner-ring neighborhoods, archaic zoning laws are preventing this new single-family housing from coming to market, according to a recent report by the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission.
Modernizing zoning would not only increase infrastructure efficiency, observers say. It could also open up more affordable housing for empty-nesters and lower-income individuals.
The analysis—released by the planning commission in partnership with Cuyahoga Land Bank and the Northeast Ohio First Suburbs Consortium—identifies issues within municipal zoning regulations that hamper new infill.
All too often, older land-use rules don’t match the nature of modern development needs, notes Dennis Roberts, director of real estate development for the non-profit Land Bank, which helped fund the study.
“Many of these zoning codes were created for building on broad tracts of land when there were different policy objectives,” says Roberts. “These regulations don’t block infill construction per se—they’re small barriers that prevent development from going forward. The way to think about it is death by a thousand cuts.”
Infill housing is new housing built on existing lots within largely developed communities, often where previous domiciles were demolished. Building such homes can be cost-ineffective if zoning requirements call for fewer homes on available land than a developer would require to both make a profit and keep the homes’ price tag in the affordable range.
The planning commission and its partners investigated the potential for new single-family housing in 19 Cleveland suburbs, studying zoning-code effectiveness to determine where the most stringent barriers to infill exist. The analysis highlights 19 zoning codes and 55 zoning districts, across metrics such as minimum lot width and front setback regulation.
With Cleveland’s close-lying suburbs built nearly to capacity, it’s difficult to find new swaths of developable land, the report says. While infill housing may seem like an easy solution, these lots can be smaller and tighter than what current zoning requires. Building on empty lots may involve blending multiple lots or obtaining a variance to deviate from current zoning, a time-consuming and potentially costly endeavor for most developers.
Patrick Hewitt, the county planning commission’s manager for strategy and development, says many zoning laws hail from a bygone era when builders enjoyed abundant undeveloped land. As regions became overbuilt, zoning helped disperse people by setting minimum lot sizes and requiring a certain amount of separation between homes.
“For individual lots, you’re not building on a greenfield in the exurbs, or putting up 20 houses on a former farm,” Hewitt says. “When a developer sees a single lot, they’re not getting that economy of scale they have with a greenfield. They might just walk away from the project.”
Plenty of space available
Numerous obstacles arise between existing lots and the dimensions required by zoning regulations, say the report’s partner members. Zoning requiring wider lots, smaller buildings or deeper setbacks than that of homes built before the codes were established is far from uncommon in suburbs that were established more than 60 years ago.
Per study findings, about 41% of Cleveland’s First Suburbs lots zoned for single-family housing do not meet minimum lot size requirements. Up to 48% do not meet rules for minimum lot width.
It’s not as if new infill housing is hampered by a lack of vacant lots. Between 2010 and 2020, there were 2,149 single-family home demolitions in First Suburbs communities, from East Cleveland to Fairview Park. Yet according to the report, fewer than 1,000 new single-family homes have been constructed in the area over that span.
Using mapping programs, researchers found a total of 5,320 likely infill lots located throughout Cleveland’s inner ring. East Cleveland leads the way with 1,192 lots in established residential areas. Next up is Euclid, with 661 empty parcels, followed by Garfield Heights, Maple Heights, Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights. About 130 homes were knocked down in the inner-ring suburbs in 2020—71 of them in East Cleveland.
Patrick Grogan-Myers has direct knowledge of two of these communities, being Euclid's new planning director as well as former director of economic development for Maple Heights. While regional new-home construction has not returned to the peak of the early 2000s, housing prices in Euclid stand at $107,000—about 96% of what the values were before the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009. Figures from a Western Reserve Land Conservancy study further reveal an 80% to 100% sales price recovery throughout the First Suburbs region.
The pandemic has led more people to think about moving. According to Grogan-Myers, the question is how to attract itchy-footed homeowners to Euclid and surrounding suburbs.
“People were spending more time in lockdown or remote work,” says Grogan-Myers. “What are the amenities immediately around them? In Euclid, we have access to the lake and the Lakefront Bikeway, plus the Euclid Creek Reservation on the south side of the city.”
Changes to single-family zoning regulations—including removing or lowering the minimum dwelling size—can make new housing construction more affordable, adds Grogan-Myers. Euclid’s minimum dwelling size used to be 2,000 square feet, a requirement reduced and tied to lot size in 2019.
“Communities are able to find a balance between environmental elements—like the need for greenspace—and new affordable housing construction by reducing the amount of land required to build a new house,” Grogan-Myers says. “Examining zoning regulations does not necessarily equate to sacrificing quality construction or community values. These regulations can have unintended impacts on construction costs that either make housing unaffordable to the average family or are altogether cost-prohibitive for new construction.”
Passage by the county of a $50 million bond issue for demolition of blighted sites can be a catalyst for construction of thousands of new infill homes, says Jennifer Kuzma, director of the First Suburbs Consortium.
“As an organization, we want to be sure that the member communities have every tool they need to make the most of this chance to provide new housing options,” Kuzma said in an email. “This initiative is providing First Suburbs communities with a tool to improve the destiny of these vacant lots, by improving the path to get infill development done at the speed of business.
Updating codes a must
With an environment of rising home prices and a record-low supply of available homes, cities must harness modern zoning practices to simplify the building process for developers, the report says.
Even as partnership organizations won’t have specific zoning suggestions until the forthcoming second analysis phase, those involved still have ideas on where communities can begin.
“You need real-time feedback from customers who are in the business, so municipalities should seek developer and builder feedback before they put a code in place,” says the Land Bank’s Roberts. “Before instituting model codes, planning commissions can test them with an industry focus group.”
County official Hewitt says some older zoning codes have been updated, just too late to make a difference for most existing homes. Communities don’t need to revise their rules every year, he says, but a recovering housing market should have officials reassessing how to accommodate new infill.
In Maple Heights, about 72% of lots in single-family districts are too small to fit into the existing zoning code, while 86% are deemed by county planners as too narrow. The city—with assistance from the Cuyahoga County Land Bank—finished two modular houses on three vacant Jefferson Avenue lots last year.
Original properties on the plots were torn down in the 2010s, with the new homes selling for $217,000 and $187,700, respectively.
Sonya Edwards, founder of ESOP Realty Inc. in Cleveland, says other builders are now considering city-owned lots and privately owned properties in Maple Heights for future single-family projects.
“It’s risky at first when the price point is higher than the rest of the community,” Edwards says. “[Developers] seeing the first couple of houses sell makes every transaction less risky. People need to understand that infill is the missing teeth of those vacant lots. Instead of putting the same tooth back in, there needs to be flexibility with zoning that meets today’s standards.”
The Land Bank, which acquires vacant and foreclosed properties for redevelopment, is preparing an additional four homes in Warrensville Heights. A ranch-style home planned for South Euclid, meanwhile, is a potential template for more developer-friendly codes that promote aging-in-place.
“The current codes discourage ranch homes, because you have requirements on how much space that house can take up on a lot,” says Roberts. “People want these types of homes with a first-floor bathroom and bedroom. Consistency in zoning would make it more likely for a builder to try more innovative products that meet today’s needs. We have to update those codes to make the process flow more easily.”
Now that the regulatory hurdles to new housing have been identified, planning partners are moving to the recommendation phase. With a new zoning best practice and model ordinance report currently in process, the county can further smooth the path in turning more vacant lots to productive use.
“I’m glad to see we’re looking at this from a regional perspective,” says Euclid’s Grogan-Myers. “When we’re talking about sprawl, sustainability and the future, that’s the way it has to be done. It takes more than one community to say this is a priority, and to move the needle on some of these tougher issues.”
This story is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, which is composed of 16-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets including Ideastream Public Media.
Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist and senior contributing editor for FreshWater Cleveland. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.