by Signal Works

Two for One Solution: Proposed zoning changes.

When one of our clients purchased an 1860s triple-decker rehab on the West End, we developed an elegant way to create additional, affordable units in the building without increasing the building’s footprint or volume. You can read a previous blog post about it here. The solution we created, however, was not allowed by Providence’s zoning ordinance. And that’s where our story continues. 

The type of change we proposed is not allowed by-right, which means that any developer who pursues the two-for-one solution in this zone would have to undergo the arduous process of petitioning city council for each project. Many developers won’t take on a task like that, and those who do typically increase their project cost, which results in increased rent. We counteracted that by creating additional smaller units, which let us attract tenants by offering low rent, but helped us drive more revenue from the building as a whole.

First, a little background information. Current zoning regulations are designed to meet the needs of two different areas: areas of change and areas of stability. Areas of change allow for the proliferation of commercial construction that results in new expensive housing units. Areas of stability are residential areas that often contain older properties. Enterprising developers purchase these run-down properties, address their deficiencies and make them available to renters again, but often at a higher price point. 

The unintended consequence of these regulations is that new or refurbished units are only added at the high end of the market, which new graduates often find unaffordable. Signal Works found a way to work within the regulatory framework to get our project approved because we believe that low impact changes can be powerful ones. We believe, and have proven, that adding more housing at lower price points benefits our communities.   

Our project sits in Providence’s R-3 zone. The R-3 zone allows three-family dwellings by-right. Buildings with more units, like the six units in our project, require a use variance, which is generally unattainable. 

Meeting with the planning department helped us hone our request: That our project be considered R-4 zoning and that density be dictated by the number of people living in the building rather than the number of units in the building. This approach made sense to us because presumably, each of these one-bedroom units would be occupied by a single dweller or a couple, not a group of four or more.

Because we were requesting R-4 zoning, the city council would have to grant an amendment to the zoning map. This request, which could have been a four-month process, took 11 months and nine public meetings. Our proposed project was well vetted by the planning department, city planning commission, our local city council member and local concerned neighbors. In the end, we demonstrated to our elected officials that creating six work-force housing units instead of three luxury housing units was right for the city. Ultimately, our proposal passed the city council unanimously.  

We were thrilled that our desire to effect change in Providence was met with city council support, and we believe our project can be replicated in other Providence buildings. Ultimately, this will create more cost effective housing for people new to the work force and allow our state to reap the rewards of its investment in young minds. 

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