How can Tempe make housing more affordable and adapt to climate change at the same time?

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5 mins read
Photo by Sightline Institute Middle Homes Photo Library. (Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License)

Like cities across the country, Tempe faces two challenges that could adversely affect quality of life and economic development if we don’t act: affordability and climate risk.

The Phoenix region as a whole saw the highest rent increases in the country in 2018, and Tempe was no exception. Construction of new housing has not kept pace with our population and job growth, increasing competition for homes in Tempe and costs for renters. Supply particularly falls short of demand in denser, walkable neighborhoods near Downtown Tempe, public transit or grocery stores, and other amenities.

Expensive housing in central locations prices people out of these desirable areas and forces them to live further away from work, shopping, and services. This distance between home and destinations makes it less practical to walk or bike, which in turn requires people to spend more time and money just getting around town. With car payments that now average over $500 every month and a total cost of almost $8,500 annually, transportation eats up a large portion of most families’ budgets. 

Sprawl hurts family finances, but it also degrades the environment to the detriment of residents and ecosystems alike. Lower density, car-dependent development worsens air and stormwater pollution, and contributes to climate change from vehicle emissions. Roads and parking lots absorb solar energy through the day and radiate heat back at night, which along with heat pollution from vehicles themselves contributes to the urban heat island effect.

Because Tempe is not alone in addressing these problems with the 20th-century city planning model, we can learn from the policy approaches of other cities and regions to meet our sustainability goals and maintain a high quality of life that draws people and business.

Tempe can encourage more walkable development by following the example of Minneapolis, San Diego, and a wave of other cities moving to end apartment bans. Letting people build small, affordable multifamily homes or backyard units increases the housing supply, which both reduces costs for renters and supports local economic activity.

For too long, exclusionary zoning laws have made it impossible to build so-called “missing-middle” housing; these medium-sized buildings fall somewhere between a single-family house and a large apartment tower, usually two to eight units, and comfortably fit in residential neighborhoods while greatly increasing the supply of naturally affordable housing.

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Tempe has committed to becoming “a 20-minute city — one with a vibrant mix of commercial, recreational, civic and residential establishments that for most residents are within a one-mile walking distance, a four-mile bicycle ride or a 20-minute transit trip.” Making it legal to add missing middle housing to walkable neighborhoods close to amenities would help achieve this goal by allowing more residents to live close to their regular destinations.

Another sensible policy to improve affordability and reduce car dependence is to eliminate mandatory parking quotas for new development. Outdated zoning rules require developers to build far more parking than people will actually use, resulting in lots of money and space wasted on facilities that sit empty much of the time. Costing hundreds of thousands of dollars per space to build and maintain, off-street parking is an expensive component of new construction, which gets passed along to people and businesses through higher rent and prices.

A recent ASU study found that parking alone covers 10% of the Phoenix metro area’s land with many times more parking spots than vehicles. This imbalance between parking supply and demand is especially severe near light rail and other local transit, which reduce reliance on cars and parking. Since “cars don’t shop, people do,” support for walking and biking benefits retail and other local business.

Tempe should join the national movement and legalize construction of affordable, diverse housing types that allow more people to enjoy the economic, health, and social benefits of walkable neighborhoods.

Originally posted on CaseyClowes.com. Re-posted with permission.


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My passion for advocacy was shaped by Tempe and I learned at a young age how local government can work for the needs of all residents. I will carry on Tempe’s tradition of excellent public service by working to build safe and sustainable communities, empowering everyone to participate in the democratic process, and by giving families the resources they need to thrive.

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