MOUNT VERNON — City staff presented the Mount Vernon City Council with proposed code amendments Wednesday that would encourage developers to build more high-density housing.
Rebecca Lowell, senior planner with the city, said the amendments are designed to promote more development of both market rate and affordable houses, duplexes and apartments.
The proposed amendments would allow developers to build more housing units per acre throughout the city, as long as at least one-third of those bonus units are affordable to those making 80% or less of the area’s average income.
“That’s the developer’s incentive to use this program,” Lowell said. “If you want this bonus, it comes with affordable housing.”
She said for-profit developers don’t generally want to build affordable units because they generate less revenue and, according to developers, are not profitable within the city.
Lowell said her proposal provides enough extra units to make multifamily development profitable while also adding affordable units.
Bonuses would vary depending on where the units are built, she said. Developers could build twice as many units in a multifamily zone, or 50 percent more units in a single-family zone.
As an example, Lowell looked at a hypothetical 5.5-acre piece of land zoned R-4, the city’s highest-density residential zone.
Under normal circumstances, developers can build up to 20 units per acre, meaning the parcel could accommodate a 110-unit apartment complex.
But under the proposed changes, Lowell said a developer could build 220 units on this parcel, as long as 37 units — one third of the bonus — are affordable.
Unlike the requirements that come along with most state or federal affordable housing grants, Lowell said affordable units built in the city under these code changes would have to remain affordable forever.
Grants often mandate affordability for 10 to 50 years, and Lowell said afterward these units generally transition to market rate.
“Because we’re offering really generous incentives, the thought was these units need to stay affordable,” she said.
The amendments would also make it easier to build accessory dwelling units — also called mother-in-law apartments — by removing any requirement for a special permit.
Under existing code, the city needs to notify neighbors and compose a staff report if a property owner plans to build an accessory dwelling unit. Lowell said the proposed changes would eliminate those requirements, making it faster and cheaper to build.
“This shouldn’t be any different than someone building a garage,” she said.
In certain parts of the city, multifamily housing developers would also be given the option to build 20 percent fewer parking spaces as long as 10 percent of the units in the complex are affordable.
The amendments require buffers between new multifamily development and existing single-family homes in order to preserve neighborhood character, she said.
Lowell said city staff has been working with BERK Consulting on these amendments since 2017.
Work on density bonuses came about because of the city’s 2016 Comprehensive Plan update, and a series of complaints from developers and housing advocates calling for higher densities throughout Mount Vernon.
Dan Mitzel, a Mount Vernon-based developer who had been part of the group calling for higher densities, said he was pleasantly surprised by what he saw Wednesday.
He said the density bonuses for affordable housing make sense, but he would like to see the city support partnerships between for-profit and nonprofit developers who work together on projects.
The City Council will again discuss the proposed changes at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Police Court Campus, 1805 Continental Place.
Lowell said she hopes to get these code amendments completed so the council can vote on them by the end of November.
There will be several City Council and Planning Commission meetings ahead of a vote, giving the public an opportunity to weigh in.