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Arizona State Senate bill aims to address housing shortage despite Tempe pushback

Senate Bill 1117 would change municipal zoning regulations in order to add housing supply and increase options for homebuyers and renters

AZ State Capitol

The Arizona State Capitol building pictured on Sunday, March 20, 2016, in Phoenix.

The Arizona Senate Commerce Committee passed an amended bill earlier this month that would supersede some municipal authority over zoning in order to address the statewide housing shortage. But, it faces opposition from city and local leaders across the state.

The amended version of Senate Bill 1117, sponsored by Sen. Steve Kaiser, R-Phoenix, was approved 5-2 in committee on Feb. 8 and is awaiting a Senate floor meeting. Supporters of the bill believe that by cutting through certain city zoning regulations, developers will be able to remedy the lack of housing in Arizona

The amendments to SB1117 came after a similar house bill, House Bill 2674 failed to pass in committee last legislative session. 

Kaiser said that a study committee – comprised of a bipartisan mix of legislators, builders, city leadership and state departments – was formed in response to the lack of traction in last session's House bill. In addition, the committee sought input from groups such as the League of Arizona Cities and Towns through numerous stakeholder meetings, according to Kaiser.

"What they're doing is taking a big old hammer and smashing local control," said Deirdre Pfeiffer, associate professor in the School of Geological Sciences and Urban Planning. "It's like, let's let the pieces fly where they will and regardless of the place and we don't need to do that, we can take a much more measured, logical approach, targeted approach to this to meet that broader social goal, which I think we all agree we want."

An increase in employment and population across the state has led to a housing shortage close to 270,000 units.

"We're reducing regulation and speeding up the time so that building can happen easier and faster, while still utilizing local zoning and ordinances," Kaiser said.

Supporters of the bill argue that city development requirements are a large hindrance to the construction of housing, citing outdated regulations related to off-street parking and building height. 

For municipalities with over 25,000 residents, SB1117 would override some of these regulations, and stipulates that lots smaller than 4,000 square feet be made available for the development of multifamily projects such as duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes, according to Kaiser.

Kaiser calls these projects the "missing middle."

"We have tons of single family homes that are on big lots, and most of our apartments are these mega apartments," he said. "We just need that middle – multifamily."

The bill also requires an expedited approval process for new developments and designates commercial and mixed-use zoning to accommodate high-density housing.

City councils and mayors, among other critics, say that if the bill passes, voter-approved general plans could be ignored by developers. 

"If this passes, it would really render the general plan moot," said Tempe Mayor Corey Woods. "What voters believed to be the guiding document for development heights and density would no longer hold true."

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Kaiser said that, excluding the required changes, the bill does not get rid of municipalities' general plans. The only required stipulations involve future developments that fall within a certain distance of the Valley Metro light rail or streetcar stations. These projects would also no longer be subject to a maximum height of 80 feet. 

Advocates for the bill argue that increasing the number of housing developments and lowering barriers to homebuilding projects will directly aid in the housing supply problem, and in turn, will lower costs and create more affordable housing. 

However, many of those who are against the bill, like Woods and Gilbert Mayor Bridgette Peterson, worry that there is not a clear enough plan to increase affordable housing. 

"What this bill is attempting to do is to create more supply without without any direct mechanisms to create more affordability," Woods said. "There are people that are being priced out of our community each and every day."

Woods called this a "one-size-fits-all" policy and said those typically do not work very well.

Kaiser said that the key to affordability comes with starter homes, which under this bill, could be built in sets of five or six units on smaller lots, traditionally considered to be single family zones.

"So a small lot size, the 4,000 square foot frontage lot, is your number one answer to creating starter homes or downsize homes for young people that want to start building equity, but can't afford a three bedroom two bath ranch style on an 8,000 square foot lot," he said.

Woods said he is concerned about housing affordability for college-aged residents of Tempe.

"I don't want people who've got bachelor's degrees and master's degrees and doctoral degrees, who have gone to university right up the street, leaving Tempe or leaving the Valley entirely because they can’t find an affordable place to live," Woods said.

Edited by Shane Brennan, Reagan Priest and Caera Learmonth.

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