Housing Development

 Housing in Roanoke

Roanoke has a diverse supply of housing in all ranges of affordability, housing type, and occupancy arrangement.  Owner households and renter households are split about 50/50.   Of 44,543 housing units, 58% are single-unit dwellings. and 26% are larger apartment buildings.  There are relatively few middle-housing buildings with 2-4 units available.

Roanoke's housing is generally old, well-built, and well designed.  55% were built before 1960.  Roanoke has fine neighborhoods filled with foursquares, craftsman bungalow, and folk Victorians -- styles that generally have porches that transition from the private home to the life of the community, The construction materials and methods and design have made its older housing worthy of conservation, even with the challenges of maintenance.

Why is action on housing needed?

Roanoke, like most of the US, is experiencing a housing shortage that has emerged in the wake of the Great Recession. The creation of new housing units slowed and failed to keep pace with growth. Increased demand and stagnant supply have driven up costs for both homebuyers and renters. Housing costs have serious implications for households with limited incomes who end up paying a larger percentage of their income on rent or a mortgage. A quarter of Roanoke's households live in "unaffordable" housing; that is, housing that costs more than 30% of household income.  This situation, known as being cost-burdened, results in ever-present stress and increases the vulnerability to eviction and potentially becoming homeless.

Zoning reform for housing 

Planning staff has been working on removing barriers to housing for several years as it became apparent that a persistent shortage was emerging.  City Plan 2040, adopted by City Council in 2020, called for new policies that would allow a range of housing options in every neighborhood.  Implementation started soon after.  Roanoke took two major steps in 2021 with a Zoning Reform package. First, we opened commercial zones to residential development. Second, we removed minimum parking requirements that can drive up costs. Soon after, a former hotel and a former motel were redeveloped into hundreds of new housing units. A third initiative to ease regulations on Accessory Dwelling Units has not seen similar success; only a handful of units have been developed in the past two years.

Roanoke's zoning patterns contribute to the problem because they restrict where new housing can go.  Over 60% of the City's total land area has exclusionary zoning.  With roots in economic and racial segregation, exclusionary zoning permits only single-unit dwellings and excludes other housing types needed to meet community needs. Even after unconstitutional segregation ordinances, restrictive covenants, and redlining were eliminated, exclusionary zoning persisted to 'protect' neighborhoods.  Another harmful effect is that the development of large lots for single-unit dwellings has eaten up our land for housing. Most of the 60% is already developed, leaving few large tracts for new housing.

A phase two Zoning Reform is in development. In late winter/early spring 2024, planning staff will develop proposals for changes to exclusionary zones by opening them up to other housing types, with limitations. The reform package will also include expanded provisions for housing for vulnerable populations. Staff sponsored open house sessions in fall 2023 to raise awareness of issues and start discussing ideas for action. 

Check out the American Planning Association's Equity in Zoning Policy Guide

Other housing initiatives

  • Created a low-interest loan pool as an incentive for development of workforce housing. 
  • Inventory sites for new residential development.
  • Sponsor developer information sessions for use of state and federal tax credit programs and other incentives.
  • Adopt greenlining policies that target resources and funding into areas that were formerly redlined.
  • Dedicate staff resources to focus on housing and develop data.

Housing Cost Burden in Roanoke

Cost burden
Land open housing
Parking housing
Residential zoning land area

 Observations driving housing action 

Land use policy should encourage housing options in all neighborhoods, especially for younger and older households. 

Some neighborhoods lack options for younger and older families. Post-1950 housing subdivisions consist of one housing type that doesn’t support all life cycles. Young people and older people have to leave their communities to find the housing options they need.
Design of new housing is important.Timeless design features like porches and limitations on building width can help a new housing type fit into an existing neighborhood.
New affordable housing usually increases neighborhood values by less than 1% or not at all.

Evidence does not support the idea that affordable housing will affect property values around it. Studies over the past 25 years have all but invalidated the idea that construction of affordable housing nearby reduces property values.  
Housing production, regardless of cost or rent level, is beneficial for all income levels.A 2021 study by the Virginia Tech Center for Housing Research revealed a pronounced mismatch in household incomes vs the cost of their housing. Too few lower rent units and too few high-end units has caused both extremely low income and higher income households to crowd into the mid-level rental market. 
Average household sizes have fallen to 2.1, so there are far fewer people occupying the same number of households.  Even if zoning initiatives increase density, most neighborhoods won't regain as much population as they once had.
Households have become much smaller over the past 50-60 years. Housing units increased by 51% between 1960 and 2020, while population increased by only 3%. Average people per housing unit decreased from three people to two.  This seemingly small number has a very large impact because of neighborhood scale.  A neighborhood with 1,000 housing units in 1960 would house 3,000 people but only 2,000 now. Pre-1950 house forms were built to accommodate large, extended families that are no longer as prevalent. 

Housing studies confirm a general shortage of affordable housing, a situation confirmed by the large amounts of apartment development that recently came online, is under construction, or is planned (over 1,500 units). These developments will likely help with the mismatch of households with units. 

The Rental Inspection Program provides more oversight of rental housing maintenance

Prior to 1997, there was very little oversight of rental unit conditions prior to the program. Roanoke continues a long recovery from many decades of exploitation and irresponsible property stewardship by a handful of landlords. This legacy has contributed to a persisting bias against rental housing and the families who rent housing. Proactive inspections of rental units began in 1997 with the adoption of the Rental Inspection Program.  Rental Inspections are limited to geographic areas adopted by City Council based on findings of deterioration. Code of Virginia specifically precludes designation of entire locality as Rental Inspection District.

The supply and opportunity for housing of vulnerable populations is severely limited. 

The housing of vulnerable populations has historically operated under a policy of concentration and containment.  Places for people formerly experiencing homelessness, people fleeing domestic violence, people who were incarcerated, and people who are recovering from substance use disorder are severely limited.  Roanoke has traditionally sought severe limitations on this activity through zoning. Result is large scale concentration in a handful of locations.  

Creating places for people to live may result in mild inconvenience in car parking.

Street parking concerns are often brought up as grounds for opposing new housing proposals.  Planning staff asserts that places for people to live are more important than places for people to park. Parking concerns should not drive housing development decisions.

People who want exclusive use parking can usually create it on their lot.

Gentrification is a complex issue and a very low risk in Roanoke. Diversifying housing in every neighborhood is generally regarded as a anti-displacement strategy.

In community development, there is a complex dilemma: people don’t want their neighborhoods to stay the same or get worse, nor do they want rapidly increasing rents that could displace existing residents.   Merriam Webster defines gentrification as the process of displacement of residents that could result when repairing and rebuilding homes and businesses. Gentrification is an economic phenomenon that may occur without any action by the government.  It is fundamentally different from urban renewal, which was a direct government intervention.  

There is little evidence of significant gentrification in Roanoke. A relatively new measure, called displacement risk, can measure a neighborhood’s relative exposure to gentrification forces. This index has been mapped in larger cities, but has not yet been mapped in Roanoke. Such data could help communities understand if they should be concerned or not about gentrification.

Opportunities for housing development

  • Roanoke has 25,653 single family properties and each is an opportunity to create an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU). This housing type has the potential to provide affordable housing for extended family or small households in every neighborhood, using existing infrastructure.
  • Low Income Housing Tax Credits are underused in the Roanoke area.
  • Many neighborhoods are eligible for Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits.
  • The Greenlining Institute defines and promotes the idea of greenlining as “the affirmative and proactive practice of providing economic opportunities to communities of color.” While greenlining will not undo negative impacts of redlining and systemic racism, it is an equitable approach for moving forward.
  • The Evans Spring development plan completed in December 2023 includes substantial residential development element with over 600 new housng units.
  • Former places of worship in neighborhoods are opportunities for adaptive reuse for new housing. 
  • Low interest loans can enable developers to move a housing development from market rate to affordable.
  • “Missing Middle” housing types are designed to fit into neighborhoods and provide a range of housing options. These are house-scaled residences with 2-8 households, townhouses, accessory residences, and small lot, small footprint single household residences. Some of Roanoke’s most successful neighborhoods are filled with exemplary models of Missing Middle housing types that are simply part of the neighborhood fabric.
  • Roanoke has an abundance of property in strips and older centers that underused and underdeveloped (grayfields). These properties represent hundreds of acres that could and should be repurposed for residential uses. The land bank could be used to purchase low-performing and unproductive commercial properties for new residential development.
  • Residual properties from 10th St NW and 13th St SE street widening projects could support development of well-designed Middle Housing buildings. 
  • Over time, Roanoke has reduced and then completely eliminated minimum parking requirements, meaning more land can be dedicated to housing.
  • HOME ARP funds leveraged with ARPA funds will provide 50+ permanent supportive housing units over the next 5-7 years.