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Infill Housing Increases  Neighborhood Vitality

infill housing consisting of small pastel cottages

Infill housing on vacant lots will make a residential neighborhood feel vibrant again. Empty urban spaces seems to invite people to throw trash on it and to think the worst. Adding architecturally appropriate new housing, in tune with today's demographics and affordability, brings a big improvement in neighborhood attractiveness.

Even in fully built suburbs, vacant lots subtly imply lack of demand, unless they are well groomed and visually connected to the house next door.

When urban design is strong, as in this photo in Key West, a missing house is very noticeable. If you go by a vacant lot every day, you're likely to be numb to the sensation. Visitors won't be.

In rural areas infill housing might be described simply as a new house, or fill-in. That language is fine too; we're just trying to give you the terminology to let you understand the jargon of the day.

Infill seems difficult and risky to developers and builders because it is less predictable than building a subdivision.

Successful infill projects require careful thought about architecture and urban design principles.

Matching the number of stories of the homes in the area, the general architectural style, the setback from the street, and the materials to some extent are very important to whether the infill housing will be just a new eyesore or whether it will blend in well and bring a new housing choice.

What about situations where there already is an abundance of housing in the region, but a few empty lots looking like missing teeth in a particular block? Then it's even more tricky to entice a developer to build, and to build at a cost that is in line with what the neighborhood will bear.

If it's too expensive, it will sit empty and not be much of an asset.

However, in an overbuilt region such as many in the U.S. right now, infill housing is still very worthwhile in the older and denser parts of the community. This is especially true closer to the urban core, where long-term viability should be greater.

Incentives for Infill Housing Development

So what incentives can a local government that wants more scattered site development offer? If this is a serious issue for you, you should think about a short property tax abatement, if allowed by your state.

This will help sell the property, and give the builder the confidence that he or she will sell in a timely fashion.

Take a hard look at the zoning regulations that pertain to the area where you'd like the scattered fill-in housing.

Is it easy to meet zoning requirements, given the type of housing units that will sell in your city today, or is it tricky? You might need to think about changing a regulation or two if you can't really build a viable modern home on the lot.

If you want to do more, you could offer longer abatements for a larger package of infill housing. For example, a builder who added five infill units for you within a certain planning district could receive a larger percentage or longer property tax abatement.

You may be able to offer infrastructure or even utility assistance or rebates of some type.

Maybe you go in a whole different direction and talk your chamber of commerce into offering a prize for the best infill project.

You might have to be creative in incentives, good publicity for good guys (or gals) who do the work, marketing assistance, or tax policy. Good old-fashioned one-to-one recruiting visits with builders and developers may work also.

Smaller Builders Are More Likely to Build on Scattered Sites

Unless you have large pockets of the city with many blocks each offering infill opportunities, you will have a hard time finding a "greenfield developer" who wants to build the occasional medium-priced home. A greenfield developer simply means a firm that usually starts with a farm or previously undeveloped land and builds a subdivision or meaningful portion of a subdivision at a time.

You will be better off with the smaller scale home builder who likes to do a few houses a year with a relatively small crew. You will have to work harder to find this builder, as he or she does not have time to look for ads for requests for proposals. But ask others for referrals, and then visit those builders personally.

But then, of course, the small builder doesn't have economies of scale working to keep costs lower. So that's what tends to increase prices of infill housing.

Still, infill is an important goal where there are several vacant lots in close proximity. Depending on your market, in a medium-sized city you might need 30 lots in a neighborhood to make this scattered infill profitable while keeping costs to the eventual buyers affordable. In a smaller town the number would probably be much lower. Experiment with that approach.  You can take advantage of existing infrastructure, such as streets and utilities, which in many cases already have been paid for.

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