Push for affordable housing could alter Juneau's skyline

Associated PressJuly 30, 2012 

JUNEAU -- Juneau's skyline may become taller and denser as changes to area zoning codes could mean more densely built neighborhoods.

Recently approved changes are meant to increase the availability of affordable housing in Juneau, but the new rules may also alter the look and feel of some neighborhoods, the Juneau Empire reported Sunday.

The new code allows for a significant increase in residential density. Juneau's downtown core, South Franklin Street and Front Street are zoned for unlimited units with no height limit. The rules also allow developers to build about 10 feet taller in certain commercial zones, reaching up 65 feet high in some mixed use zones.

"People may be surprised. Something may go up in their community that they hadn't anticipated," CBJ planner Greg Chaney told the Juneau Empire.

The City and Borough of Juneau Assembly amended land use zoning districts in May. The Juneau Planning Commission is updating its comprehensive plan to guide future development. It includes provisions for affordable housing.

Planners designed this increase in both density and height of Juneau's residential structures for one major purpose -- affordable housing, Chaney said. The idea is to encourage affordable housing without creating regulation that requires building below-market-rate houses, condominiums and apartments, he said.

Housing is considered affordable if renters or owners spend 30 percent or less of their income on housing, including utilities, Chaney said.

Currently Juneau has a 3.2 percent vacancy rate for rentals and 1.4 percent for homeowner units, well below the national average.

Juneau's single-family home prices averaged a record high of $294,818 in 2011, including condominiums and "mother-in-laws."

"We are trying had to create opportunities for the private sector to supply that demand," Chaney said, referring to affordable housing.

Higher density helps lower housing costs, he said. Locating dense housing near work, groceries and entertainment can also save on commute times.

Juneau's code, for example, allows for flexibility in designing multi-family developments. Instead of a 12-unit apartment complex, developers could build 12 small houses.

Homeowners can offset some housing costs with the addition of a 'mother-in-law' accessory apartment in neighborhoods where lots are sufficient in size. Builders need a permit, but not a public hearing, Chaney said. These individual apartments are typically around 600 square feet in size and typically don't need a lot of financing to build, he said.

"If you are going to diverge from what the code allows outright, you need to have a public comment," Chaney said. "But stay within code and build away."

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