Meeting the Housing Challenge in Norfolk as Sea Levels Rise

Housing challenges are unique in Norfolk, Virginia, where availability of quality housing options in flood-free zones trumps affordability concerns.

Located in the southeastern corner of the commonwealth, Norfolk is the state's second largest city. Its Hampton Roads region is the nation's second most-threatened area from sea-level rise, behind Miami, according to the World Resources Institute. Norfolk also plays host to the largest naval base in the world.

Unfortunately, Norfolk is also one of two major cities in the U.S. — Detroit is the other — that have lagged well behind in the post-Great Recession recovery largely because of the effect that sequestration had on military spending.

For planners, creating density in low-risk flood areas to accommodate both growth and residents' desire to have less risk in housing choices in a stable market is a top priority.

Recognizing the climate and housing challenges on the horizon, Norfolk City Council voted unanimously in January 2018 to adopt the most resilience-focused zoning ordinance in the country. Among the many choices made was to significantly expand the use of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in Norfolk by allowing them by right in four of the residential base districts and with a Conditional Use Permit in four more residential base zoning districts.

With that vote, allowable residential density in parts of Norfolk doubled.

ADUs provide a source of affordable housing for renters and a source of income for homeowners both of which are beneficial to the community.  While ADUs seem to slightly increase parking demand in our walkable, bikeable, transit-rich community, they have been shown to have only a negligible impact on schools and traffic, and state legislators are taking notice.

A presentation on Norfolk's approach was given to a workgroup of the Virginia Housing Commission. Photo by George Homewood.

Because of the approach taken in the new zoning ordinance, Norfolk was recently asked to present at the Virginia Housing Commission, Neighborhood Transitions and Residential Land Use Workgroup at the State Capitol in Richmond.

This was an opportunity to discuss not only ADUs but the larger issues of housing affordability, availability, quality, and variety in Virginia and around the nation as embodied in the Planning Home initiative pioneered by APA.

The Virginia Housing Commission members and the advocates for housing, real estate, development, and homebuilders also in attendance were excited by the holistic approach being taken by Planning Home. They asked us to find ways to share the results with them as APA and partners begin to finalize the various research projects.

The housing crisis affecting America manifests itself in different ways in different places. That is why the Planning Home approach is so important. It begins with the belief that all Americans deserve a safe, sanitary, and affordable home in a place that supports their mobility, employment, and educational needs. It allows us to seek solutions that can be both tailored and scaled to all of America’s communities.

Visit www.planninghome.com to learn more about the Planning Home initiative's six-pronged action agenda and how you can support the effort in your community.

Top image: Water spills over from the Lafayette River onto Llewellyn Avenue in Norfolk, Virginia, just after high tide in August 2017. This road floods often, and flooding often occurs even when there is no rain. Flickr photo by Skyler Ballard/Chesapeake Bay Program (CC BY-NC 2.0).


About the Author
George Homewood, FAICP, CFM, is interim director of development for the City of Norfolk, Virginia, where he was director of city planning for five years. Homewood is chair of the APA Legislative Policy Committee and a past-president of APA's Virginia Chapter.

July 31, 2018

By George Homewood, FAICP