Policy Ideas for Shareable Urban Housing

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"WHAT STEPS CAN A CITY TAKE TO PROMOTE SHAREABLE HOUSING? Here are seven ideas to democratize housing in your city.


We recommend that cities help form more housing cooperatives, which offer an effective, participatory approach to affordable housing that can boost urban innovation and resilience.

Resident-owned or nonprofit rental housing cooperatives offer a time-tested, affordable, and socially enriching alternative to private ownership and rental. Housing cooperatives can also boost the innovation and resilience of cities by making quality housing accessible to young entrepreneurs, students, low income families, artists, nonprofit workers, senior citizens, service workers, laborers, the disabled, and other low income populations.

Housing cooperatives can lower housing costs in a variety of ways including restrictions on profit from resale, self-management, nonprofit status, shared facilities, and subsidies. Limited equity cooperative housing can keep housing permanently affordable through legal restrictions on the financial gain on the future sale of shares. Cooperative housing can be developed from scratch or apartments can be converted to cooperative ownership through tenant buyouts.

Studies show that housing cooperatives provide other benefits like greater social support, smaller carbon footprints, reduced crime, increased civic engagement, better maintenance, and resident stability. They can also reduce foreclosures by offering large savings and spreading the financial burden over numerous people. Housing cooperatives have a long history of success and currently serve over 1.5 million U.S. households.

Because of the critical benefits housing cooperatives offer cities, we recommend that cities aggressively support their growth by offering: subsidies and accessible financing; density bonuses; fee waivers; waiver of burdensome development standards such as minimum parking requirements; waiver of burdensome administrative hurdles required of typical subdivisions; city-owned land for long-term ground leases; support for formation of urban land trusts needed to train tenants as well as manage the land and agreements associated with housing cooperatives; and create city programs to give legal, financial and technical support to housing cooperatives.


New York City has long supported cooperative housing. In 1955, it initiated the Mitchell-Lama program which led to the creation of middle-income rental and limited-equity cooperative developments with 54,000 units. The Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB), established in 1974, has helped residents form more than 1,600 affordable, limited-equity housing cooperatives. Through a long-term contract with the city, UHAB provides residents with the seed money, technical assistance, legal advice, architectural plans, management training needed to build and run limited-equity housing cooperatives.

In order for cities to meet the need for affordable and ecologically sustainable housing, sharing must become part of the policy conversation. Shared housing facilitates the sharing of goods, energy, and other resources, which can reduce waste, traffic, and energy needs, increase public transit use, decrease car ownership, and limit the need for residential and public parking.74 Shared living arrangements can also increase density within existing urban areas, accommodating overall population growth and alleviating affordable housing shortages experienced in many U.S. cities.76 There is a variety of ways in which people can share their living spaces, with arrangements ranging from living together within one housing unit to living in separate households and sharing spaces and amenities with neighbors.

Unfortunately, density restrictions, minimum lot and home size requirements, outmoded permitting and fee structures, parking space requirements, and other zoning barriers prevent cities from benefiting from the range of shared housing models citizens may want to pursue. This section outlines policy recommendations that remove barriers to various shared housing models, including accessory dwelling units (also known as granny or in-law flats and second units), clustered tiny homes and micro-apartments, short-term stays for travelers, cohousing communities, and eco-villages – all of which harness the power of sharing to increase affordability and decrease our environmental footprints.


We recommend that cities reduce fees and simplify permitting processes for adding new units to existing homes, often called accessory dwelling units (ADUs).

Additional housing units on parcels located in single-family residential and similar zones can provide relatively low-cost housing options and facilitate sharing of space and amenities. However, building ADUs is often cost-prohibitive due to high fees for zoning permits, connecting to essential utilities, or creating space for required parking under city zoning codes. Current permitting and fee structures typically incentivize the construction of large dwellings by charging based on the number of living units added instead of the square footage added or the ecological footprint of the addition. As a result, it is generally less expensive to build a new parlor than to turn the same space into a small studio apartment.

We recommend that cities amend traditional fee structures, streamline the permitting process, and ensure that zoning regulations pertaining to ADUs are easy to follow.


Portland, OR – Portland amended its ADU ordinance in 1998, relaxing development standards and eliminating minimum square footage and owner-occupancy requirements. ADUs are permitted in every residential zone in the city and may be constructed on lots containing single-family homes if the ADU is smaller than the primary residence and under 800 square feet.

ADUs can be created either by converting an existing structure or by build- ing an entirely new structure. When converting an existing structure, the city provides early assistance to support project development. The city does not impose additional parking requirements for the construction of ADUs. ADUs meeting the city’s applicable zoning requirements are permitted as-of-right without land use review, and the city provides a guide that describes ways to bring non-conforming ADUs into regulatory compliance.

Other examples – See Santa Cruz, California and Barnstable, Massachusetts.


We recommend that cities promote development of smaller homes including micro-apartments, tiny houses, yurts, container homes, and other humble abodes, which produce more affordable and sustainable housing options, and promote sharing.

Small dwellings help cities meet the growing demand for affordable housing. They are especially practical when clustered to enable shared space and amenities.81 However, many cities have adopted International Residential Code requirements that a dwelling unit include a minimum of one room that is at least 120 square feet,82 or cities may follow other state or local building or health and safety laws that impose minimum unit sizes. We recommend that cities reduce minimum unit, room, and lot sizes to enable small dwellings, and we recommend that cities streamline permitting processes for clustered villages of yurts or tiny houses.


San Francisco, CA – The city recently approved an ordinance to reduce minimum dwelling unit size from 290 square feet down to 220 square feet, and to allow construction of up to 375 such tiny apartment units.


We recommend that cities permit residents to use their homes for short-term renters or guests as a way to diversify local tourism opportunities and to help residents offset high housing costs.

Zoning laws in many cities make it nearly impossible for people to host short-term guests in exchange for monetary compensation, because residential zones generally prohibit converting one’s house or apartment into a “place of business.” For example, in San Francisco, California, a resident is considered to have established an illegal hotel simply by charging a guest for a short-term stay, defined as fewer than 32 days.

We recommend that cities adopt more nuanced permitting policies and fee structures to allow short-term guests. To prevent residential units from becoming too hotel-like, cities could adopt policies that limit the number of paid houseguests per year, limit the number of guest nights, or cap each household’s gross income from short-term rentals at, for example, no more than 50 percent of the monthly costs associated with the unit. These provisions recognize that the purpose of sharing is not necessarily to profit, but, rather, to offset the cost of housing.


Palm Desert, CA – A 2012 ordinance provides for the licensing of residential property for short-term rentals. Any property rented for three to 27 days must obtain a special Rental Permit ($25) on an annual basis and must remit a 9 percent Transient Occupancy Tax to the city. The regulations require on-site parking for short-term renters, compliance with the city’s noise ordinance, a round-the-clock contact person who can respond to neighbor complaints, and a limit on the maximum number of guests (two people per bedroom). Such restrictions are intended to alleviate concerns regarding noise, congestion, and other neighborhood disturbance.

Cape Elizabeth, ME – The city’s 2013 short-term rental ordinance89 establishes a permitting process, requires health and safety inspections, restricts the number of guests, and limits each separate rental period to seven days. The regulations create a detailed complaint process, and include a $50 permit fee.


We recommend that cities amend or remove any zoning laws that restrict co-habitation in order to facilitate more affordable, sustainable, and shared housing.

Many city zoning ordinances limit the number of unrelated people who may live in a housing unit, and we recommend that cities lift all such limits in order to allow for a broader range of living arrangements.


Mental Health Advocacy Services, Inc. has issued a set of recommendations for how cities can redefine family and occupancy standards to better include contemporary families and living needs. For example, cities should eliminate distinctions between related and unrelated individuals for the purpose of occupancy standards and repeal numerical limits on the number of unrelated people who may live together.


We recommend that cities establish zoning ordinances that enable the creation of cohousing and eco-villages, which facilitate more affordable and sustainable growth and development.

In comparison to conventional single-family homes, which can be resource-intensive and costly, cohousing allows people to share assets, save money, conserve resources. “Cohousing” typically refers to a community where people live in separate units but share common spaces such as a large kitchen, living room, dining room or office. The use of shared facilities allows for smaller, and therefore more affordable, individual units. It also facilitates sharing transportation, childcare, household goods, and food, which helps, reduce costs further while strengthening community ties.

Eco-villages are communities created by groups of individuals who intend to live healthy and sustainable lives by reducing their environmental impact and living cooperatively with others. Eco-villages often include community gardens, alternative energy generation, and other environmentally sustainable practices in addition to shared housing. There are hundreds of eco-villages in over seventy countries on six continents.

Contemporary U.S. zoning policies and density restrictions often impede the development of cohousing and eco-villages for a variety of reasons.92 We recommend that cities allow increased density, even in single-family residential zones, when a proposed development demonstrates that it will mitigate some of the negative impacts of density, such as limiting waste, lowering energy needs, limiting new traffic, and decreasing the number of parked cars.


Amherst, MA – Amherst’s zoning ordinance supports the creation of cohousing communities through Open Space Community Developments (OSCD), which “allow organized groups of households to construct dwelling units and common facilities for their collective and individual ownership and use.” An OSCD may contain a mixture of housing types as well as incorporate non-residential uses that are compatible with and supportive of residential development. The zoning code states that OSCD development is “flexible in nature and allows for modifications of lot size, bulk or type of dwelling, density, intensity of development, or required open space.” In addition, the zoning code provides density bonuses for OSCDs that incorporate affordable dwelling units.

Canada – Yarrow Eco-Village and O.U.R. Eco-Village, both in British Columbia, Canada, successfully petitioned their respective municipalities for rezoning by persuading their jurisdictions to take into account the low impact of eco-villages in comparison to typical housing developments. In 2003, Shawnigan Lake approved the creation of O.U.R. Eco-village on land previously designated as a Secondary Agricultural Zone. The successful rezoning of the space to a Comprehensive Development Zone allowed the group to create multiple dwellings, an organic farm, a food production facility, and to offer ecological restoration and education programs. In 2004, the Chilliwack City Council approved the first official “Eco-village Zone,” re-designating Yarrow Eco-village’s land, previously zoned “rural residential." This enabled the community to create forty individual residences, a community building with extensive amenities, an organic farm, an education center, and small cottage industries, none of which would have been permitted within the confines of a rural residential zone.

Bloomington, IN – Plans to create Bloomington Cooperative Plots Eco-Village95 (also known as Dandelion Village) on 2.23 acres of land were initially halted because the eco-village was not permitted under Bloomington’s residential single-family zone in which the land was located. Dandelion members revised the proposal and reduced the number of proposed housing units, and the city ultimately approved rezoning for the development of a mixed cooperative housing community for up to 30 unrelated adults, plus children; the plan included installation of renewable energy sources and preservation and restoration of native habitats.96


We recommend that cities adopt policies to encourage that new housing developments foster sharing and resident interaction.

Given the benefits of shared living to both individuals and communities, we recommend that cities require that new housing developments undergo a design review to ensure that the proposed development fosters local interaction and sharing. For example, cities can require or incentivize clustering housing around central courtyards, and they can require the inclusion of common areas and common houses designed for shared activities such as laundry, meals, children’s play areas, wellness areas, workspaces, and other communal events. Further, cities can encourage more mixed-use developments, which bring commercial and housing needs together in one place—reducing traffic and parking needs by allowing residents to walk to essential businesses and services.


London Grove Township, PA – London Grove Township’s zoning ordinance “encourage[s] the development of environmentally and socially sustainable and responsible neighborhoods” and recognizes that specific design standards are essential in meeting this goal. The code thus sets standards for development of an Eco-Village, including the design and structure of individual residential units, carports, and common houses as well as set-back, height, access roads, and construction methods and design." (http://www.shareable.net/blog/7-policy-ideas-for-shareable-urban-housing)