So you want to build rental housing. Developers quickly discover local building codes can be the highest barrier to beginning a project. Even a code based on the latest modern thinking can be wrong for a particular, local housing market or particular property type—and may prevent your apartment development from getting started.
“Model codes are developed by stakeholders at the national level,” says Paula Cino, senior director of energy and environmental policy for the National Multi Housing Council (NMHC). “They are not customized for local jurisdictions.”
NMHC and the National Apartment Association (NAA) released a new series of building code toolkits to help multifamily developers create a positive dialogue with local planning officials and encourage high-quality rental housing. The toolkits are part of a wider effort to expand resources for codes and standards as the industry ramps up apartment construction, according to NMHC.
The need for rental housing has pushed average occupancy rates over 95 percent and rents are rising faster than inflation in housing markets across the country. Many local officials now say that they want to encourage new multifamily development. “Coming out of the foreclosure crisis, communities have found that they don’t have the right mix of housing in their housing stock,” says Lynn Ross, executive director of the Urban Land Institute’s Terwilliger Center for Housing.
But many communities still have laws on the books that can make it illegal to build many kinds of multifamily housing without a variance. Hundreds of rules, from the distance a property must be set back from the street to how much parking the property must provide, can in the most extreme cases seem to restrict the ability of developers to build anything but strip malls or single-family homes.
The latest model building codes correct many of these problems, but they can still create barriers to building apartments. Local lawmakers should make sure any new zoning laws will work in the local market.
The building code toolkits are designed to help communities customize the codes to make sure that they get outcomes they want. The first toolkit, National Model Building Codes and Standards: Apartment Issues Tracking, summarizes the issues that could effect apartment development in the current crop of model codes, including the International Building Code (IBC), the NFPA 13R Sprinkler Standard and the ASHRAE 90.1 and ASHRAE 90.2 energy standards.
There’s also a toolkit for communities considering a sustainable development code like the 2012 IgCC, published earlier this year. Communities may to modify or create exceptions to some rules that don’t make sense for all types of large construction. Some of the rules don’t make sense for smaller apartment buildings. “A lot of products and practices in the code are tailored for commercial properties,” says NMHC’s Cino. “The cost impact is huge… It could well lead to development moving to another jurisdiction.”
There’s also the 2012 International Energy Conservation Code Adoption Toolkit, suggests amendments for local jurisdictions adopting the 2012 IECC to accommodate the unique characteristics of multifamily properties.
“Model codes are great, but it is never a great idea to take a model code and just insert it,” says ULI’s Ross. “The amount of time to implement is much shorter than the time it takes to undo.”