What is the smallest lot size we should have in our suburb?

April 15, 2024

Visitor Question: We are a typical American suburb developed in the 1950s and 1960s. Our climate is moderate and our city is thriving economically. This means there is plenty of demand for housing, and the prices are just going up and up.

We used to have a requirement in our city charter that city employees have to live here. We got rid of that finally, but we would still like to have our employees able to afford to live here if it will be a convenient location for their family. Of course we want to be able to attract or keep other people who are on the lower end of a moderate income as well.

The question our planning commission has been debating is whether we could have a smaller minimum lot size in order to encourage building of some more modest-sized homes that would keep the costs down. Is there a minimum lot size that you could recommend for a single-family home in the U.S.?

Editors Reply: You may not like our answer, but we think this will vary from community to community. It depends in part on the existing minimum lot sizes (if you have them in your zoning ordinance, which most communities still do).

For example, if the minimum lot size in your most basic single-family zoning district is 10,000 square feet (nearly a quarter acre), then you could ask the developers and builders active in your community if a 7,000 square foot minimum would allow them to charge less for a new home. If they convince you that they would build more or charge less, that may be the most drastic action you need to take.

However, before you say yes, have a local real estate agent tell you what income is needed to purchase the home at the lower price. If that income is still too high for workers you want to retain in your community, then you know you need to go to an even lower minimum lot size.

That's just an example of course. Many subdivisions in the U.S. were built on 5,000 square foot lots, although these 1950s suburbs often features homes of 800 or 900 square feet. However, room additions in the last 30 years or so have made many of these homes larger without creating lawns that are so small that sales are hindered.

Investigate several possibilities. One is the zero lot line idea, where a home is built right up to the lot line, usually with the side of the home abutting the lot line have no windows or maybe a minimal one.

Understand that you could go as low as a 3,000 square foot minimum lot size if you want to have cottage style homes. A successful model may be arranging these homes around a courtyard providing an unconventional but quite reasonable shared lawn. These little developments may be especially popular with older adults.

In sum, to figure out the best minimum lot size, develop a narrative about who you imagine as the market for the new homes, what their income will allow as a home price, what the individuals or households in your target market will tolerate in terms of reduced lawn space, what your target market demands for a minimum home space, and how your local builders would respond to a lower minimum lot size. Take into account your lowest minimum lot size in your existing zoning districts, and make sure any revised requirement has a high probability of making a difference.

Another factor deserving your study is how the adjoining or nearby suburbs are dealing with this issue. Look at their home sizes, home prices, required lawn areas, and types of households that move into those suburbs. If you want the exact same home sizes and amenities as your next door neighboring suburb, then you need to assure yourselves that a reduction of private lawn space will not cause prospective buyers to look elsewhere. But if they will not mind or even notice slightly smaller yards, then you can proceed with a smaller requirement. This is just an example of how the zoning rules in adjacent suburbs might impact your decision making.

Explore your community's tolerance for the idea that public green space can compensate for lack of private green space. Private green space is our name for individual lawns.

In sum, we can't give you a number without doing all of the specific research that we have teased above. You will need to do the research and have the conversations that will lead you to an optimum number. But then, for several years thereafter, your planning commission or planning staff should monitor the results closely to see if you have made any progress toward the goal of creating some new housing options that your workforce can afford.

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