News about a housing recovery usually focuses on home sales, but Bloomberg ran a story this week, "U.S. Can Rent Its Way To A Housing Recovery" (h/t/ Land Use Prof Blog) that suggests that this focus may be off. The author suggests that the Obama Administration should allow a tax write-off for investors who buy empty properties and rent them out. The author claims this would help with two of the biggest problems with the housing market – the large amount of owner-occupied houses on the markets, which pushes prices down, and the millions of homes with negative equity: “Dealing with excess inventory by shifting vacant properties into the rental market would help to stabilize prices and thereby mitigate, to some degree, the negative-equity issue — although additional action would also be warranted to attack such ‘underwater’ situations." The ideas expressed in the article are obviously not without controversy, however, as even a cursory glance at the comments posted about the article make clear.
Private commercial developers have struggled to install affordable housing in New Jersey’s municipalities for decades, facing opposition from communities, local governments, and the municipal zoning boards. The Appellate Division has just eased the burden of private developers by holding, for the first time explicitly, that affordable housing built by a commercial developer (as opposed to a non-profit or public entity) qualifies as an “inherently beneficial use” in Conifer Realty LLC v. Township of Middle Zoning Board of Adjustment (September 9, 2011). By being categorized as an inherently beneficial use, commercial affordable housing is subject to a less stringent standard for obtaining use variance relief. In support of this holding, the Appellate division noted that the courts have previously recognized that affordable housing is an inherently beneficial use in a “variety of circumstances” and that housing needs are “clearly related to the general welfare under the zoning laws.”
The Appellate Division found that the zoning board construed previous opinions holding that affordable housing is an inherently beneficial use too narrowly. The board had maintained that because all existing caselaw had addressed affordable housing constructed by public of non-profit entities, a commercial developer’s affordable housing could not qualify as an inherently beneficial use. The Court directed that in analyzing whether a proposed use is inherently beneficial, “the focus of the inquiry is whether the proposal furthers the general welfare, not whether the undertaking is one that is not-for-profit or a commercial enterprise.”
In addition to remanding the application to the Board for consideration under the less stringent inherently beneficial use standard (the Sica test), the Appellate Division found the Board’s concerns regarding the negative criteria to be arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable. The Appellate Division noted that the Board’s rejection of the application, base on density and environmental concerns, was contradicted by the Township’s Fair Share plan, which included the project, minimized the environmental impact, and promised to amend the zoning and density for the project.
The Bay Head Planning Board initially approved a bulk variance application submitted by a property owner who had inherited an irregular lot with just ten feet of frontage, where fifty feet was required. Finding that denying a bulk variance for the frontage requirement would result in an undue hardship, and that the Applicant had adequately addressed concerns about emergency access to the Property resulting from the lot frontage variance, the Board approved the application with a 5-4 vote. Per the approval, the Applicant was required to submit a drainage plan for the Borough Engineer’s approval at the time of site plan application.
Upon an objector’s prerogative writ suit, the parties discovered that a board member had voted on the bulk variance without attending all of the meetings or reviewing all of the transcripts. The bulk variance application was remanded for a new vote, following a review of the transcripts by all of the board members. The Board then voted to deny the bulk variance, with a 4-5 vote. In its resolution, the Board explained that it denied application because the applicant had failed to provide “affirmative testimony… by any competent engineer… on how the applicant would address the well known drainage issues which plagued the proposed lot and more assuredly concerned the adjoining property owners.”
The most recent Case-Shiller index suggests that home prices ticked up in May ("U.S. Housing Prices Rise Slightly, But Remain Weak"). While this might sound like good news, experts were hardly celebrating. Most attributed the rise in the composite index to "seasonal factors" (i.e., demand is typically strongest in the Spring) and pointed to other negative signs – "contract cancellations, tightened lending standards and sales of new homes in June" — as better examples of the overall health of the market.
Against this grim news comes surpisingly good news from the usually bad news rich housing market of Florida. In "Affluent Buyers Reviving Market For Miami Homes," the New York Times notes that sales in Miami, particularly on higher end properties, are up more than 16%, with more than two-thirds of those sales being all cash deals. While this revival is obviously limited to the wealthy, it is at the very least a small ray of hope in an otherwise downtrodden real estate market.