Multifamily Housing ‘Matrix’ Needs a Re-Boot

A year ago, Springfield adopted a new system for evaluating multifamily housing rezoning requests. An intricate point system dubbed the multifamily “matrix” has been in use ever since. 

I served along with other members of the community on the task force that drew up the matrix. Throughout the processed I was one of several who voiced concern about the potential outcome of utilizing such a system at all. It seemed to me that we were using a sledgehammer to kill an ant. Why not simply adopt a few statements of principle – guidines, if you will – that become the criteria through which staff, planning and zoning officials and council members exercise reasonable judgment? Instead, we opted for a prescriptive point system.

When the matrix was adopted, I outlined (in a column for the September issue of Housing News) my concerns about the policy and some basic benchmarks we should utilize to evaluate it. Here is an excerpt from that column:
“…I hope my fears prove unfounded, but the stakes certainly are high. That’s why the best part of the task force’s recommendation is that we reconvene in a year to evaluate the system and make recommendations for any needed changes. In the meantime, we should watch a few indicators very carefully:
Number of rezoning applications received: If we receive significantly fewer rezoning applications over the next year than we did in 2005 & 2006, we need to consider that we may have severely harmed our local economy by driving jobs and revenue out of town. We should always use real market data to evaluate, and avoid rash decisions based on a “general feeling” of city council members or anyone else.
Percentage of rezoning applications approved: If we are rejecting a significantly higher proportion of applications than in years past, we should re-work the matrix. 
Financing. The design guidelines section of this matrix is a New Urbanism style guide, put into policy. New Urbanism is one of many design styles, but this matrix makes it the only one that receives rezoning points. Evidence exists that many lenders view the style as a risky and expensive variation from more conventional and proven development styles, and they often avoid them. Since we are essentially imposing New Urbanism on the multifamily development community (to qualify for higher density you must meet at least 50% of the design guidelines), we should take special note of how lenders respond.
We must carefully evaluate the point levels during this year, to ensure they are fair to new development.”…”
The multifamily housing task force is now reconvening to re-evaluate the matrix. My hope is that these four criteria will be the ones utilized to determine how the matrix should be changed (or if it should be retained at all). Arguably, the matrix (at least thus far) has failed on all four benchmarks.
Number of rezoning applications received – I know of developers who have simply decided it isn’t worth trying to navigate the complex maze offered by the Springfield matrix.  Surrounding communities require far fewer bureaucratic hoops. To make a good judgment on this point, the task force will need data. City staff should gather the number of rezoning applications (developments, not units) approved and denied over the last year in Greene County, Christian County, Republic, Willard, Nixa, Ozark, Rogersville, etc. to compare. By any objective standard, Springfield should run well ahead of all these jurisdictions. It is more urbanized. It has a higher percentage of renters to owners. Occupancy rates in existing units remain high. There is no reason Springfield shouldn’t outperform all surrounding jurisdictions on the number of multifamily rezoning applications received – unless developers are being pushed away by policies and procedures.
Percentage of rezoning applications approved – This should be simple enough to compare the last 12 months to approval percentages in the past, as well as to current percentages in surrounding communities.
Financing – In the last year, financing for all construction projects has become less flexible.  If “New Urbanism” developments were on less-than-certain ground for financing a year ago, there is no reason to believe lending institutions have loosened standards this year to embrace this financially riskier option.
Evaluate the points – Let’s face it, the points are confusing. Nobody (including staff council members) seems able to agree on just how to allocate points. Despite the best efforts of the task force to keep the process objective and clear, the result has been muddled and confusing. If the matrix has created more confusion than simplification, it should be reconsidered.