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The city of Washington is considering lowering the density requirements in multifamily zoning districts to give more opportunities for renters.

According to Sal Maniaci, community and economic development director, reducing the minimum lot sizes from 3,000 square feet per unit to 2,000 square feet per unit for R-3 multifamily zoning will allow for more affordable housing in the form of apartments.

He noted that the change is in line with the city’s master plan.

During a public hearing in front of the city council Monday, Maniaci pointed to the goal in the master plan that encourages entry-level residences in Washington.

The objectives outlined within the goal are to encourage private development of higher density housing near commercial areas, develop a housing strategy to create opportunities for renters to become homeowners and look into the creation of smaller residential lot zoning districts.

“This (code change) hits all three in some way,” Maniaci said. “It creates opportunities for renters for more affordable apartments.”

City Administrator Darren Lamb added there have been developers looking to build new apartment complexes, but they have been limited due to higher density requirements.

“We have had this issue in the past,” he said. “It does limit the ability for people to do those types of developments, especially if you’re not in a certain zoning district.”

Maniaci said Washington is much more stringent with its multifamily lot sizes than other local municipalities.

For example, in Union the minimum lot size in multifamily districts is 1,500 square feet per unit. In Ballwin, the minimum lot size is 2,000 square feet per unit.

In St. Charles, Fenton, Eureka and Warrenton, the minimum lot sizes vary between 2,420 and 2,722 square feet per unit.

“Compared to what you see in other communities, we have a much higher density, in some cases a third higher or more,” Maniaci said.

Lamb said city staff has been discussing lot size requirements for several years.

“This is something that has been researched in the past, at least it has been discussed in the past, but we never brought it up,” he said. “This gives the planning and zoning commission an idea of what our surrounding communities have, and as you can see, it is a little easier to develop in those other communities.”

City staff began discussing the change more indepth following a proposal for an apartment complex at Fifth and Penn streets. The developer considered constructing 12 units on a 24,000-square-foot lot. However, the zoning code would only allow for eight units to be built there.

At its Aug. 13 meeting, the planning commission unanimously recommended the city reduce the lot size requirements.

The minimum lot size was one of five proposed code changes addressed in the public hearing. There was no opposition to any of the proposed changes.

An ordinance is expected to be voted on by the council in September.

Homeownership

Councilwoman Gretchen Pettet said addressing homeownership in Washington may be a greater challenge.

“I’m curious if we have a shortage of cost-effective rental property — it seems as though this change is more rental properties, or if the broader issue, even as cited in your comprehensive plan, is about creating ownership opportunities?” she asked.

“What I hear more from people is, ‘Why can’t I buy a house in Washington if I am a teacher?,’ ” Pettet added, “not, ‘Why can’t I rent another apartment?’ ”

Maniaci said there is a need for more apartments in the city, adding that density code amendments could, ultimately, aid future homebuyers.

“It is a complex situation as to why our housing is more expensive here than in surrounding communities,” he said. “I do think that us approving this attacks it from one way.

“By allowing for more opportunities for renters to rent until they are ready to buy, maybe that gives teachers at least an opportunity to have more options in town until they are ready to purchase — it gives them time to save up,” he said.

Maniaci explained the city must explore housing costs, but the code change will provide more housing options.

“There is an issue where we need to have more affordable single-family housing available, but at the same time we don’t have a ton of apartments available,” he said. “We see some single-family homes going to rental property because there is a demand for it. This may slow that down and keep more single-family (homes) under private ownership.”