The City of Rocky Mount recognizes the need to use the right technology to create and visualize potential development. This allows us to make informed decisions about the best use of land and resources to ensure that development plans align with our vision for the city. ViewPro's expertise in using ArcGIS Urban has been invaluable to us. I am confident that this technology will enhance stakeholder engagement moving forward and help us to achieve our goals for future development.
Solving the Affordable Housing Puzzle by Using ArcGIS Urban: Rocky Mount, North Carolina
Communities of all sizes face housing supply and affordability challenges. Rocky Mount, North Carolina — home to about 55,000 people — faces significant pressure to grow. Housing development is not keeping up with the demand at Rocky Mount, and the cost of housing is slowly becoming more unaffordable for current and would-be residents. City leadership wanted to solve the affordable housing puzzle and check the feasibility of its current housing density bonus initiative, and knew that leveraging the right technology would be key.
Previously, the city worked with Esri partner ViewPro to build out a digital twin. The digital twin created a 3D representation of Rocky Mount's existing built environment and served as a necessary contextual background, allowing for modeling future changes to zoning and land development regulations. This would give the city a foundation for making more informed decisions regarding future development. In addition to visualizing how code changes could increase or decrease development, the digital twin allowed Rocky Mount to simulate and visualize infill projects.
Rocky Mount's Housing Challenges
A myriad of market forces has created a situation where whole new subdivisions on the edge of town are more prevalent than infill housing or mixed-use projects. This has resulted in single-family homes that are, on average, priced between $300,000 and $400,000 and on a half-acre parcel. City officials recognized the increasingly dire need for more affordable housing units., but the city's existing affordable housing stock is dated and in need of capital repairs.
Prioritizing housing has long been a critical component of Rocky Mount's health and growth prospects. The city's comprehensive plan identifies affordable housing as an important benchmark, expanding on allowable locations, housing choices, neighborhoods, and level of maintenance.
An April 2021 retreat of the city council—partly focused on ideas and insights for housing affordability—led to policy changes. The city's Land Development Code (LDC) was amended to remove barriers to the creation of affordable housing. Specifically, a scaled density bonus was created, clarifying residential use definitions and types, and permitting residential development in commercial districts.
Rocky Mount Affordable Housing Plan
The goal of Rocky Mount's Affordable Housing Plan is to increase the availability of safe, sustainable, and affordable housing options for low- and moderate-income households in the city.
The plan includes several key objectives such as the following:
- Preservation of existing affordable housing through rehabilitation and renovation efforts
- Development of new affordable housing units through partnerships with private developers and nonprofit organizations
- Utilization of federal and state funding programs to support affordable housing initiatives
- Inclusion of affordable housing requirements in new development projects
- Improvement of housing quality and safety standards in existing affordable housing units
- Promotion of transitional housing and supportive services for individuals and families experiencing homelessness
Overall, the goal is to create and maintain a diverse range of affordable housing options in Rocky Mount that promote economic stability, social equity, and high quality of life for all residents.
The City of Rocky Mount has set a goal of providing 250 new affordable units over the next five years. The city is targeting residents currently classified as cost burdened or severely cost burdened. According to standards established by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), if a household spends more than 30 percent of its income on housing, then it is considered a cost-burdened household. If a household spends more than 50 percent of its income on housing, it is considered as severely cost-burdened household. Nineteen percent of Rocky Mount households are classified as severely cost burdened.
Parcel Suitability Analysis
Applying the tools associated with Rocky Mount's smart city initiative allowed for analyzing potential sites across the city, and this analysis needed to answer two key questions:
Where is the need for more affordable housing the greatest? Which areas meet the ideal variables for affordable housing development?
Using ArcGIS Urban software's suitability analysis tool, city staff and the ViewPro team put together a model with eight different variables for identifying suitable parcels for affordable housing development. These variables included civic facility access, transit, preferential zoning regulations, parcel structure, and sites that have a potential for purchase agreements. The suitability analysis results identified six potential areas, which Rocky Mount officials termed Catalytic Sites.
High-precision mapping has enhanced management, conservation, and research efforts at DBG. According to Musgrave, the garden's future goals include continuing to refine how it uses the technology and focusing on accuracy in everything it does.
Additionally, DBG staff have used ArcGIS Pro for facilities management and leveraged geodesign for planning infrastructure, terrain, and drainage elements for construction at the garden. Musgrave also hopes the technology could be used for enhancing the visitor experience as well with potential augmented reality applications. Imagine a visitor being able to look at a precisely geospatially positioned plant through a phone or augmented reality glasses and access a wealth of attributes and linked information with it. That, says Musgrave, would be awesome.
Determination of How Many Units Can Be Built
ArcGIS Urban utilized the city's digital twin to apply the existing housing policy to Catalytic Site 1 and validate and understand its development potential. The model built a typical scenario with an injected housing density bonus. The density bonus allowed for doubling the number of dwelling units with no additional-parking requirement in return for designating 20 percent of the units as affordable.
Per the ArcGIS Urban analysis, 51 market-rate units with 102 parking spots can be built without the affordable housing density bonus. If the density bonus is applied, 102 units (92 market rate and 10 affordable) and 102 total parking spots are possible. Constructing 10 affordable units achieves only four percent of the city's five-year goal of building 250 affordable units. Planning and development officials confronted the issue of whether the current policy was sufficient or an update was needed.
Tests of Revised Policy Ideas
Modifying the city's affordable housing density bonus could increase the number of affordable units. Likewise, so could changing floor-area ratios and other building code requirements. Officials used ArcGIS Urban to test a change to the density bonus that allowed for units of two different sizes: 750 square feet with one bedroom and 1,200 square feet with two bedrooms. With the one-bedroom option, more housing can be created, potentially up to 32 affordable units (13 percent of the city's goal). Even with that development, to reach 250 affordable housing units, Rocky Mount would need 7-10 potential development sites that may prove to be challenging to follow through, which is more than had been identified.
Next, the city tested changes to its floor-area ratios (FAR) in the hope that increasing the height of a development would increase the number of affordable units. A code change that allowed for three stories (instead of the current two) demonstrated 47 affordable units are possible.
A four-story project, though, adds a maximum of 62 units—a significant percentage of the city's goal. Each of these 62 units would have one bedroom. The city recognized that likely a mix of one- and two-bedroom units are needed, requiring from five to seven total sites.
The initial suitability analysis identified six sites in Rocky Mount that make for good infill developments. Thanks to the ArcGIS Urban analysis, Rocky Mount knows that it can achieve its goal of constructing 250 affordable units in five years through code changes that allow for building heights of at least four stories (in addition to keeping the existing affordable housing density bonus). The use of technology in urban planning is allowing Rocky Mount officials to make data-driven decisions to change affordable housing policy in order to create a thriving, sustainable community.