chapter 5: Predevelopment
Learning Objective: Users will be ready to make effective decisions around site selection, acquisition, and environmental studies.
Overview of predevelopment
The predevelopment stage builds on your understanding of the community’s housing needs and its own capacity to embrace development. This phase focuses on identifying and acquiring a site, creating detailed plans for the development, and various steps to take before beginning construction. Note that although both market and financial feasibility assessments are technically part of the predevelopment phase, they are covered in Chapter 6: Market Feasibility and Chapter 7: Financial Feasibility, respectively. However, you will often be working on those processes in tandem with those described in this chapter.
A thorough and well-managed predevelopment phase is critical to the success of the development. There are many details, tasks, and deliverables to keep track of, and other potentially unforeseen variables that may be introduced into the development action plan. A successful predevelopment process makes for a successful construction phase and is important to reducing your organizational liability.
Predevelopment can take months or even years to complete, depending on the type of development and the local requirements. This is also time when rent is not being collected and the primary funding has not been secured, so this can be a period where you will have significant monetary outlays and carrying costs with no income to offset this. Because of this, lenders and other funders have created loan and grant products specifically to assist with this phase of the development for affordable housing. For more information on resources that may be available, see the Funding Sources Inventory.
Because of the complexity of the design, site review, and approval processes for development, you should employ consultant expertise. These could include:
planners or lawyers with expertise in zoning and land use;
engineers, architects, and/or landscape architects to produce drawings, plans, and reports;
your general contractor to advise on construction-related issues and costs;
environmental experts to conduct site environmental reviews for contaminants and other conditions; and
market analysts to test the market feasibility of your development model.
In addition, many other stakeholders will be involved in this phase such as lenders and other funders, government officials and staff, and community members. For more information see Building Your Development Team in Chapter 3: Housing Development Models, Team, and Roles.
If possible, hire consultants who have specific experience working in the jurisdiction and with similar types of development as yours. This will increase the likelihood of an efficient predevelopment and approval process.
Site selection refers to the process of examining and assessing different land (or existing developments in the case of preservation or adaptive reuse) to determine which site(s) best meet your goals in developing affordable housing. Site selection influences other aspects of your development project, including the overall financial feasibility, design, and ability to align with community needs. This section lays out key factors to consider when evaluating and selecting your site. Some of these factors you may be able to understand well enough from a broker sheet or public records. Others will require you visit the site yourself to see the conditions firsthand.
Physical and environmental factors
Slope refers to the change in elevation on a site. Most site-selection guidance recommends ruling out sites with steep slopes (10 percent gradient or higher), since these may require significant and costly earthwork to prepare the site for housing development, such as moving soil, building retaining structures, and incorporating onsite stormwater management infrastructure. Sites with moderate slopes (5 to 9 percent gradient) may still require some level of earthwork, but it is generally less intensive and may be more financially feasible. Given the mountainous terrain of many communities in Colorado, sites with steep slopes may have to be considered, but it is important to understand the costs that will be associated with this type of development.
Drainage and hydrology refer to the way water moves across and within the soils of a site. In many cases, this may simply involve understanding the direction stormwater runs off and/or collects on the site, which can be addressed in the design of your development. A pond, stream, or other water body present on the site may impact what you can develop.
Soil. A site’s soil conditions must support the overall development, including building foundations and density, even when compacted. It must also provide proper drainage for both stormwater and any water generated by the development such as a landscaping sprinkler system. Rocks or other major physical features that are part of the soil may require additional earthwork or design considerations. Your assessment of a site’s soil should also rule out any ecological factors, such as the presence of prime agricultural land or wetlands. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides a list of soil surveys that have been conducted in the state that can be used to determine general soil conditions, but onsite sampling and surveying will be necessary in most cases.
Environmental considerations include the susceptibility of the site to both natural and human-made conditions that could adversely impact residents and/or the development itself. Being located in a flood plain, for example, may expose the residents and building to flood-related hazards. A property hazard and risk profile, such as the Portfolio Protect tool provided by Enterprise Community Partners can help you determine a site’s exposure to environmental risk factors, including floods, fires, and landslides. However, tools like this may not fully capture some of the environmental considerations introduced by Colorado’s unique topography. For example, there may be factors introduced by elevation and exposure to mountain temperature fluctuations, snow, wind, UV light, and other conditions that should also be considered. Nearby human-made risk factors such as landfills, heavy industrial uses, or Brownfield sites should also be assessed to determine any potential impacts, along with any readily identifiable conservation considerations, such as the presence of a wetland or other sensitive area. These factors will all be assessed in more detail during your environmental review, but it is helpful to have the best understanding you can of what environmental conditions may look like for a site using publicly available tools and resources.
In assessing these environmental considerations, your development team can help you understand the implications of identified risks; some factors may deter you from a site altogether, while others can be effectively addressed through design decisions or mitigation measures. Even in if hazards can be mitigated, the costs of doing so may end up being prohibitive for your development model.
Parcel size and shape. Parcel size and shape influence what the development will look like once built. This includes how the development fits in and connects with its surroundings, both human-made and natural, and how buildings must be configured on the site. Parcel size and shape are relevant primarily to new construction and redevelopment but could also be relevant in rehabilitation developments if the exterior of the building will be reconfigured or if new structures will be added. In addition, the size of the parcel determines how much space you will have to landscape, maintain, or otherwise manage the property’s exterior. Your architect can help you evaluate whether the dimensions of a site will be workable for your development plan.
Existing utilities and infrastructure. Access to existing utilities and infrastructure is especially important for new housing construction, where the site improvements to either extend or add new or significant upgraded onsite infrastructure may be cost-prohibitive. In rural locations, extending basic infrastructure to a site may be costly, depending on location of water and sewer connections, and alternatives, such as sites with appropriate water for onsite septic systems, may be difficult to find consistently.
Consider the following components of utility and infrastructure access during site selection:
Presence: Does the site already have infrastructure and utility services?
Proximity: For sites without existing services, is the site near main lines to connect to infrastructure and utility services?
Capacity: Is there capacity for additional hookups to existing infrastructure or utility lines? For instance, even when water and sewer lines are present, capacity for additional hookups to existing lines may be limited. Some communities impose moratoria on infrastructure hookups to assist with water resource management. In older urban areas, infrastructure may need to be improved significantly due to age or to support higher-density development planned for the site. These costs are often passed on to developers.
Fees: What is the municipal fee structure? You may be required to connect to a municipality’s water and sanitary sewer system if the site is in its extraterritorial jurisdiction.
Infrastructure and utilities to assess include the following:
Transportation access, both frontage roads and road access
When considering a site that lacks access to utilities or other infrastructure but makes sense for other reasons, public sector organizations that have an interest in creating more affordable housing may be interested in partnering to help make the infrastructure development costs more feasible, as the Basalt Vista Affordable Housing Community and Cactus Corner case studies demonstrate.
Existing Use. A site’s current use can also have a substantial impact on the feasibility of different development models. Existing structures on the site may need to be rehabilitated, demolished, or adapted to a new use to meet your development goals.
In addition, if any existing buildings on the site are currently occupied by residential or commercial tenants, you may need to determine how to relocate them. If federal funding will support your development, your plan for relocation must comply with the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act (URA), which establishes standards and requirements for property acquisition and current resident displacement. Depending on the nature of the displacement involved, compliance with this requirement may add significant costs to your development.
Current zoning. Zoning regulates the specific types of development that can be built on a site. In other words, it determines what can be built and how. During site selection, it will be important to understand if potential sites are currently zoned for the type of project or projects you may want to build. You can learn this by reviewing current zoning standards and/or by engaging local planning and zoning staff. These staff members can help you understand the need for approvals, the process to obtain them, and any areas of flexibility in the current standards that may be available to you. At this point, you likely will not have a detailed site plan and may not be aware of all the special approvals you need. However, a general assessment of the current zoning standards will still be helpful for sites that appear viable for your development model. Key questions to consider are:
Are residential uses allowed by-right (i.e., without special approvals)? If so, what specific types of housing can be built?
For development that may serve specific groups, such as people experiencing homelessness, survivors of domestic violence, and others, will you need a special or conditional use permit?
Does the zoning indicate that the site is located in any hazard mitigation areas?
Generally, can the development be configured to meet all the zoning specifications? These specifications may include height, bulk, density (i.e., the number of units proposed on the site), set-backs, open space requirements, and parking requirements.
Does the zoning classification offer any incentives for housing affordability, services, or other public benefits that the project may provide? Does the zoning classification require any affordable housing units be provided as part of new development? Although zoning does not generally regulate affordability, additional requirements may be incorporated in zoning that require specific levels of affordability.
If the requirements do not align with aspects of your development, you may choose to explore whether an exception to the zoning requirements, called a variance, can be made. Variances are typically available when the current zoning creates a barrier to site use. Some common reasons to seek a variance include small or oddly shaped sites or nonconforming uses or structures. Waivers or changes to specific building standards may also be possible when relevant.
Developers may experience a broader spectrum of land use regulations. For instance, rezoning to allow for residential use may be needed in communities that have not updated their master or comprehensive plans to account for changing market conditions or population growth.
Building by-right vs. seeking special approvals
Building by-right means building without needing special approvals and is often seen as a more expedient and predictable option for development. By-right development avoids lengthy review and public approval processes, which can add time, cost, and uncertainty to a project.
Building that requires special approvals, on the other hand, is often viewed as a longer, more uncertain development process. This view is largely due to the reliance on discretionary approval processes, with additional layers of administrative, political, and public review, to the overall development process. These additional layers can also add cost to a project (in the case of additional design features, concessions, etc.) or block it entirely. At times, special approvals can result in a project that better serves a community that fits in with its surroundings (natural or human-made) and/or incorporates community services or additional amenities, such as onsite recreation opportunities. In other situations, such as if current zoning standards are not aligned with community growth or housing needs, special approvals may be the primary way to ensure housing development occurs.
In addition to evaluating the characteristics of the site, you should also consider where the site is located with respect to your development model, the people it will serve, and your organizational values. For example, the proximity of the site to key services and amenities such as public transit, health care, and education services may be relevant for the residents you plan to serve. The Bridge Shelter case study featured in this guide, for example, highlights location factors like these that contribute to the development’s success.
In addition, a site located in areas designated by the public sector for targeted public investments may make additional resources available to finance your development or may enable greater investment in the surrounding neighborhood over time. Examples of these designations include: Community Development Block Grant LMI Census Tracts, Neighborhood Revitalization Strategy Area, Qualified Census Tract, Difficult to Develop Areas, and Opportunity Zones.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion factors
During site selection, there may be both federal- and state-level requirements to account for, as well as broader ways to advance equity and inclusion.
Fair housing requirements
Federal fair housing law prohibits discrimination across seven protected classes – race, color, national origin, familial status, disability status, religion, and sex. Colorado state law extends protections to additional classes, which are ancestry, creed, marital status, sexual orientation (including gender identity), and source of income. Local laws may add other classes as well.
Fair housing questions to ask include:
Concentration of subsidized units: Is this site near existing subsidized properties? Would the addition of affordable housing in this area reinforce existing marginalization of people living in subsidized properties?
Racial segregation: Is this site in a high poverty area or HUD-designated R/ECAP? What is the history of the surrounding community?
Access to opportunity: Does the surrounding neighborhood provide environmental quality and access to services such as public transit, schools, and jobs?
Using an equity lens during the site selection phase may involve understanding how a site relates to or helps facilitate investments in the surrounding area for your development’s residents. In understanding these connections, it’s important to learn how the landscape of access and opportunity in the U.S. has been shared by a historically unequal housing system, characterized by redlining and lending discrimination, racially restrictive covenants, and use of eminent domain to seize private property.
For sites where there is less connectivity and access, additional investments should be made onsite (e.g., provision of services within the development model) or through partnerships to facilitate investments in and around the site. This could include working with public and nonprofit partners to make quality-of-life and service improvements around sites or aligning with their programming, such as partnering on homeownership programs.
Accessibility standards established by the Fair Housing Act, the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and some local ordinances provide requirements and guidelines for accessibility in multifamily buildings. For preservation of existing properties, the overall age or last renovation date may suggest if a property will need additional accessibility features.
Beyond the federal requirements, choosing an accessible site can involve broader physical, regulatory, or locational factors, including:
Zoning: Does the zoning allow for common types of accessible homes, such as group living facilities?
Location: Will this site support independence among residents? Is the site near services that would be used by residents? Does the site offer transportation access to critical destinations, such as job centers and grocery stores?
Infrastructure: Does the site have ADA-accessible infrastructure, such as well-maintained sidewalks, curb cuts, and accessible pedestrian signals, to aid persons living with disabilities and older adults?
For more information about advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion through your development, explore the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Self-Assessment.
Cost (current and future)
Site cost represents one of the largest decisions in site selection, as land typically represents a significant portion of total development costs and the ability to gain site control. In addition to affecting overall financial feasibility, many public funding programs set a maximum acquisition/for-sale cost (total or expressed as a maximum per unit), so this consideration is particularly relevant for developments that will utilize public funding.
Property values, including land value, may be higher or escalate during the sale or over time in specific locations, such as amenity-rich locations or areas experiencing significant public or private investments. The variation in site cost may require you to adjust your financial assumptions to ensure overall financial feasibility. See Chapter 7: Financial Feasibility for more detail on estimating costs.
In rural locations, cost drivers during site selection may be tied more to predevelopment activities that improve overall site suitability, including site grading, rock removal, or infrastructure improvements.
In addition to the current cost, you should consider whether you expect property values to rise, fall, or track the broader market over time. If this is a development that your organization will own for a long time, the impacts of the site on your development’s value will be a relevant consideration. For existing properties, rent levels, along with current subsidies and their expiration dates, should be considered as well.
Some governments offer property tax relief based on the location, affordability, or ownership, such as those owned by nonprofit organizations. The State of Colorado also offers exemptions for some development types, such as residential development used for charitable purposes. In selecting a site, it is important to understand if the land or property you are considering qualifies for any tax relief programs and what the requirements of those programs are. This tax relief can have a significant impact on your operating expenses over time. See Chapter 7: Financial Feasibility for more information.
For more information on historical and current conditions related to these topics, see the Exposing Housing Discrimination research collection by the Urban Institute: https://www.urban.org/features/exposing-housing-discrimination
Centre for Excellence in Universal Design. “What is Universal Design.” Accessed: August 1, 2021. http://universaldesign.ie/What-is-Universal-Design/
Site acquisition and assembly
Once you have identified one or more sites that are viable for your development, determine what the process is to acquire it. This will depend on who currently owns the property and the financial condition.
Private land or property acquisition
The most straightforward way to acquire land or property is to purchase it on the private market. One downside of private-market transactions is the potential for competition among other buyers, which can drive up the sale price. With new construction or preservation of affordable homes, including the preservation of unsubsidized affordable housing, price escalation may make a project financially infeasible or may limit the affordability levels your development can achieve.
You may be able to reduce the risks of private land price escalation through off-market acquisition, often identified through direct relationships with real estate brokers or property owners. It’s important that the property broker or owner understands your goals in creating affordable housing and the locations in which you are interested. Familiarity with the funding sources you may use for acquisition may also be helpful.
In addition, some public agencies and CDFIs, in partnership with the private and philanthropic sectors, have created land acquisition funds to assist with land or property acquisition as part of broader affordable housing development initiatives, particularly in areas where price escalation is a risk. Denver’s Regional Transit-Oriented Development Fund and the Impact Development Fund are examples. CHFA has been proud to invest in these funds.
Another way to acquire land or property off-market is through local right-of-first-refusal policies. While the specific eligibility requirements will vary in a municipality’s policy, right-of-first-refusal policies typically enable a buyer to purchase a property before it is listed for sale on the private market. Most of these policies require that a buyer does not change the property tenure, type or affordability. In addition to municipal policies, there is a statewide right-of-first-refusal policy for mobile home parks and some condominiums.
Community-serving land and property
Property can also be accessed through public or community-based institutions, such as cities, counties, park districts, school districts, and faith-based institutions.
One benefit of community-serving land is its cost. If available, municipalities and nonprofits can often access these properties at low or no cost. Using community-serving land may require a developer to make trade-offs in terms of other factors, such as location or development model. For instance, some institutions require affordability in exchange for low- or no-cost land. It may also affect overall site size or scale. Community-serving land can be accessed through public RFPs, searchable public land inventories such as the Colorado State Land Board inventory, or direct outreach to community governments and institutions.
In addition to acquiring community-serving land, you may consider proposing co-locating affordable housing with other community uses of the site. Common examples of co-location are affordable homes near transit facilities, faith-based institutions, health care institutions, community centers, and libraries. Co-location can be especially impactful for specific residents who benefit from living near facilities that serve them. For instance, older adults or persons living with a disability may benefit from living near health care facilities or community centers.
Considerations for using co-location as a tool to reduce acquisition costs include:
Development process. Is it possible to separate the development process (including financing, development timeline) for each facility? If not, are you able to meet the same timeline (e.g., milestones) as the co-located facility? Is the institution supporting co-location able to assist with coordination across project teams?
Infrastructure. What opportunities are there to share infrastructure and utilities across the co-located facilities?
Design. How will the co-located facilities be integrated with one another? What site improvements may be needed to promote access? Can those improvements be made without significant additional costs, including ways to share them across facilities?
Another option for community-serving land is leasing land or property through ground leases from public entities or other organizations such as community land trusts (see next section). Leasing, rather than acquiring land or property outright, eliminates the land acquisition costs and finances by allowing you to use the land for development without acquiring ownership of the land. At the same time, the landholder, which is often a community-serving institution or public agency, can include stipulations in the lease agreement regarding design, affordability, timelines, or community benefits such as local hiring, leasing, or homebuyer preferences.
Partnerships with community land trusts
Community land trusts (CLTs) are nonprofit organizations designed to steward the use of land, commonly making land available for the development of affordable units to buy or rent.
A CLT typically owns the land or property and then leases it to developers or homebuyers. This model, like others that rely on leasing, decouples land or property costs from the total development costs. However, unless the land is donated, it must still be paid for and factored into development project budgeting. Frequently CLTs need a subsidy to cover the difference in the cost of developing the home and the sale price or rental income. In addition, CLT homes may need additional subsidy to enable them to sell for less than other homes in the community, due to the restrictions imposed on the homebuyer.
Before partnering with a CLT, it is important to consider the following:
Mission and model alignment. Does your organization’s mission align with the CLT’s mission? Does your development model fall within the CLT’s existing property type or model? For instance, some CLTs mix homeownership and rental properties or other land uses. Some aim to produce new homes while others are more focused on preservation.
Community relationships. Do you have close ties to community members or community-based organizations in the CLT’s footprint?
Affordability. Are you willing or able to develop affordable rental or for-sale homes on the land? Are you willing to keep them affordable long term (often in perpetuity)?
Real-estate-owned or other foreclosed property
Real-estate-owned property (REO) refers to property owned by a bank. Foreclosed property could be in any stage of the foreclosure process, including REO.
Using REO or other foreclosed property can support assembly of multiple adjacent parcels into one site for a redevelopment project or infill development. REO or foreclosed properties often have infrastructure and utilities in place; however, if you plan to assemble multiple smaller parcels into one larger site, it is important to determine if additional capacity investments are needed.
Land banks, which are often tasked with disposing of tax-foreclosed properties, may be additional sources of land, especially if the land bank has stated priorities related to affordable housing.
CHFA also maintains the First Look pilot program, which is an additional resource to developers considering REO properties. This program is designed to help support affordable housing efforts by allowing community-based housing organizations the opportunity to purchase certain of CHFA's foreclosed and other real-estate-owned (REO) single family homes in Colorado. In addition to keeping single family homes in homeownership, the CHFA First Look program is intended to help stabilize neighborhoods by facilitating the purchase, rehabilitation, and resale of homes by mission-driven organizations to maintain the homes’ affordability.
If you are interested in using REO or foreclosed property, additional information to examine includes:
Title. Does the property or properties have clear title? In Colorado, most property titles are held by county agencies, although there may be exceptions, such as U.S. Forest Service in some rural areas.
Delinquent property taxes. Is there a lien on the property due to unpaid property taxes? Are you able to cover any costs associated with paying unpaid taxes and any interest or fees?
Property condition. Can the property be rehabilitated without significant additional costs? Can the property be demolished without significant additional costs?
Appraisal. What have nearby properties recently sold for? How do those sales compare with the asking price of the properties?
To obtain private or public financing, a property or vacant land will need to be appraised by a third-party appraiser who may need to be selected by a lender, by an investor, or from an approved list. For both vacant parcels and properties, an appraisal is typically completed using recent sales of similar properties for acquisition of existing properties or overall highest and best use of land for vacant land.
The appraisal step carries some level of risk, namely that the appraised value may be lower than the market value of the property causing an “appraisal gap.” Projects with few or no comparable real estate transactions could have an increased risk of a gap. This includes smaller multifamily buildings in single family neighborhoods, an institutional or office building that will be converted to homes, or sites in areas where recent sales suggest lower sales prices.
If you are hiring your own appraiser, seek one who has experience with similar development models and local market conditions. If a lender or investor is selecting an appraiser, work with that lender or investor to ensure they select one who will bring this experience.
Once you have a site selected, it will be time to work with your architect, engineers, landscape architect, green building consultant, and other design professionals to create a development vision. The architectural plans and drawings will be necessary components of most development review processes and will create a specific plan for contractors to estimate costs and implement.
The approach and technologies you use to construct your development will be key to consider before you begin your design process. Knowing that you prefer one approach over another will inform what is possible.
Onsite construction involves the development being built entirely at the development site, often referred to as a “stick-built” or “site-built” approach. This approach offers the greatest flexibility for your development, but in some cases may be the most expensive and/or time-consuming approach due to the labor required.
Offsite construction involves completing some aspects of construction in another location, often achieving some combination of faster production, reduced costs, greater material efficiency, and/or greater quality control. Offsite approaches include:
Manufactured homes that are built entirely offsite and then shipped to the site. These structures are regulated by state standards issued by the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA).
Modular construction approaches that create entire rooms or housing units of a building that are shipped to the site and connected to form the final building. These structures are regulated by local building codes.
Panelized systems in which individual, flat building elements such as wall segments, roof trusses, and other components are created offsite and then assembled onsite. These structures are regulated by local building codes.
While offsite approaches have advantages, they may also impose limitations on building configurations, materials, etc. If this is an approach you are considering, ensure you understand these limitations before beginning design and ideally work with an architect who has experience with this approach.
Other approaches. Several other approaches to housing development are being explored, including utilizing cross-laminated timber models, 3D-printing technology, converting shipping containers into housing units, etc. While exploring the effectiveness or promise of these approaches is beyond the scope of this guide, it is critical to confirm that your construction approach is allowable under local regulations and building codes. What’s allowable often limits exploring alternative materials and methods.
A development does not always need to be completed all at once. For example, if you plan to build 100 apartments on a site, you may have the option of building 50 units today and 50 units five years from now. If you are unable to secure enough financing to construct 100 units, for example, this may be your best option. Unfortunately, this also comes with a cost—phasing your development effectively means that you will have to develop using individual processes with separate approvals, permitting, and project management required for each phase.
When considering whether to phase your development, ask the following questions:
Do the budget and site fit a comprehensive phased project over several smaller projects?
Do zoning requirements present complicated barriers you will need to overcome multiple times?
Are additional special permits required for a phased development and will this add to costs or timelines?
Will this approach work with existing financing tools?
Green building, sustainability, and health
What approaches and technologies will you incorporate into your development that will increase the energy and water efficiency, reduce the operating costs, create healthy conditions for your residents, and reduce your development’s environmental impacts? To explore how you can achieve these goals, see the Green Building and Sustainability Brief.
Developments should be constructed or adapted for resilience against natural disasters, such as high winds, tornadoes, landslides, floods, winter storms, and wildfires. Specifics will vary by location and site, so ensure you understand your development’s susceptibility and work with your design team to mitigate risks. Additional resources for understanding risks and mitigating approaches are included at the end of this chapter.
Designing for people of all abilities
When designing your building, consider the implications for people with diverse abilities. There are multiple frameworks that may be useful to consider:
Among other things, the Fair Housing Act, the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and some local ordinances provide requirements and guidelines which you will need to follow when relevant. Your architect and design team can help you understand the implications for your development.
Visitability is a framework relevant for single family homes that focuses on making homes accessible and easy to navigate for residents and visitors who have trouble with steps or use wheelchairs or walkers. Some municipalities have adopted ordinances that require or encourage visitability in new homes. There are three basic requirements for a visitable home: at least one entrance with no steps, doors with 32 inches of horizontal clearance, and one wheelchair-accessible bathroom on the main floor.
Universal Design focuses on creating environments that “can be accessed, understood, and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability, or disability.” This has implications for both designing the building itself and fixtures, features, and appliances within the building.
Be highly involved in the design process to ensure your design team understands your goals and requirements for the project. This includes not only how you want a building to look aesthetically, but also:
How would you like the building to be configured on the site and connect to the surrounding environment?
What uses do you expect for interior spaces and how do you want those to relate to one another? Do you expect them to change over time? For example, if you are planning to have onsite services in addition to affordable housing, what types of spaces will these services require?
Do you have experiences with other similar developments you have visited or lived in? What did you like or dislike about them that could inform your plan?
Do you have an expected budget and timeline for construction?
How much do you want your architect to prioritize less expensive materials or other design components to save on costs?
Does design meet the unique needs of residents to ensure function and quality of life?
Do you have other concerns or expectations the design should address?
Development review and approval processes
Once you have acquired or secured the option to purchase your site, your development proposal will need to be approved for construction. These approvals are also referred to as real estate entitlements.
The process, timeline, levels of government involved, and approvals needed vary substantially based on jurisdiction and scope of development. For example, some jurisdictions have clearly defined approval processes, while others may be more time-intensive or complex. For example, a redevelopment may require less review than new construction on a vacant site. Also, some developments may require public hearings or approval by a commission or board. This section will describe some general aspects, but it is critical that you engage the local planning department early to understand the required approval process and timeline.
Generally, approvals can be classified as one of the following types:
Land use/zoning reviews confirm that your development plan conforms to local land use regulations. If so, the jurisdiction will issue a use permit that confirms this. If not, a rezoning or zoning variance will be required (see Site Selection above). If a variance or rezoning is required, a use permit will often be included with the approval of the variance.
Site plan and engineering approvals confirm that the development plan complies with local land development regulations such as those related to parking requirements; pedestrian infrastructure; greenspace; utilities, sewer, and water supply; roads and traffic; public safety; and emergency access. Note that for rehabilitation projects, approval may require updating key systems and structures to comply with the current building code.
Design and aesthetics approvals confirm that the architecture and landscaping plan meet the community’s standards.
Environmental impacts of the development must be studied and approved. See the Environmental Review section below for more detail.
Building plans, permits, and inspections are completed once the above approvals have been received. The developer will submit construction drawings to the building department to ensure site plan consistency and building code compliance. When the building department approves the drawings, it will issue building permits, and construction can begin. Upon completion of key construction milestones, inspections will be scheduled to ensure compliance with jurisdictional building codes and regulations. See Chapter 8: Project Construction for more information.
In some jurisdictions, affordable housing development is a stated priority and may be eligible for more expedited reviews. The City of Fort Collins, for example, provides expedited development review and permit processing for developments that meet specific affordability requirements. Check to see if there is a similar policy for your development.
In all cases, you will depend heavily on local government staff review processing, so it is important to learn who is involved at which stages of the approval process.
In addition, it’s helpful to understand the community’s priorities. Unlike the development process, which is pushing toward a single outcome, local government staff are often charged with striking a balance between multiple competing priorities. For example, there may be priorities to create more affordable housing, preserve greenspace, create more jobs, and improve the local tax base.
Understanding priorities can help you show how your development might align with community needs. Expect to be asked questions related to these priorities by city staff, planning board members, and community members.
Because of the variation in process, approval timelines can vary considerably. City staff should be able to give you an expected timeline. For planning purposes, it is generally better to assume a longer timeline. It is worth noting, however, that many approvals and permits have a set duration for which they can be exercised before expiring.
Fees and exactions
In addition to the time cost for approvals and any consulting expenses incurred, during the approval process you may be charged fees, which vary across jurisdictions. Some fees cover the cost of the approval and permitting processes. Other fees, called impact fees, offset the cost of additional public infrastructure and services that are required for the development. For example, utility connection or tap fees may be charged to connect the development to existing utility infrastructure.
In some cases, there may be other requirements of the development that are not fees but add costs to the project, such as providing green space or including a public facility.
However, because affordable housing is often a public goal, your development may also be eligible for waivers from certain fees and requirements, so this is worth inquiring about.
Environmental review is important for complying with legal requirements and for avoiding or mitigating harm to residents and the environment. The specifics of the environmental review will vary depending on the nature of the project site, the project funding sources, and administering jurisdictions. An environmental review may evaluate the site to determine any hazards, environmental and community impacts, and compliance requirements.
Findings may require special attention, accommodation, or mitigation. While the environmental review might seem intimidating, the state and local agencies and environmental experts you work with will help you through it.
Where to find more information about Environmental Review
DOLA maintains a webpage with several resources relevant for those receiving federal funds: https://cdola.colorado.gov/iv-environment
HUD has an introduction to environmental review that includes some additional information to supplement the DOLA webpage: https://www.hudexchange.info/programs/environmental-review/orientation-to-environmental-reviews/#overview
The Housing Assistance Council has produced a guide for applicants of HUD or USDA Rural Development funding: https://ruralhome.org/wp-content/uploads/storage/documents/environmentalreviewguide.pdf
Process requirements driven by funding source
Federal funding. Projects that utilize federal funding, both directly from the federal government or through federal programs that are administered by state or local agencies, are required to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which was passed by Congress in 1969 and includes necessary provisions and requirements for environmental review. Under this policy, each federal agency has developed their own guidelines and review processes to ensure NEPA compliance. When funding from multiple federal agencies is being used, local agency staff will advise a streamlined process to ensure compliance with all involved agencies.
If you are using a federal funding source that is administered by the state, the relevant state agency will provide guidance on environmental review for federal programs that they administer. For example, DOH and CHFA both have guidance on compliance with HUD environmental review requirements if HUD funding is used.
Local funding. Local governments may have their own requirements, so check with the local department of housing, planning, or public health to understand what may be required for local environmental review compliance. Local governments can also provide guidance on NEPA reviews if they are the administering agency.
Private funding. Lenders also typically require some level of environmental review to protect themselves from liability associated with their investment. Check with your expected lender to learn if they have any related compliance requirements.
Process requirements driven by site conditions
Sites that involve any of the following conditions may also need some form of environmental review specific to the condition.
Wetlands or other water elements (lakes, rivers, streams, etc.). The specific implications for review processes will depend on which jurisdiction manages the water body.
Unique natural features or landmarks. The National Registry of Natural Landmarks provides a list of sites in each state.
Critical habitat areas. The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) provides more information on the implications of Critical Habitat designations. Note that no additional review is required if federal funds or permits are not involved. An online map of designated areas is also available from FWS.
Cultural and historic resources. The National Register of Historic Places publishes information about the locations of sites.
Designated districts. Local governments also designate specific districts that have special historic significance and may have specific environmental considerations.
Located (or partially located) in a floodplain. FEMA’s Flood Map Service Center has more information on this. However, note that these floodplain maps are not always completely accurate, so if a floodplain shows up near the site, it is worth investigating further.
Brownfields. Sites that have known environmental contamination, known as Brownfield sites, also require special review and consideration. For sites that are known or determined during the environmental review to be contaminated, federal and state programs may be available to assist with cleaning up the contamination. This can include assistance with assessing the contamination, technical assistance from experts, and some combination of loans, tax credits, and grants to incentivize cleanup.
Where to find more information about Brownfields
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment maintains a web page with additional resources related to Brownfield remediation and development.
The EPA’s Brownfields Program page contains great information on dealing with Brownfields.
CHFA administers the Colorado Brownfields Revolving Loan Fund.
If these conditions are present, determine whether to mitigate or identify a different site. There may be public programs available to help with mitigation, but you may need to partner with a local government to utilize them.
Other incentives for review
It is good practice to conduct an environmental review regardless of funding or site condition requirements to understand your liability. If there is a lawsuit, the burden of proof will be on you to show you conducted your due diligence to identify and mitigate issues. Claiming you did not know about an issue because you did not take the time to review it will not exempt you from responsibility. It is better to anticipate problems during predevelopment than to face costly issues later.
The level and detail of review required will depend on the scale and type of activities your development involves, along with your funding sources. For example, this graphic from DOH shows various levels of review based on activities supported by federal funds.
An environmental review can be a thorough and substantial process that requires months to complete, so it is important to consider this during predevelopment to schedule accordingly.
While you are not responsible for physically conducting the environmental review, you will need to provide information to the entity doing so. For federally funded work, the state or local government agency administering the federal program will typically conduct the review. It may be prudent (and in some cases is required) to complete the environmental review before applying for any funding for the project, as findings may alter the site plan, change project costs—and in extreme cases of unexpected environmental hazards—may force you to abandon the site altogether. Rather than thinking of environmental review merely as a compliance-oriented process that adds to your project costs and time, realize that it may save time by helping you proactively address problems. Being aware during predevelopment is preferred, because it gives you more flexibility to address issues than if you face them later in the process.
Centre for Excellence in Universal Design. “What is Universal Design.” Accessed: August 1, 2021. http://universaldesign.ie/What-is-Universal-Design/
Colorado Department of Local Affairs. “2020 Colorado Resiliency Framework.” Accessed: August 1, 2021. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1efF8j0JLAmAnxi8_U4jq75uEWTAKxrGm/view
Colorado Department of Local Affairs. “Comprehensive Plans”. Accessed: August 1, 2021. https://cdola.colorado.gov/community-development-planning/comprehensive-plans
Colorado Department of Local Affairs. “IV: Environment.” Accessed: August 1, 2021. https://cdola.colorado.gov/iv-environment
Colorado Housing and Finance Authority. “Brownfields Revolving Loan Fund.” Accessed: August 1, 2021. https://www.chfainfo.com/business-lending/Pages/brownfields-revolving-loan-fund.aspx
Enterprise Community Partners. “Ready to Respond: Strategies for Multi-family Building Resilience.” 2020. https://businesscontinuity.enterprisecommunity.org/sites/default/files/strategies-for-multifamily-building-resilience.pdf
Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Resilience Analysis and Planning Tool.” Accessed: August 1, 2021. https://www.fema.gov/emergency-managers/practitioners/resilience-analysis-and-planning-tool
Housing Assistance Council. “Environmental Review Guide.” https://ruralhome.org/wp-content/uploads/storage/documents/environmentalreviewguide.pdf
Rural Community Assistance Corporation. “Utah Affordable Housing Guide for Developers.”
Stein, Joshua. “The Explosion of Developments Under Ground-Lease Structures.” December 18, 2018. https://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=4a590ad1-647d-46ad-8a70-0505a31fa0a9
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “Brownfields Program.” Accessed: August 1, 2021 https://cdphe.colorado.gov/brownfields.
Urban Land Institute and Center for Active Design. “Healthy Housing for All: How Affordable Housing Is Leading the Way.” 2018. https://americas.uli.org/wp-content/uploads/ULI-Documents/Healthy-Housing-for-All-Interactive-1-lo.pdf
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “Orientation to Environmental Reviews.” Accessed: August 1, 2021. https://www.hudexchange.info/programs/environmental-review/orientation-to-environmental-reviews/#overview
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Brownfields Program Page.” Accessed: August 1, 2021. https://www.epa.gov/brownfields .
Visitability.org “Visitability”. Accessed: August 1, 2021. https://visitability.org/