Look to Palisades Park, NJ for an approach to zoning that works for homebuilders and homebuyers alike.

What is “Light Touch Density?”

Unlike localities that adopted spaced-out single-family zoning that now stretch affordability to its limits, Palisades Park, a small town in New Jersey, designated the majority of its land for two-family development.

Even with this two-family zoning designation, most of the housing in Palisades Park was developed as modest, single-family houses on 5,000 square-foot lots.  It wasn’t until the 1990’s when rising land and home prices justified replacing older single-family houses with two attached units or duplexes.  Now, about 40% of all residential units in Palisades Park are duplexes.


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“Light touch density” allows three-story, sided-by-side duplexes with small setbacks.  Typically, these duplexes are well-appointed and spacious in Palisades Park and typically, each of the two units is larger than the single-family house the two units replaces.

New Duplex Units Less Expensive than New Single-Family Construction

How can new duplex units cost less than new single-family units?  Let us count the ways:

  1. Two households share the cost of one lot.
  2. The growing population in the neighborhood can share infrastructure costs such as roads and utilities.
  3. Permitting more housing in existing neighborhoods reduces the need to build on land outside of developed areas so there is more open space preserved.

How Can Light Touch Density Work?

The success model in Palisades Park hinges on both the size and the desirability of the duplexes.

The average duplex sold in 2020 was 2,333 square feet.  Any duplex smaller than that, such as California’s effort to create more housing in the state via Senate Bill 9 (SB 9) that requires permit units up to 800 square feet, isn’t marketable or financially feasible.  Sure, 800 square feet is marketable for apartment living, not duplex living.  And sure, 800 square feet is financially possible for apartment living, not duplex living.

Could Light Touch Density Work in California?

Possibly.  California’s Senate Bill 9, SB 9, took effect in January.  The bill currently allows owners of single-family homes to split their properties into two lots and build two units on each of the two lots.

To become effective, SB 9 would need to be modified to increase the square footage of living space permitted on single-family lots.  Already, however, local policymakers have implemented rules to limit the feasibility of lot splits, duplex construction and the size of living spaces on these lots.

Like most everything, we’ll see whether or not local leaders will lighten their stance on NIMBY-ism.

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