Door to door: Apartments are key to Huntsville’s housing diversity

single-meta-cal July 14, 2021

Huntsville’s meteoric population growth shows no sign of slowing, and Census figures estimate the Rocket City could soon become Alabama’s most populous city.

The relocation of FBI personnel and their families, along with Mazda Toyota Manufacturing, means dozens of people are moving to Huntsville each week.

The rapid influx of new residents begs a simple question: Where will they all live?

Homebuilders, working hard to keep up with the demand for single-family homes, are facing post-pandemic supply shortages. The Huntsville metro area’s red-hot market means existing homes are sold nearly as soon as they hit the market.

For single people and families, apartments are proving to be the best alternative to buying a home, at least in the short term. Huntsville planners believe apartments not only provide diverse housing options for new and existing residents, but they also benefit businesses by giving them a larger concentration of potential patrons.

“Apartments are very important, particularly in providing more variety in our housing stock and concentrating development in areas that are best situated to handle it,” said Dennis Madsen, Huntsville’s manager of Urban and Long-Range Planning. “As our workforce diversifies, we need more diverse housing options to accommodate that growth. We want residents to be able to ‘right-size’ their housing.”

A growing trend

To gain perspective on how important apartment development is to the City’s long-term growth, consider the number of units permitted over the past five years. With the exception of 2017 (420 units permitted) and 2018 (554 units permitted), the numbers have steadily risen. The Huntsville Planning Commission approved 708 apartment units in 2016, 866 units in 2019 and 2163 units in 2020.

An aerial view of the Eclipse apartment development under construction. a parking deck is to the left, and a wooden framed structure is next to it.

The Eclipse at CityCentre apartment development under construction.

In 2021, planners have already green-lighted 2,945 units through June 30. That number is significantly more than the 900 single-family homes permitted as of June 30, a high number for the mid-year point.

Another telling statistic is that most of the apartment projects are being built by out-of-state developers who want to buy into Huntsville’s booming popularity. Out of 44 projects either approved or under construction as of July 1, 68% are being developed by companies headquartered outside Alabama.

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Where are these developments popping up? The short answer is “everywhere.”

“Diverse areas for a diverse constituency,” Madsen said. “We’re seeing these sorts of developments pop up all over town.”

Residents are attracted to North Huntsville because of Facebook or other tech companies moving to the North Huntsville Industrial Park. South Huntsville is enticing those who want a shorter commute to Redstone Arsenal. East Huntsville offers new outdoor recreational opportunities, while West Huntsville – moving into Limestone County – continues to be one of the state’s fastest-growing areas.

For those wanting to be closer to the City’s vibrant downtown, there are numerous apartment options available and more on the way.

The most recent project permitted by the City is The Edison at Nance Road, a 252-unit complex north of U.S. 72 on Nance Road, behind Kohl’s. James Vandiver, a City planner, said that area and along Research Park Boulevard are hot spots for apartment construction.

“Development in the area is eligible for Opportunity Zone tax credits, plus it’s very easy to get to University Drive and major employers in Research Park as well as Redstone Arsenal,” he said. “However, there are apartment developments underway in nearly every corner of the City right now — there’s demand everywhere.”

Different strokes for different folks

Huntsville leaders believe it’s necessary to have a healthy mix of single-family and multifamily housing. Vandiver said residents benefit because the mix of housing provides unique styles and characteristics to suit individual tastes.

A rendering showing how multipurpose buildings and open areas would look. There are people walking in a common area, trees, streetlamps and a sign that says "Clinton Commons"

A mixed-use development planned for Clinton Avenue will bring about 400 more apartment units to downtown Huntsville.

“Previously, most apartment developments were roughly the same design — multistory buildings with anywhere from 12 to 36 units. Your two main choices for housing in Huntsville were either that or a buying a single-family home, with very little supply in between,” Vandiver said. “This problem is common enough that planners have coined a term for it: ‘missing middle housing.’ A vibrant community has a wide range of housing options to choose from.”

Those options include developments that contain a mix of town home-style units, single-story units with no stairs and even detached homes. Vandiver said the mix attracts interest from those who might not consider apartments like families and empty nesters who want greater access to social activities.

Madsen explained apartments also fill a growing niche for those who can afford to buy but don’t want the long-term commitment. There are also students and younger workers who want to buy but aren’t financially ready. Others attracted to apartment life include temporary workers who don’t plan to stay in the region long-term or those who simply don’t want a yard to mow or a house to maintain.

“It is very diverse, and indeed the types of apartment developments are as varied as their potential tenants,” Madsen said. “Apartments give the City more options for attracting and keeping residents.”

Behind the scenes

New development tends to generate questions from residents and businesses who are curious to know about potential impacts. Apartment developments are no different, but Huntsville has stringent zoning and planning regulations in place to ensure each project is right for its proposed location. Adjacent property owners are also notified so they can attend any meetings related to the project.

Thomas Nunez, Huntsville’s manager of Planning Services, said apartment projects must meet all professional and design standards as outlined in the City’s Apartment Site Plan Review. The standards address not only design, but also landscaping, stormwater management and traffic engineering.

“Considering Huntsville is an inclusive city, if the property is properly zoned, the development is rightfully allowed,” he said. “Nevertheless, planning staff are happy to address any citizen’s concerns with factual information.”

Growth often leads to concerns about infrastructure, but multifamily developments usually don’t need new access roads or utility networks that large single-family developments require. Apartment developments are also considered an attractive use for redevelopment sites, which typically use existing infrastructure.

“The challenge of these developments is making sure that the infrastructure, like roads, schools and electricity, is able to handle hundreds of new housing units coming online,” Vandiver said. “Coordination between City departments and other entities, such as Huntsville Utilities and Huntsville City Schools, is key.”

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