The spread of upzoning and metropolitan regions

A number of cities and states in the United States have changed zoning guidelines or are considering changes to allow multiple housing units in what used to be areas just for single-family homes:

Minneapolis and Seattle are among cities that have effectively abolished zoning that restricts neighborhoods to owner-occupied, single-family dwellings. Oregon has done so in its largest municipalities, and Californians, like residents of Salt Lake City, are now free to build small cottages, sometimes called “granny flats,” for use as rentals in neighborhoods that were previously single-family only…

Before World War II, only about 13% of Americans lived in a suburb; now more than half of us do, and as the New York Times reported, in many American cities, more than 75% of residential land is zoned for single family use only.

In some cities, the share is even higher: in Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, 84% of residential land is zoned single-family; in San Jose, California, 94% is, according to a Times analysis in collaboration with UrbanFootprint…

Other states with single-family zoning in the legislative crosshairs in 2020 include Virginia and Maryland, where House Delegate Vaughn Stewart says upzoning can correct social-justice issues, as well as housing problems. “For too long, local governments have weaponized zoning codes to block people of color and the working class from high-opportunity neighborhoods,” Stewart told Kriston Capps of CityLab.

Sonia Hirt, quoted in this article, argues that single-family homes drive zoning in the United States as the goal is to protect homes and homeowners from uses they find less desirable, threatening to a residential character, and negatively impact property values.

As someone who studies suburbs, zoning, and housing, here are a few thoughts about the future of these changes:

  1. Making changes at the city or municipal level will be easier or more palatable to more voters who tend to like local control over land use decisions. If zoning changes are made at the state level, it will be harder to enforce the guidelines or penalize communities that do not comply.
  2. Wealthier communities will fight hard to avoid these zoning changes. Part of the appeal for some to move to wealthier suburbs is to keep others out and have a particular aesthetic (and these homeowners usually are not looking for more density).
  3. Adding some accessory dwellings throughout single-family home neighborhoods may not change the character of communities much but asking for bigger changes – multi-family housing, apartments, condos, turning large single-family homes into multiple units – on a bigger scale will be a tough sell in many communities.

These difficulties suggest progress in providing more affordable housing or more housing units could be slow. If change and enforcement primarily happens at the local level, this limits the ability of regions to address affordable housing issues because the problem simply becomes one that other communities should address. Housing, like transportation or water, is an issue that benefits greatly from the cooperation of all actors in a region. While it is a difficult topic to address at this level, let alone a national level, significant progress requires broader cooperation and efforts.

Considering regional transit in the suburbs of Detroit

Suburban voters and leaders regularly resist efforts to bring mass transit to the suburbs (see examples like Nashville). The tide might be changing in parts of suburban Detroit:

In contrast, Coulter has declared that he will be a “champion” of regional transit—and given how narrow the initial defeat was, that could make all the difference. In November, he appeared with other regional leaders to announce legislation that would give Wayne, Oakland, and Washtenaw counties the power to negotiate a transit plan among themselves—a first step toward putting a revised plan before voters in 2020.

Like his predecessor once argued of sprawl, Coulter touts better regional transit as an economic development tool: “If we’re going to try to keep our young talent here, we’re going to have to compete with other regions in the country.”

The change in leadership has Detroit’s transit boosters thinking positively. “I am pretty optimistic,” says Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United, a local advocacy group. “When Brooks Patterson passed away and Dave Coulter was appointed executive, that was a watershed moment and a huge opportunity for regional transit. Dave Coulter understands what regional transit could mean—not only for urbanized communities, but for the county as a whole.”

In that way, she says, Coulter is more in-step with changing suburban demographics and preferences in a region where immigrant communities are growing, populations are aging, and young professionals are more likely to want to live in walkable communities. “We look back 20 years ago, and there was much more of an attitude of, ‘Transit? Who cares! We’re the Motor City!’” Owens says. “Now, the conversation is more about, ‘What kind of transit?’”

Suburbanites have resisted mass transit for multiple reasons: they do not want tax money going to transportation forms they do not plan to use or going to bureaucrats they do not control; the kinds of people who might ride mass transit (particularly from the city to the suburbs); the kind of denser development that might accompany mass transit corridors or hubs; and concerns about having enough money to pay for roads since many suburbanites would prefer to drive.It is then interesting to put these reasons next to the logic expressed above: what if mass transit is an economic development tool for suburbs? If suburbs are regularly competing with other suburbs and a big city within their own metropolitan region (let alone competing with other metropolitan regions), what if they need mass transit to keep up? Putting in significant mass transit will not be easy and I assume there will always be limits on how much density suburbs will accept but it will be worth watching to see how many wealthier suburban areas go in this direction in the next decade or two.

(On a more cynical note, perhaps the demographic change in the suburbs with more non-white and lower- or working-class residents means that suburbanites can no longer easily dismiss mass transit because they are worried about city residenst accessing the suburbs.)

A test of taking Lyft from the train to the suburban office park exposes mass transit issues in the suburbs

One company in the Chicago suburbs is running a test to encourage employees to take the train to get close to their office and then use Lyft to complete the trip:

The two-year program aims to solve the “last mile” problem — how to bridge the gap between the train station or bus stop and the rider’s final destination. This problem is especially nettlesome for reverse commuters, who live in the city but work in the suburbs at jobs that are sometimes far from transit stops. More than 400,000 people commute every day from Chicago to jobs in the suburbs, according to the RTA…

GlenStar Properties is paying 75 percent of the cost of transporting employees at its Bannockburn complex on Waukegan Road to and from Metra stops in Deerfield, Highland Park, Highwood and Lake Forest. The Regional Transportation Authority is picking up the rest of the cost, up to $30,000 during the pilot…

The program, which launched in March and is the first of its type in Illinois, is starting small with just a few trips a day, according to the RTA. Bannockburn Lakes tenants get a monthly Lyft pass for the rides.

Many suburban companies, including Walgreens and Allstate, have some kind of shuttle bus program to get workers to and from Metra stations, said Michael Walczak, executive director of the Transportation Management Association of Lake-Cook, a nonprofit that works with companies and the private sector to figure out transit issues.

This is an interesting way to solve a common problem in both cities and suburbs: how to get people and goods that last step (or “last mile”) between a mass transit stop and their destination. Even in cities with good mass transit, the last step can cause a lot of problems.

This strikes me as the pragmatic solution to the larger problem of limited mass transit in the suburbs. The Chicago train system runs on the hub and spokes model where suburban communities, typically their downtowns, are connected to the Loop. This system may help funnel people into the center of Chicago but it is both difficult to get around the region and the train lines run into historic town centers, not necessarily the work and residential centers of today. Ride-sharing can help make up the difference by connecting train stops to workplaces. This can limit long-distance solo trips by car and allow more workers to not have a vehicle or to drive significantly less.

On the other hand, this solution could be viewed as less-than-ideal reaction to the real issue: sprawling suburban sites do not lend themselves to mass transit and the ride-sharing solution is just a band-aid to a much bigger issue. Chicago area suburbs have tried versions of this for decades including public bus systems in the suburbs to connect office parks to train stations, buses from remote parking lots to train stations, and private companies operating shuttle buses (as noted above). This all may work just for a limited number of workers who are located near rail lines and who are willing to use mass transit. But, most suburban workers – and they tend to work in other suburbs – have no chance of using timely and convenient mass transit to get to work. The densities just do not support this (and the office park in the story illustrates that this may be more feasible with denser concentrations of workers).

If companies, communities, and regional actors truly wanted to address these issues in the Chicago region, a more comprehensive plan is needed to nudge people closer together to both take advantage of existing mass transit and develop new options.

Promote smaller, cheaper housing by calling it “missing middle housing”

Even if the median size of new American homes is smaller in recent years, this does not mean it is easy to construct smaller new homes in communities:

To propel the movement, he recommends using the term “missing middle housing,” rather than terms such as “upzoning,” “density” and “multifamily,” which he says have a negative connotation.

“I can’t imagine a single neighborhood in the country where people will get excited about the term ‘density,’ ” Parolek said. “Even things like ‘multifamily’ can be a scary term that’s past its life span.”

His larger recommendation is for cities to change their zoning ordinances. Parolek advocates for form-based zoning, which allows more flexibility for what can be built on a property…

“Zoning in and of itself is a system that encourages single-family home construction in cities,” Parolek said. “Most cities don’t have effective zoning for missing middle housing, so the easy thing to do is to build a single-family house. There’s no neighborhood pushback and less risk. There’s a reason it’s being done, but it’s not responding to what the market wants.”

Very few neighbors or communities would be excited to live next to or approve cheaper housing. The assumption is that more expensive housing is good: it will bring in more tax dollars, typically has fewer residents (so lower local costs), and connotes a higher status. In contrast, it is thought cheaper housing brings down surrounding property values and the kind of people who live in cheaper housing are not as desirable as higher income residents.

Would communities react better to “missing middle housing”? Perhaps. Many places talk about the need to have housing where hard working professionals with a stake in the community, like teachers and firefighters, can reside in the place where they work. Or, it is desirable to provide denser housing for young professionals and retirees to keep them in the community. Yet, as Parolek notes, the goal is still to move people toward a single-family home (with some flexibility for townhouses and condos) in the long run. Changing zoning is not easy because many people purchase a home and then work hard for years to protect the value of that home. Cheaper housing may be more acceptable if located away from existing larger and more expensive housing, if it is allowed in the community at all.

Missing from even this suggestion about “missing middle housing” is an acknowledgement of the necessity of housing for lower-class and poorer residents. True affordable housing needs to go beyond the middle-class and provide housing for those working in the retail and service industries. But, I don’t think most communities and America as a whole wants to talk about this kind of housing.

ADUs and granny flats more popular in some parts of the country and not others

Cities like Portland and Los Angeles may be interested in promoting accessory dwelling units (ADUs) but there is less interest in other parts of the United States:

The future for ADUs on the East Coast and in the Sun Belt is less clear. In older cities such as Boston and New York, much of the housing stock was built before World War II and is more dense than postwar suburban neighborhoods. Sun Belt cities such as Atlanta, Dallas and Phoenix were developed more recently, but housing prices, for the most part, have not reached the peaks seen on the West Coast.

“If you grew up in New York City or Boston, you have a different acceptance for density, rather than in the West, where open space has always been prized,” Chapple said. “It has been really hard to retrofit these cities that were built at a later time.”

In the District of Columbia, it’s common to find ADUs in the form of finished basements under older townhouses. Suburbs such as Montgomery County, Maryland, offer a better opportunity for detached accessory dwellings. Before 2013, Montgomery homeowners had to endure a complex process of reviews that took several months. Five years ago, the rules were relaxed to allow for licensing in about 90 to 110 days. The measure drew controversy because of concerns about parking, trash and crowding of neighborhood schools.

Dan Reed, an urban planner and Montgomery resident since 1991, said that the measure has proved popular and that the county might be primed to ease regulation further.

The first factor for ADUs seems to be the price of housing. In areas where prices are relatively high, much of the West Coast, ADUs are viewed as good ways to promote cheaper housing.

The second factor seems to be density of properties. Smaller lots mean less space for ADUs as well as ADUs likely being closer to other housing.

A third factor is regulation. How easy is it for a homeowner or landowner to create an ADU on their property?

I wonder if there are some other possible factors at play that could help explain regional differences. Are all people everywhere willing to have others live on their property (or does financial need overrule this)? Could suburbanites view ADUs as a threat to property values? Are there certain architectural styles that lend themselves to ADUs? Does the presence of alleys help or hinder the development of ADUs? Do some places have a longer history of ADU use (such as through multiple generations living on a property or the presence of servants)?

When bricks and mortar stores can’t make it even in Manhattan

Heart of one of the world’s leading global cities, Manhattan has its own struggles with keeping brick and mortar retailers in operation:

That’s right: On a nine-block stretch of what’s arguably the world’s most famous avenue, steps south of the bustling Time Warner Center and the planned new Nordstrom department store, lies a shopping wasteland.

Yes, there are bank branches, restaurants, fast-food outlets, theaters, Duane Reades, a vitamin shop and a few tourist-targeted “discount” stores. But mainly there are oodles of empty spaces covered with signs touting SUPERB CORNER RETAIL OPPORTUNITY.

The same crisis blights the rest of Manhattan. The people invested in storefront retailing — real-estate developers, landlords and retail companies themselves — tell us not to worry. It’s a “transitional” situation that will right itself over time. Authoritative-sounding surveys by real-estate and retail companies claim that Manhattan’s overall vacancy is only just 10 percent.

But they are all wrong. Bricks-and-mortar retail is shrinking so swiftly and on such a wide scale, it’s going to require big changes in how we plan our new buildings and our cities — although nobody wants to admit it.

This is an interesting argument to make: even with all of the tourists, wealth, and attention bestowed upon the borough, retail is disappearing from Manhattan. And if shopping disappears, with shopping being one of the favorite leisure activities of Americans, might this negatively affect the business and social life of a Manhattan used to ultra-busy sidewalks?

On the other hand, Manhattan may not be the best example. The median household income in Manhattan is not as high as one might expect, there is not much of a middle class, and the cost of living is high. Add in that Manhattan does have a lot of tourists, workers that arrive for the day and leave at night, and concentrations of residents in different parts of the island. The sheer density of people might suggest that retailers should be able to make it in Manhattan but it is a complicated place.

More broadly, what will tourist locations of the future look like if even more shopping is done online? For decades, the international tourist destination includes significant amounts of shopping. What would fill that space?

Getting established suburbs to build denser housing

A new study suggests higher levels of housing density in older suburbs could provide a lot of affordable housing:

But according to a report released today by urban housing economist Issi Romem of Buildzoom, many urban cores are actually developing and densifying. And lots of housing continues to get built at the suburban periphery. Romem argues that America’s real housing problem—and a big part of the solution to it—lie in closer-in single-family-home neighborhoods that were built up during the great suburban boom of the last century, and that have seen little or no new housing construction since they were initially developed…

The reality is that most of the housing stock and most of the land area of America’s metros is made up of relatively low-density suburban homes. And a great deal of it is essentially choked off from any future growth, locked in by outmoded and exclusionary land-use regulations. The end result is that most growth today takes place through sprawl…

But if America’s dormant suburbs are a big part of its housing and growth problem, they can also be part of the solution. Relaxing zoning rules in these neighborhoods would spread population growth more equitably and sustainably across a metro, relieving the pressure of rising housing prices and gentrification around the urban core, and unsustainable growth at the periphery.

“The dormant suburban sea is so vast that if the taboo on densification there were broken,” Romem writes, “even modest gradual redevelopment—tearing down one single-family home at a time and replacing it with a duplex or a small apartment building—could grow the housing stock immensely.” Many of these suburbs are located relatively close to job centers or along major transit lines. They are the natural place to increase density.

While this may be true, I tried to think of the incentives for suburbs in between cities and the growing metropolitan edges to do this. Here is my quick pro/con list:

Pros:

  1. Population growth is often associated with progress or a higher status. More housing means more people.
  2. New residents could help provide a new energy, particularly if they are higher-income residents who can contribute monies to the community.

Cons:

  1. Changing the existing character of a suburb, particularly for denser housing, is often met with opposition by existing residents.
  2. New residents mean new demands for local services.
  3. Denser housing might mean cheaper housing and this means attracting fewer higher-income residents.
  4. Why should we build denser housing if other communities around us are not doing the same?

Based on my quick lists, I do not think too many individual established suburbs will be jumping on this bandwagon. Even higher-income suburbs that would build higher-end dense housing would face opposition from residents who prefer the exclusivity of single-family homes.

The main thing that could break this logjam would be pressure from above – think the federal or state government – or groups of suburbs making decisions together to build denser housing. Still, these efforts will have to overcome those who will want local governments to stay their own course.