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.
Over the objections of five residents, a portion of a commercial development in Naperville was recently changed to allow medium-density residences. One city council member responded this way to the concerns raised by residents:
Council member Judith Brodhead, a longtime south Naperville resident, said she was not surprised by opposition to new housing.
“If it were up to residents, most of the subdivisions you live in would never have been built because there were protests or objections to those as well,” Brodhead told residents who voiced concerns. “I’m not too worried about something that is small and is this size.
In my study of suburban growth and development, residents living near the location of a proposed subdivision or housing units can often raise objections including: increased traffic and noise; water issues; lost open or green space; effects on property values; and increased pressure on local services. Of course, these same residents often lived in developments that could have provoked similar concerns from earlier residents. Brodhead’s suggestion rings true to some degree (though I have not systematically analyzed opposition to nearby suburban developments) as suburban residents can oppose the opportunities of others to move into their community.
More broadly, this could hint at a deeper issue: people who move into a neighborhood or community can act as if those places should be frozen in time. They moved to that particular location because of certain features and if those change, particularly if that change is perceived negatively, then some will fight hard against the new proposal.
This is something for homeowners and others to keep in mind if they move: is the new location likely to be subject to such changes in the future? If you move into a new subdivision that is next to a corn field, how likely is it that suburban development will soon continue into that corn field? If you purchase an older home in a neighborhood where teardowns are common, what are the odds that adjacent homes are torn down and replaced? Some of this can be hard to predict but it is worth remembering that neighborhoods and communities do indeed change over time.
With evidence that dollar stores provide poor quality food options and limited jobs, some communities have used certain tools to restrict their presence:
Communities have fairly broad powers to encourage or limit the presence of certain kinds of development. If they do not desire the building or the opening of a dollar store, then they can limit or eliminate the possibilities for a dollar store in that community.
While some local governments continue to lure dollar stores to town with tax subsidies and incentives, others are doing the opposite. A dollar store NIMBY movement has been gaining traction.
In Chester, Vermont, for example, residents argued in 2012 that allowing dollar stores to come to town “will be the beginning of the end for what might best be described as Chester’s Vermontiness,” per the New York Times—a statement that itself perhaps signals the class and race associations dollar stores have come to embody. In Buhler, Kansas, the mayor saw what happened to surrounding grocery stores in neighboring Haven and rejected the dollar store chain, also citing a threat to the town’s character.
“It was about retaining the soul of the community,” he told The Guardian. “It was about, what kind of town do we want?”
More recent efforts have used zoning tweaks to limit dollar stores, whose small footprint usually lets them breeze past restrictions big-box stores cannot. In Mendocino County, California, dollar store foes passed legislation restricting chain store development writ large. And in April, the Tulsa City Council passed an ordinance that requires dollars stores to be built at least one mile away from each other in North Tulsa. It also tacks on incentives for healthy grocers and supermarkets providing healthy food to locate in that area. “I don’t think it’s an accident they proliferate in low socio-economic and African American communities,” Vanessa Hall-Harper, a city councillor who grew up in North Tulsa and shepherded the ordinance, told ILSR. Since then, Mesquite, Texas, has followed suit with a similar move.
Of course, the dollar stores can respond with their own tactics. Here are a few I could imagine (drawing from similar cases involving other businesses):
- Building just outside the jurisdiction of the municipality.
- Working with a neighboring community who is willing to have them.
- Mounting a public campaign against the community to tout the advantages of their business.
While the third option might be more of a nuclear option, the first two mean that another municipality could benefit from sales tax and property tax revenues, the limited number of jobs, and easier access for nearby residents.
A recent piece by Jonathan Merritt suggested there are many empty American churches and communities struggle to know what to do with them:
Many of our nation’s churches can no longer afford to maintain their structures—6,000 to 10,000 churches die each year in America—and that number will likely grow. Though more than 70 percent of our citizens still claim to be Christian, congregational participation is less central to many Americans’ faith than it once was. Most denominations are declining as a share of the overall population, and donations to congregations have been falling for decades. Meanwhile, religiously unaffiliated Americans, nicknamed the “nones,” are growing as a share of the U.S. population…
Converting old churches into residential spaces, like St. Augustine’s and St. Vincent De Paul, is becoming more popular. Churches’ architectural flourishes—open floor plans, exposed brick, vaulted ceilings, and arched windows—often draw buyers of means who are looking for a residential alternative to ubiquitous cookie-cutter developments.
While this type of sacred-to-secular conversion may be a tough pill for former members to swallow, many are even less satisfied with the alternatives. A large number of abandoned churches have become wineries or breweries or bars. Others have been converted into hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, and Airbnbs. A few have been transformed into entertainment venues, such as an indoor playground for children, a laser-tag arena, or a skate park.
Based on research I have been working on in recent years, I’ll offer a suggestion of what could be done with these buildings that is not covered in the article: repurpose these buildings for other religious groups. I have found a variety of religious congregations that are willing to buy and/or use older religious buildings constructed by others: megachurches that are opening satellite campuses, new congregations that would not have the resources to buy land and construct a whole new building, and minority religious groups or immigrant groups who are new to areas. The biggest stumbling block might be not just the price of the building but also the possible price of renovations. At the same time, a church in decent condition could look very attractive to religious groups with limited budgets or who want a building that already fits in with the surrounding neighborhood. Numerous churches and synagogues in the Chicago area have been reused by different religious groups, particularly as certain groups left urban neighborhoods in white flight or congregations dissipated due to declining attendance.
Are there any religious organizations that try to match buildings with possible congregations? The article discusses a group that works with churches to use less of the building and use of the rest of it for community space. But, how about a directory where a new or growing congregation could go to in order to find a congregation that is trying to leave their building?
Below the surface, one of the issues present in this article is the matter of zoning. It is not necessarily easy to initially get approval to build a religious building in certain locations but it can be even harder to take what was once a religious building and convert it to another use once the neighboring residents get used to the religious building over decades. Residents like the predictability of their surroundings, even if they do not necessarily like the religious building in the first place.
Rarely are the evils of McMansions and apartment complexes joined together but one observer in Charlotte suggests this is exactly the case:
As a 20-year resident of Charlotte, I’ve long observed that shoehorning apartment complexes and oversized homes in and around uptown does not prevent sprawl. Apartment complexes and McMansions are popping up like mushrooms in our historic uptown neighborhoods, yet sprawl has accelerated.
I strongly suspect we’re being sold a bill of goods by elected officials who are firmly under the thumbs of developers. Developers need us to believe they’re doing something for the greater good so we’ll allow them to destroy the character and design of our historic neighborhoods.
At first glance, these are two very different kinds of development. Apartments bring density and certain kinds of residents (whether lower-status residents in the eyes of neighbors or wealthy renters who are gentrifying places). They may include tall buildings or a lot of buildings. In contrast, McMansions are large ostentatious homes that may be teardowns (replacing smaller, older homes). They may not loom over surrounding area like apartments and generally McMansion residents are well off but the change in housing unit may be just as stark.
What appears to be the common thread of concern from this one resident is that both kinds of development are different than what is currently there. If I had to guess, these “historic uptown neighborhoods” are filled with well-kept, single-family homes with decent sized lots built decades ago. Both the McMansions and apartments, in their own ways, present very different kinds of structures. The same concerns might be leveled against an ultra-modernist home or a block of row houses: they are not like what is already in the neighborhood.
Often, McMansions or apartments are restricted to areas of similar structures. This is typically the purpose of zoning: keeping single-family homes away from land uses that residents fear might disturb the neighborhood’s character, and, ultimately, their property values. When developers or local officials start mixing uses, particularly in established areas, this may not go well at the beginning.
Naperville has “high hopes” for the Naperville Crossings commercial and entertainment development on the southwest side of the large suburb. These plans do not include a “high-end” auto repair shop:
But nearby homeowners associations weren’t in favor of it, and city council members didn’t go for it, either. By a 6-3 tally, they voted down the shop’s request for a conditional use, saying the business isn’t what they envisioned for the area and they’re willing to wait for something that is…
Jonathan Wakefield, development director for Houston-based Christian Brothers, said the shop would play well with its neighbors because people need somewhere to go or something to do while waiting on car repairs. The shop would have run shuttles to work, school or Metra stations, but he predicted some customers would stay and shop or grab a bite to eat.
Council member Kevin Coyne still was hesitant, saying a car repair business doesn’t blend well next to a day care, a fire station and a frozen custard shop.
“What of any cachet will want to move in next door to an awkward mix of business uses,” Coyne said.
Mike Reilly, president of the nearby White Eagle homeowners association, predicted “the start of a downward trend for Naperville Crossings” if council members were to abandon the original goal and allow the repair shop.
This is a common issue in many suburbs: a retail development has long-standing vacancies. See earlier posts involving grocery stores (here and here) and shopping malls (here and here). But, how many of these suburbs turn down possible occupants in order to wait for better ones? I would guess Naperville is in a minority of suburbs that can afford to do this.
Additionally, I would be interested to dig more into what is so bad about a higher-end car repair place. More noise? Most of the activity would take place during business hours. A lower-class clientele? Maybe; everyone needs a car in Naperville and there are plenty of wealthy residents nearby who need their cars serviced? The lower status activity of car repair? Perhaps this is similar to homeowner’s associations restricting car repairs in driveways and limiting the parking of RVs and work trucks and vans. This seems like an issue of social class and Naperville as a wealthier suburb with a certain reputation will wait for a more appealing use.
Manufactured homes might be a viable solution to affordable housing but it is not easy to place such homes:
While courts today are unlikely to uphold outright exclusions, barriers for manufactured housing come in other forms. Some towns require manufactured homes be in a manufactured housing community. Others restrict them from residential zones.
Unequal treatment—including aesthetic rules, like a pitched-roof requirement, that exclude mobile homes by default—is common. Conditional use laws require pre-approval before a manufactured home can go up, and often approval is denied. Advocates for manufactured housing lobby for by-right use, which would allow someone to put up a manufactured home without pre-approval.
But zoning issues are a matter of state and local policy, not federal policy, so HUD has little power to influence restrictions on manufactured housing. Still, Mandelker believes HUD could play a role in destigmatizing manufactured housing.
“If they start working on a model state [zoning] law and start funding pilot projects, that would bring some attention,” he said. “I think that would be very helpful.”
Two features of manufactured homes are likely to scare off numerous communities from providing space for many units: (1) the property values of the units compared to stand alone single-family homes (since higher housing values are perceived to be signal a better quality of life) and (2) negative perceptions of residents who live in such homes (viewed as lower-class residents). So what could prompt more local governments to allow manufactured homes?
There are various ways that incentives or sanctions could be used. As an incentive, perhaps there could be some extra Federal money given to communities that provide space for such homes? Or, perhaps those constructing new developments could receive extra opportunities if they set aside land for manufactured homes or paid into a fund for purchasing land for manufactured homes. Sanctions would likely provoke resentment but they could also push multiple communities into helpful conversations.
Ultimately, providing the necessary affordable housing needed in the United States will likely require multiple approaches. Manufactured housing could be part of the solution but it will be difficult to destigmatize it.