As Vancouver and Seattle engage in discussion about new forms of housing in what were once single-family housing zones, other cities are already deep in the debate or have already taken action. Like Minneapolis:
Minneapolis just took a huge step toward becoming a stronger city by passing an ambitious new housing reform … allowing every neighborhood to evolve gradually to the next increment of development.
Duplexes and triplexes will now be allowed in every neighborhood citywide, most of which were formerly reserved for nothing but single-family houses.
Debate is happening at the legislative level in Oregon and California, as you might expect, but here’s a place where you wouldn’t: Grand Rapids:
Ten years ago, when Grand Rapids set out to rewrite its zoning ordinance, the common complaint from developers as well as residents was that it was unpredictable, Schulz says. The ordinance had been amended more than 300 times since it was adopted in 1969. The city had earlier created a master plan in 2000 based on “smart growth” principles, Schulz says, encouraging a mix of housing types at various price points.
To rewrite the ordinance a decade ago, Suzanne Schulz, managing director of design, development & community engagement, says staff met with neighborhood associations to hear what they wanted the code to promote. As a precursor to the rewrite, Schulz helped develop a “Neighborhood Pattern Work Book,” which identifies Grand Rapids neighborhoods by the era in which they were primarily developed: Turn of the century, early 20th century, post-World War II, and late 20th century.
“Preserving neighborhood character was important,” Schulz says. “But how do you quantify or codify neighborhood character?”
What they ended up with is a type of zoning that Schulz refers to as “form-based lite.” Residential districts are either low-density or mixed-density, and most housing types are permitted either by right or by a special exception, which requires a public hearing before the planning commission. But the special exception process takes just five weeks, and the planning commission approves 97 percent of applications, Schulz says.
Still, while the zoning ordinance may have made building easier, it hasn’t saved Grand Rapids from the same affordable-housing challenges that other cities are facing. No matter how a city handles zoning, the cost of construction and availability of land and labor can be obstacles to expanding the supply of low-cost housing, Schulz says. And the city’s more administrative zoning approach hasn’t brought an end to controversies around housing and land use.
The wonks at The Weeds podcast from Vox are also predicting that this will be the Year of Zoning Reform. (Doesn’t that just make your heart beat faster.)