Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Will Councilman Dorsey's Elimination of Single Family Zoning Help Baltimore?

Does single family zoning prevent development?

Thousands on voucher waiting lists, more "rent burdened" renters, in short: Not enough affordable housing. A problem all across America, even in cities like Baltimore with its many undervalued or vacant properties. We have discussed this seeming contradiction in this space before. Today we will look at Baltimore Councilman Ryan Dorsey's zoning bill titled "Abundant Housing Act" which effectively will eliminate single family zoning in Baltimore. 

Will the suggested zoning bill endanger neighborhoods like this
one? (Glen. Healthy Neighborhoods)

As in his successful Complete Streets legislation which toppled the supremacy of cars in all matters of Baltimore's transportation policy, the Councilman's seemingly radical proposal has the Baltimore beehive buzzing. The Baltimore SUN reported positively about the bill on the front page but later published letters to the editor, not one of them in favor of the bill. 

In the US where nationally 61% of all dwelling units are single family homes (2019), going after the single family home on a lot zoned for this purpose is slaughtering an even more sacred cow than the automobile. For better impact, or better in understanding the land use transportation connection, Dorsey's bill includes the automobile as well. It suggests to relinquish the off-street parking requirements that usually come with single family housing zoning. 

We have to build density [without parking] to create demand for higher frequency transit (Dorsey in a presentation to the group Transform MD Transportation)

Parking is a significant contributor to housing cost (Jed Weeks, Bikemore) 

References to the racist implications of single lot zoning as part of a discriminatory US land use history heat the temperature of the debate further. A look at the facts, however, shows that the proposal is much more based on typically conservative supply side thinking than on radical social engineering: The bill intends to increase the supply, which will reduce the price, the thinking goes. Here is how Dorsey describes his bill's aims on his Twitter feed:

Today I'm introducing the Abundant Housing Act. This bill proposes zoning reforms that are being brought forth throughout the United States, dismantling exclusionary policies that maintain segregation and create housing scarcity that drives up the cost of housing.
The Abundant Housing Act will allow low-density multi-unit housing in all residential areas, up to four units, depending on available square footage, plus an additional unit in areas of high opportunity, such as proximity to grocery stores and transit.
Under current zoning law, a 2000 sf house in one neighborhood can have two units, but a house that's 50% larger in a different neighborhood can never be more than one unit. Meanwhile the International Building Code allows for safe and healthy dwelling in as little as 350 sf.
One of the simplest reforms this bill proposes is to eliminate off-street parking requirements for housing. In 2022 we don't dispute the value in "housing first" strategies, yet we maintain a "parking first" zoning requirement, even when half our population doesn't have cars.(Ryan Dorsey on Twitter)
Where conversion to multiple units is allowed today (Dorsey Map)

Examples elsewhere

For all its apparent radicality, Dorsey isn't the first that came up with the idea. Several cities have already enacted laws of the kind Dorsey proposes for Baltimore.

The first US city was Minneapolis in 2019, in 2020 followed Portland, Or. then Seattle in 2021 with a slightly more subtle approach. Last year California enacted a state-down approach that forces municipalities to accept more than one dwelling unit on single family lots.  The bill received the praise of the business magazine the Economist

Abolishing single family lot zoning has became a rallying cry for housing advocates to such an extent that Sara C. Bronin of the Cornell University decided to study the issue. She analyzed the impact of single family zoning for the entire state of  Connecticut. She found that over 66% of primarily residential zoned land in that state allows only single-family homes but that single family zoning is not the only restrictive factor.

Where the bill would allow conversion to multiple units
(Dorsey map based on map tool by Austin Davis)

Dorsey seems to have taken notice of Bronin's paper when he incorporated relaxed parking requirements into his complex 43 page bill  But many of the other restrictions Bronin mentioned  would stay in place, effectively limiting the impact of the bill in many areas which are currently zoned single family. 

Where does Dorsey's bill stand today?

So far Dorsey's Baltimore bill has been only introduced and is awaiting additional hearings. It is co-sponsored by Zeke CohenAntonio GloverOdette RamosKristerfer Burnett, and John T. Bullock, not all are necessary fervent supporters. 

A review by the City law department identified two items that need to be remedied for the bill to move forward: One is that income is deemed not to be a lawful metric for zoning. The other objection has to do with the term "non conforming use" for which a fix could be easily achieved. (Income is included in a provision that allows an additional dwelling unit in transit areas and where the median income is "above 200% of the area median income". A majority yes vote is not assured at this point. The Mayor has remained silent on the bill so far. 

Any representation that the bill would be a threat to single family homes or that homeowners would be forced to do what they don't want is false. The bill mandates nothing but it allows additional use options by permitting accessory dwelling units and, under certain circumstances, dividing single family homes into two or more units. But only if the homes have sufficient floor area and meet a set of other conditions such as lot size, height restrictions, historic district provisions etc. Nothing would force homeowners to change anything on their lots. As critics who feel that the bill doesn't go far enough already noted: HOA covenants would remain untouched, which means that the more leafy single family areas with such covenants,for example,  Roland Park or Guilford would be entirely unaffected by the bill.

Councilman Dorsey's Twitter thread
The bill allows 2 units if you have 1500 enclosed sf, 3 in 2250, 4 in 3000, and one extra in any of those cases if within 750 feet of a grocery, transit*, or a Main Street, or in a 200% AMI census tract. (Ryan Dorsey)

Strange bedfellows

With all the heat of the sometimes ideological discussion, it isn't surprising that the highly fractured American landscape produces some strange bedfellows, such as the business friendly Economist supporting the elimination of single family zoning. Some find themselves on the other side of the arguments they usually make:
  • Take the new book by city planner Nolan Gray or his Atlantic article . His demand to abolish zoning neatly fits the usual Republican demand to reduce regulation. The show horse of a place with no zoning is Houston, TX, a large city in a Republican state that never had zoning and has been derided for that by liberals for decades. But, as Gray points out: Houston is also one America’s more affordable large cities and very diverse, plus it has greatly reduced homelessness, the opposite of Democratic cities like San Francisco and New York.
  • Take the letters to the SUN editor where some argue against the bill with the scare of gentrification. They say that eliminating single family zoning would open the doors to developers and investors who would swoop in, buy the larger single family homes, divide them up and price out all regular folk. In effect, it would benefit the rich, they say 
  • Folks who usually demand more equity (for the poor) find themselves arguing for homeownership as a "generational wealth creation" tool and support the bill because it would increase housing values for low income homeowners and allow them to have an additional income from an accessory unit.
My single family house next to Johns Hopkins University is about that size. I’ve lived in fear for years that houses in this neighborhood would be cut up into student apartments or converted to frat houses. Councilman Dorsey’s bill would make my neighborhood unlivable except for JHU students.
The city went through a comprehensive rezoning less than 10 years ago. This bill will chuck it and allow developers and slumlords to decimate stable neighborhoods. (Ed Schneider, SUN letter)
Dorsey observes that Baltimore's "housing stock is inversely mismatched with the demand". Dorsey's bill would likely increase the number of small available dwelling units in the city, may make rents more affordable in some areas, and allow some homeowners to keep their homes in good shape by generating rental income from a small additional dwelling unit carved out in the home or being erected in the backyard. Ideally the bill would foster density near transit, and make transit more viable, allow the desired move of disadvantaged citizens into the so called opportunity areas, and reduce the amount of sprawl by drawing residents to the city instead of the green fields of suburbia. Ideally the prospect of better returns would spawn investment into Baltimore's many vacant houses, and increase the City's population.  Plus it would improve the chances of receiving federal grants that currently favor Cities that have provisions like Dorsey's bill. That's a long list of very desirable outcomes. 

The question is, can they be achieved with the suggested bill, or better, how much would the bill move the needle?

The history of planning shows that unintended consequences are the biggest enemy of good intentions. 
The bill could certainly have outcomes that would be opposite of what one wanted to achieve, one explanation of the strange bedfellow issue.
For example the bill could threaten homeownership by making rentals more lucrative. The bill could be taken advantage of by investors who grab big houses and try to turn them into multifamily, sometimes unsuccessfully stopping midway, a phenomenon that has plagued Reservoir Hill and parts of West Baltimore for decades where large homes are common. I have seen some conversions that were abandoned when it became clear that the life safety codes such as egress are not easy to meet when one puts more than two units into a house. Or when it became clear that a proper division would cost a lot thanks to the additional kitchens and bathrooms, upgraded water service, all high cost items in construction. 

Community leaders such as Wanda Best from the Upton Planning Committee support accessory dwelling units and also support high rates of homeownership because it is seen as having a stabilizing effect, especially in dis-invested communities.  Should homeowners leave a community out of concern about an influx of low income renters or a devaluation of their home value, it would be reminiscent of Baltimore's worst periods of block-busting and redlining, self fulfilling prophecy based on fear and prejudice.
Bloomberg analysis of single family home conversions in
Minneapolis in 18 months 

What does the research show?

Which of the possible scenarios are more likely, the desired outcomes or the unintended consequences? 

Bloomberg recently reported about the results in Minneapolis, the city that first took the step of eliminating single family zoning in 2018. What happened in those months since he bill took effect in January 2020? Not all that much. In a city of 425,000 residents in which 70% used to be single family zoning, only 48 cases were reported where single family homes were converted into duplex or triplexes in areas where this was previously not permitted. This added, according to Bloomberg, about 100 units total in 18 months. That's not an avalanche of change, especially not in a time of a red hot housing market and in a city that grows and has permitted thousands of multifamily units in larger apartment buildings in the same period. Still, Minneapolis' result far outperforms Baltimore's recently expired ineffective inclusionary zoning law. It yielded only 37 units in 14 years, according to a SUN article this summer.

The reason behind the relatively modest result is explained in the already noted study by Bronin. In her paper "Zoning by a Thousand Cuts" she shows how many other aspects of zoning have an impact on  housing, killing it in the process by a "thousand cuts".  Following the "strange bedfellows" theme, Bronin finds, which may surprise many, that the requirement for public hearings regularly will bring out the NIMBYs and blocks housing in the process. Of course, regulations such as minimum parking, maximum building heights and required minimum lot sizes, maximum lot coverage and floor area ratios (FAR) are the other restrictions that prevent density. In many cases  these other rules cement single family homes as the only possible option without necessarily explicitly saying so. Even where accessory dwelling units are allowed, many codes limit who can use them with the goal to eliminate standard renting. 

Gray, the anti zoning book author, deals with those restrictions by requesting the ultimate step: Do away with zoning altogether. 

It’s time for America to move beyond zoning, argues city planner M. Nolan Gray in Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It. With lively explanations and stories, Gray shows why zoning abolition is a necessary—if not sufficient—condition for building more affordable, vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities. (Publisher)

The Washington Post printed a Bloomberg interview with the author. In it Mr Gray explains: 

Zoning has four big costs. First, it increases housing prices. It does so in three ways: by allowing less housing to be built; requiring the housing that is built to be more expensive and generally larger than it might otherwise have been; and slowing down the whole process. (Nolan Gray, WP interview)

He adds limitation of mobility to opportunity zones as the second cost, and "class segregation" as the third and a lack of sustainability as the fourth. 

Car ownership is written into law by zoning.(Nolan Gray, WP interview)
What are the likely Baltimore outcomes?

The sky won't be falling should the bill be adopted. The immediate numeric outcomes will likely be modest. In shrinking Baltimore they are probably even more modest than in growing Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle and those other places that eliminated or modified single family zoning. Baltimore is a place driven by a split supply and demand phenomenon, namely a lack of affordable housing supply coupled with an overall lack of demand for living in the city. The lack of demand is not so much the result of cumbersome regulations but the result of a host of reasons from crime to education and subpar public transportation. 
Baltimore's residential zoning classifications 

Additionally, Baltimore as a rowhouse city has many single family homes that are rather tight rowhouses with tiny rear lots where the relaxed code would yield little additional density. The areas with larger lots and bigger houses are often protected under historic district regulations or covenants, further diminishing the possible yield of the bill.

This is not to say that Baltimore shouldn't make every effort to remove hurdles for more and better housing. Baltimore doesn't have San Francisco's, San Diego's or Denver's affordability problems (i e. a lack of space to build relative to the demand). Baltimore's housing affordability  problem comes not as much from home prices or rents being too high, at least not by national standards, but from too many residents being too poor to afford them. Small units could be a solution for some. Baltimore's Greg Cantori, an avid supporter of tiny homes as a solution to affordability, welcomes Dorsey's initiative. If nothing else, it will make the construction of tiny homes on vacant lots or backyards easier, even though some other legal hurdles remain. 
Low density multifamily instead of single family zoning.
Dorsey proposal

Parallel to this bill, the Baltimore City Council is also considering an inclusionary zoning bill which mandates a minimum number of affordable units in larger market rate rental and homeownership housing projects. Here, too, the question is how to best strengthen Baltimore's ineffective expired law without creating an unintended  barrier to more housing in Baltimore.

Guiding Principles

As an architect and planner who practiced in Europe and here, the income and housing type stratification common in the US has always struck me as strange and unbecoming to a real city. European cities traditionally grew as mixed income and mixed use communities in which larger and smaller housing sat next to each other. The diversity has made urban adaptation to changing trends and markets easier, not harder. 
Mix of single family and multifamily housing in a new German

Production housing by large homebuilders has brought suburbanization and sprawl to Europe as well. Still, most of those developments are well planned, require transit, access to services, walkability and a mix of housing types with affordable (social) housing mixed in with market rate housing. In many regards, Baltimore County's suburbs would need Dorsey's bill even more than the City.

When the facts are sometimes confusing, it helps to be guided by principles: Diversity will outperform cookie-cutter homogeneity any time, especially now when  sustainability, diversity and resilience have become the key metrics of success. Flexibility in the mix of offerings is more resilient than the status quo and is a necessity in a changing demographic and economic environment.
The law will not create an abundance of affordable housing in itself, but it is a great start.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
An earlier version of the article described Houston as a Republican city. This has been corrected.

Additional source material:


Related articles on this blog:

Why affordable housing is scarce in shrinking Baltimore

Here is where new Baltimore residents will live

Fund affordable housing through the transfer tax

Perkins Homes: Opportunity or Displacement?

With so many vacant houses, why is there still a housing crisis?

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