Friday, March 8, 2024

Density - Dirty Word or Solution?

A history of separation

The nation is ripped by a housing crisis. Especially affordable housing is in low supply, across the US, in Maryland and in almost every local jurisdiction. The causes are multiple. High cost to construct housing, an ever shrinking pool of public housing and rent restricted housing where more units fall out of the restrictions than come into it on average, red tape, "redlining" and the fear of density. 

Suburban fight against new development in Baltimore County
(Photo: Baltimore Banner)

Onerous regulations have been not only been a tool of separating use, race and class for a long time, they also control how many people can live in a given space, in other words: Density. Discriminatory regulations are alive and well to this day, often in the guise of respectable goals. For example: Use segregation has long been seen as a good way to protect housing from  fumes, noise and other impacts of non compatible uses, even though today many industries have become quiet and clean and the livability of places where each use has its own quarter in town have long become a question. Fear of density, however, remains. 

Race and class separation isn't openly pursued any longer, but lives on in regulations and housing production that favors spreading things out. Whole streets or subdivisions see only one type of home which shares a common price point, mandates large lots, lot coverage, and setbacks. The result is the particular "product" that homebuilder prefer and that leads to complete income stratification that too often is also a race stratification: The single family home. Thus hidden discrimination is still rampant, further cemented by lenders and real estate agents which give loans or show certain homes only to certain clients. 

Not so lovely: Underperforming suburban commercial corridors
(Photo: Philipsen)

The ramifications of these mono-cultures manifest themselves in urban design: Rarely can one see rental multi-family housing mixed in with single family homes, smaller and larger homes mixed up or a store in the middle of a residential neighborhood and even schools, post offices and town halls are set aside, far away from people that are supposed to use them. The endless monocultures of single family homes breed owners who defend their status tooth and nail against any change, no matter that older towns, cities and villages with their mix of uses, styles and incomes are often very attractive and in high demand for their authentic character and the high efficiency of walkable communities with close by services. By contrast, the commercial corridors of suburban communities show clear signs of ailing.

The many obstacles to change

The favorite weapon against change in those suburban communities are their ubiquitous "adequate public facilities ordinances" (APFOs). They presumably exist to prevent an overload of infrastructure from too much development, but they are fundamentally based on the very common misunderstanding that density causes overload. In many ways the opposite is the case. Density makes far better use of infrastructure by using it more efficiently, reducing the extent of stuff that needs to be maintained. This becomes obvious every time a snowstorm hits and the plows have a hard time to keep miles and miles of suburban lanes and cut de sacs cleared. Density allows schools that are better equipped with libraries, gymnasiums and auditoria and density also reduces traffic congestion. This last point may seem counterintuitive, but it becomes immediately clear when one compares how many trips are needed and how long the trips are to cover daily needs in a low density suburban setting versus an urban one. The three cars in many suburban driveways are not just decoration, they actually move from all sides to the nearest intersection on streets that don't know redundancy (i.e. alternative routes) and cause massive congestion in spite of double turn lanes, four phase signaling and the almost complete absence of pedestrians. The congestion is then used to prevent any new development inside existing communities, potentially opening up some cultural de sacs and forces more sprawl in adjacent fields and forest, creating yet more traffic.

Beyond these matters of logic,  APFOs provide a convenient smoke screen to block others from come in on the grounds of lacking sewer, school or road capacities. Stifling residential development then begins to stunt the tax revenues that would pay for an improvement of the failing infrastructure.

A train without development: Failing mall next to a transit station
(Photo: Philipsen)

With zoning squarely in the hands of local council representatives, NIMBY pressure is always on them to keep new housing in existing communities at bay, especially denser multifamily housing that could bring "those people" to their neighborhood.  

Re-zoning: The hottest trend?

But the housing crisis has become so rampant all across America that many local governments have begun to rethink their regulations, no longer simply listening to neighbors who don't want to see new neighbors, increased densities, or really, any change in their community. The housing shortage is not only accompanied by missing economic development,  it is the cause of it. People begin to notice: Homelessness has become overwhelming, companies have trouble finding employees, taxes go up to maintain aging stuff without growth when jurisdictions run out of new land. The current course is not sustainable. 

We have a supply and demand problem. Maryland is not unique in this respect. And this is not just a problem for those who are low- and middle-income. Lierman’s report also noted the many stories of businesses turning down potential relocation plans to Maryland due to insufficient workforce housing. Fewer businesses mean fewer jobs and less revenue for the state and local governments. Fewer housing options also means longer commutes, more time on the road, more pollution and less time to help kids with schools.(Peter Engel, Director, Howard County Housing Commission)

With people of middle income jobs not finding housing where their jobs are the often mentioned teachers, firefighters, nurses and EMTs have been priced out along with the salespeople, the mail persons, the roofers, framers and shopkeepers, in short, all the people that make a community work. At the same time changing shopping habits, work from home have made many of the older commercial strips that line arterial roadways in the suburbs all across America obsolete, underutilized or lying entirely fallow. Their look is far from the original suburban dream.

It is in this context that NPR identified new zoning as a hot trend. Is hope on the horizon?

The hottest trend in U.S. cities? Changing zoning rules to allow more housing (NPR)

In response to the failings, some towns and cities have taken zoning for single-family-housing off the books altogether, others relinquished setback rules, lot sizes or allowed accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to be used not only by family members but also by renters that can augment the income for a homeowner. All of this would allow a gradual densification of neighborhoods, a nightmare for many. For example the Harford County Executive:

“As ADUs proliferate, a tipping point will be reached whereby all taxpayers and system-users will bear the costs of increased housing density,” xBill 24-001 would immediately increase the allowable density of residential properties in Harford County, resulting in significant known and unknown costs and other impacts affecting all residents and taxpayers countywide.” (Executive Cassilly).

This fear mongering is silly and describes the opposite of what happens. Properties with ADUs would certainly be assessed higher and yield more tax income. 

Hope and improvement is especially bright in the commercial zones where failing malls and their giant parking lots have been repurposed for denser mixed use. Mall conversion has almost become a national sport. Converting inward looking shopping bunkers, surrounded by a sea of asphalt, into new mixed use "town centers" which resemble remarkably those of traditional towns has become a success story: A grid of small streets, curbside parking, outdoor restaurant eating, small parks, a central plaza with a fountain or a skating rink and shops underneath apartment buildings and townhouses with some office and services here and there are elements that make attractive places, boost economic development and bring housing choices previously not seen in the suburbs. 

Demographic shifts to ever smaller households make these mixed use centers not only economically viable but also necessary. Regulation and code adjustments help things along: The fire code now allows four story wood framed buildings on top of a one or two story concrete base for stores, offices or restaurants and local mixed use zones make it possible for developers to build them. 

In some cities such as New York, Denver and San Diego four or five stories of apartments above stores are now the most common building type under construction, the same is true around many older suburban malls. Still some jurisdictions cling to the outmoded mono-culture sprawl model of the fifties. 

Current bills and Populism in the Village

Political populism has taken a hold in the suburbs as well: populists go to war against rezoning initiatives. They insist on the old "Euclidian" zoning that keeps everything nicely separated and make additions, accessory dwelling units, modular or manufactured homes dirty words. Subdividing larger houses or the adaptive reuse of old abandoned shopping centers into multi-family housing is a populist" "southern border" that needs to be shut down.  In Baltimore County a single councilman can block mixed use instead of a derelict mall right next to a rail transit stop just because it isn't allowed by the current zoning code. He can also block re-zoning or a planned unit development. The regulations lay both controls in the hand of a single district representative because the others defer their own judgement out of "councilmanic courtesy". 

When the Baltimore County Executive thought he could cut through the logjam with a bill that would allow mixed use (i.e. residential use) in business districts by right as long as they sit in one of the redevelopment nodes which the new masterplan defines, he ran into a buzzsaw of opposition of the "no apartments- no compromise crowd" combined with almost unanimous animosity by the council members who felt they were circumvented. Even after he announced he would rescind the bill, two councilmen still snubbed him by removing critical nodes in one case and all nodes in the other from the masterplan. The removal of the nodes was like cutting the legs off from the Masterplan 2030 in the last minute. The plan had been in the works for over two years, had passed the Planning Board and had gone through many public meetings. (How to make a mockery of planning). A "compromise bill that leaves all the power with the council is already in the crosshairs of the populists even before it is officially introduced.

No small wonder then, that the State is striking back with a very remarkable bill currently wending its way through the Maryland legislature: SB 0484

This state bill put together by the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) and M-DOT requires local jurisdictions to allow new manufactured homes in single-family zones and increased densities in specific zones for affordable housing projects. The bill prohibits a jurisdiction from imposing unreasonable limitations or requirements on a qualified affordable housing project including requiring more than one public hearing and unreasonable restrictions based on adequate public facilities laws and requires local jurisdictions to allow specified densities on property formerly owned by the State, property within one mile of a rail station located in the State and land that is wholly owned by a nonprofit organization. 

The legislation is a small step into the sanctified ground of local land use control. But land use, like all other local power, is given by the state and can be taken back by the state when it is abused. Local restrictions on housing production are harming the state as a whole, working against the greater good, causing hunger and exacerbating poverty for hundreds of thousands of Maryland residents, driving out-migration from the state, slowing the economy and reducing tax revenue. (Peter Engel, Howard County Housing Commission)

Strong words from a public official, but true. Anyone who has followed land use discussions in the State of Maryland (or anywhere in the US, really) knows that local governments cherish nothing more than their rights to control land use. Any attempt of the State to get into that privilege has always been met with open hostility. Yet, the bills sailed relatively unscathed through committee hearings thanks to careful coordination with the Maryland Association of Counties (MACO) and the Maryland Municipal League (MML) by Housing Secretary Jacob Day who was the mayor of the town of Salisbury before where he had unleashed a true housing boom (Here is Home). Now State Housing Secretary, Day described the purpose of his housing legislative package on the radio station WYPR. Referring ton the housing crisis he said that "on a scale of severity it can't get much worse" referring to 25% of Maryland renters paying 50% and more of their disposable income on housing.

In his 2022 "State of the City" address, then Mayor Day reported the success of his initiative:

Homebuilders, landowners and real estate developers responded to overtures by the city over the course of a 90-day window for proposed projects with $1.4 billion in new housing proposals. According to Day, that is a 175% increase in the total existing housing in Salisbury. That also represents a 67% increase in the total assessable base of the city. (Delmarva Now)

The bill still needs to be voted in both chambers in Annapolis. The sheer existence of the bill, though, shows that the housing crisis is not only recognized but that all levels of government begin to act on it. Density is no longer just a dirty word.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Related on my blogs:

                    How to make a mockery of planning 

                    A bill that could make zoning more inclusive 

                    Why "lovely suburbia" is the cause of many troubles

                    From American Icon to Pariah?

See also my article on Bloomberg's CityLab: 

When suburbs go to war with transit

State Housing bills currently under review:

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