Okay, lets talk about the UDO. And since this is going to get long and
detailed, I’ll go ahead and frontload the highlights.
Single Family Zoning is not sustainable, especially when built around
quarter and third acre lots, it necessitates cars to get around. And we
cannot afford to keep driving at anything like the rates we do now in the
face of climate change.
Single Family Zoning is also known as Exclusionary Zoning, and it has a
classist and racist history.
Increasing the housing supply by introducing density does not - on its own -
necessarily correlate with affordability, but holding it constant in a
growing city does correlate strongly with unaffordability and an inexorable
rise in housing prices and rents.
There are some really great ways we could be pushing back against
speculation and working for affordability. Refusing to allow neighborhoods
to densify is not one of them.
The new UDO is a great start. But it’s just that, a start. We need density. We
need it in the core neighborhoods. We need it to build a sustainable city for
the next generation and to push back on a century of racist and classist zoning
policy that has quietly segregated our city.
But we also need to apply a huge range of tactics to create affordability.
Increasing density is an important part of the equation. But it’s just part of
The new UDO isn’t really an attack on single family zoning. It allows
multiplexes on corner lots and ADUs by right. That’s a pretty gentle tweaking
of existing neighborhoods.
But even if it were, we should be seriously questioning whether exclusionary,
single family zoning is worth protecting.
I’ll dig into the details of each of these points, and I’ll provide citations
to backup these claims.
Single Family Zoning Isn’t Sustainable
First, Single Family Zoning is not sustainable. To be a sustainable city, we
need density. Density is walkable, it’s bikeable, it’s easy to build
transit around, it uses up less land leaving more to return to the wild or for
agriculture, and we need all of these things.
Every single policy guide for sustainable city planning has phrases like this
one from the American Planning Association’s Sustainability Policy Framework:
Development and stewardship of communities that exemplify sustainable living
practices with higher densities that support high capacity transit use and
walkability, and include open spaces, habitat connections, complete streets,
diverse housing, local employment, neighborhood schools and other appropriate
community facilities, and local-serving businesses that meet the daily needs
of residents and reduce vehicle trips and Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG
So we need a dense city.
Most of Bloomington is currently zoned Single Family on quarter acre and third
acre lots. That just isn’t sustainable and it can’t last. It makes it that much
harder to build out walkable, bikeable, and transit oriented infrastructure.
Introducing ADUs and multiplexes into the existing neighborhoods is a very
gentle way of densifying them with out significantly changing the built
character of the neighborhoods.
Single Family Zoning Has a Racist History
Second, Single Family Zoning has a deeply problematic history. It’s also know
as Exclusionary Zoning, and this is a much more apt name for it. It was created
as an intentional attempt to redesign America’s cities around an idealized
nuclear family. From the beginning, it had the effect of reducing the amount of
affordable housing and displacing low income families and families of color
through “urban renewal”.
Single Family Zoning became racialized pretty much at its inception. It was
immediately used as a tool to skirt anti-discrimination laws. It segregated
neighborhoods by class, and thus, by race. Originally, this effect was
intentional. At some point, people stopped using it with the intention to
segregate by class and race, but it still had the same effect. That effect
lasts to this day, and recent research has shown that exclusionary Single
Family Zoning still acts to segregate our cities, locking low income people and
people of color out of middle class neighborhoods.
You can see these effects in Bloomington today. I grew up in Elm Heights. It
was heavily segregated. I can barely remember seeing a single person of color
among my childhood neighbors.
Density is a Necessary Piece of the Affordability Puzzle
Third, the impacts of housing supply on affordability. The primary argument of
the UDO’s density opponents is that allowing multiplexes and ADUs will destroy
the affordability of the core neighborhoods.
Where ADUs are concerned, there is solid evidence that they do provide
affordable housing - both in that they make the lots they are built on more
affordable to the homeowner by providing rental income and in that they
themselves are often rented at affordable rates. Studies found that 20% of ADUs
in Portland and comparable cities were rented for no rent or very low rents.
Many of the remainder contributed to making the lot they were built on more
affordable for the homeowner through their rent. They are a very gentle way
to add dense, affordable housing into an existing neighborhood.
The relationship between upzoning and affordability in general is a lot harder
to tease out. The study I posted in the section about Single Family Zoning’s
connection to segregation and racism found a connection between upzoning -
increasing density of single family neighborhoods - and affordability.
There are some cities, Denver and Seattle being two notable examples, that have
maintained high levels of new home construction (including market rate homes)
to keep up with their growth. And after doing this for years (alongside a
number of other affordable housing strategies), they’ve both recently managed
to achieve a drop in the median rents. (They still both very much have
affordability crises, because the need for housing in a growing city is an
However, a recent study of an instance of upzoning in a Chicago neighborhood
found that it increased property values. Important caveats being that it only
looked at the 5 years immediately after the change (development usually moves
more slowly than that) and only looked at property values (not rents - which,
if you’re upzoning, properties are probably going to go up, but rents are the
important factor for affordability).
If you step back and look at the whole conversation around density and
affordability (and I could link article after article on it - we are far from
the only ones having this discussion), it seems pretty clear that the jury’s
That said, most affordable housing advocates and urban planners will tell you
that density was never meant to be some affordability silver bullet. It was
only ever one part of a much larger and more complex equation for creating
affordability - but a necessary piece of it. Because is a given that - barring
housing market crashes like 2008 - land, rent, and housing prices pretty
inexorably go up. And if you hold the supply constant, it gets worse.
So in conclusion, ADUs probably do add to affordability. But where density and
affordability are concerned, we might be damned if we do, damned if we don’t.
Or density might be a necessary piece of a much larger affordability puzzle.
But I can find no evidence to support the idea that holding the housing stock
constant, especially in a single family neighborhood, will create
What Else Can We Do About Affordability?
So what about the fears of speculation? And what are some of the other tactics
we can use to create affordability?
Well, some tools are off the table for us. The biggest one being inclusionary
zoning - it’s preempted at the state level. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have
options. There are any number of tools in our toolkit to create affordability,
and we need to use all of them.
Community Land Trusts are a way of holding housing permanently
affordable in existing neighborhoods while still allowing residents to own
their homes and build equity. They’re being used to great success all
over the country, often by marginalized populations as a way to push back
against gentrification and keep people in their homes.
Housing cooperatives to manage rental housing is another tool. We have one
housing cooperative, Bloomington Cooperative Living, which currently offers
dorm-style, communal affordable housing. But a housing cooperative can offer
any type of housing - apartment, single family, suites, you name it. The thing
that makes it a cooperative is that it is governed, democratically, by its
residents. The primary barrier to housing cooperative’s success is financing
Bloomington Cooperative Living has a really solid foundation, and a board that
is ready and eager to help it grow. We could help a lot with financing. And we
could help other housing cooperatives start up and get stable. If we get enough
of them into the rental market, they could undercut and outcompete the
speculators and rental landlords, potentially driving rents down and making it
less profitable to speculate.
We can also explore things like taxing vacant properties and increasing
restrictions around wholesale demolition to push back against the possibility
And, personally, I’d be interested in finding out whether we could restrict
multiplex conversion to only buildings of a certain size and age, rather than
allowing it by right on corner lots. Allow conversion only for buildings older
than 20 years. Allow those over 2000 square feet to become duplexes, those over
3000 square feet to become triplexes and those over 4000 square feet to become
quadplexes. This might better preserve the buildings we have, and prevent
demolition of perfectly good buildings in order to upzone them. Plus, homes of
these sizes in our core neighborhoods are pretty much guaranteed not to be
affordable, so we don’t risk losing any affordable housing this way.
I prefer this to placing owner-occupation limitations, because I worry that
they might be too onerous and would prevent us from achieving the density
increases we need.
And there are more beside these. I’m personally making a note to go read
Generation Priced Out, because it sounds like a pretty comprehensive survey
of approaches to affordable housing across the country and I’m betting there
are even more good ideas in there.
In any case, the point is we have a lot of tools we can apply for
affordability. But restricting density is not one of them.
Please Support the Density in the UDO
So, to take us back to the beginning, the new UDO is a great start. But it’s
just that, a start.
We need density. We need it in the core neighborhoods. We need it to build a
sustainable city for the next generation and to push back on a century of
racist and classist zoning policy that has quietly segregated our city.
Resisting increases in density to ostensibly protect affordability is
completely self defeating. That’s just not how that works. At worst, we’re
damned if we do, damned if we don’t where density and affordability are
concerned. But at best, density is an important piece of the affordability
Either way, we know we need density to build a sustainable city. And we know
that exclusionary, single family zoning is inextricably tied up in a history of
racists and classist segregation. We might not be able to create affordability
by just increasing density. But we can start to undo and make amends for that
horrible piece of our history, and we can create a more sustainable, livable
city for the next generation in the process.
So please support the UDO. And please, help push back against those “defending
single family zoning from attack”. Exclusionary zoning is not worth defending.