The housing debate that isn’t happening

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How many units should be allowed on these lots on 38th 1/2 Street? 

Yesterday City Council had its first substantial conversation about the new land development code. Right out of the gate a couple of the key swing votes, notably Mayor Steve Adler, expressed reluctance to embrace some of the most ambitious reforms proposed: eliminating minimum parking requirements, allowing three units on every residential lot and allowing much more “missing middle” housing (house-scale multifamily) in neighborhoods that have traditionally been exclusively single-family.

What’s a little frustrating is how quickly self-proclaimed housing proponents are to close the door on mechanisms to create more housing. Adler said he wasn’t comfortable supporting triplexes on every lot, as Minneapolis recently did. He worried it would make things complicated and divisive. He also signaled that he thought the “missing middle” transition zones proposed by Greg Casar & Delia Garza went too far into single-family neighborhoods.

Nobody on Council, certainly nobody outside of the three-member preservationist bloc (Tovo, Pool, Alter), has said that preserving the architectural character of single-family neighborhoods is a top priority in the new LDC. Rather, they have all repeatedly stated that housing, affordability, and environmental sustainability are the top objectives. But what other justification besides neighborhood character is there for opposing these proposed policies to create more housing density?

What the housing advocates should do is ask staff to bring back an analysis of the housing capacity that the city needs to meet Council’s stated housing goals (135,000 units by 2027). The housing capacity refers to the maximum amount of housing that could be built based on the zoning. The actual housing produced will always be far less than the capacity. Wonky types say we need a housing capacity that is about 3-4x the total number of units we want to create.

(Now, I think it’s very likely that our housing goal itself is woefully insufficient to meet our needs, but that’s another conversation)

In addition to asking staff for a housing capacity calculation, Council can attach the additional constraint that two-thirds of the new capacity should be in the urban core, because otherwise staff might come back and just tell Council the city will meet its housing goal simply by continuing to build single-family sprawl in the outer reaches of town.

Staff could present several different scenarios for the capacity needed to meet the housing goals. One scenario might rely more on building up the corridors, while another might rely more on integrating more missing middle housing types throughout single-family neighborhoods. Or one might allow more intense missing-middle on the edges of neighborhoods (eight-unit buildings), while another might focus on allowing smaller scale missing middle (triplexes, fourplexes) everywhere.

Whatever staff comes back with, the burden would be on Council members to explain why they are opposing a plan that would provide the housing we so desperately need. Yes, the most fervent preservationists will oppose no matter what and simply say they don’t buy staff’s analysis. But it would be much harder for the moderates on the dais, notably Adler and Kitchen, to oppose what they’re being told is an empirically-crafted code to address our housing crisis.

Right now, we have the process backwards. CMs are proposing allowing more housing here or there, and others are saying they don’t want that; we need to create housing some other way. That type of debate often leads to no new housing.

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One thought on “The housing debate that isn’t happening

  1. All of the council members say they want more affordable housing, but the preservationists, at least, are mainly talking about big A affordable. There should be staff analysis of little A affordable housing production. Otherwise, we can end up with a fairly robust subsidized housing program, and a lot of wealthy people, but the middle class gets squeezed out.

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