Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist


Density Sweet Density

Dateline: 8:37 am January 15, 2013 Filed under:

Two weeks ago on The Daily Circuit, outgoing Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak reflected on his term and the future of the city. What caught my attention (and certinaly caught host Kerri Miller’s and several callers) was Rybak’s claim that we can add 150,000 people to the city in the next few years. Immediately the phone lines lit up and a caller was on the air claiming she loves Minneapolis but we are “living on top of one another.” Rybak explained that the caller need not worry about the character of single-family neighborhoods and all this density can go along a select few corridors like Hiawatha, the Midtown Greenway and new streetcar lines (if we can get that accomplished).

First of all, this is a city and living “on top of one another” is quite popular based on recent apartment vacancy rates and those happy souls with a condo overlooking the river. Second, yes, density should be promoted along commercial and transit corridors – the problem is density is not being promoted enough (I’ve addressed this issue already). Third, excactly what is so sacred about single-family homes, particlularly those that abut commercial zoning or are old and obsolete?

No need here to discuss the first two points, so let’s talk about what is so sacred about single-family homes? In many ways this is the “third rail” (no pun intended) of the NIMBY issue as it pertains to land use and transportation decisions. But I’m not in elected office so I won’t lose my job over this issue.

I believe a more progressive approach can be taken to single family homes and lots that can help accomodate a portion of the proposed growth. I believe it can be done in a way that promotes good urbanism, but also sensible market solutions.

The first thing the city should allow and create guidelines for is ancillary units, granny flats, alley homes, laneway housing, whatever you call it. My family lives a block from light rail and we built a new garage three years ago. We briefly explored a granny flat above our garage but with no formal program or easy way to get approval for one, we did the easy thing and built the garage we wanted. The city lost out on the creation of an affordable housing unit with no subsidy, one more housing unit near transit, the tax revenue from the creation of more housing, and what I’d like to think is a responsible new landlord. Not to mention I think there is sufficient demand for another apartment near the Hiawatha Line. Ths city has the opportunity to accomodate thousands of units city-wide on exisitng lots through a sensible ancillary unit policy.

Let’s face it, for every lovely bungalow in Minneapolis there is a house that is absolutely crap. Often they are on the same block. You know what I’m talking about – someone built themselves an ill-advised addition in the 1960s, and the home should really be torn down and start over. More seriously, the city and neighborhood groups work reasonably well to identify “problem” properties, many of which involve a house that is beyond repair. As well, sometimes the market simply acts on its own and the owner or buyer tears down an old home and replaces it with a nice new one. Sometimes the market works too well, and the new home is too large and out of scale, but this example shows how it can work quite nicely.

More intriguing is this strategy laid out by Chuck Marohn at Strongtowns:

“On each block, I want you to identify the house one cheaper than the median value. I want you to find a private sector partner to help you buy it, tear it down and redevelop it. When you do this, I want the project to retain at least one “affordable” unit; whether that is an accessory apartment, a granny flat or a room for rent over the garage, it does not matter.

Now what will this accomplish? By focusing away from the cheapest house on the block, you’re probably going to do fewer projects — although I wouldn’t count on that if you lever your funds right — but each project is going to matter more. When we improve the value of the neighborhood by taking the medium value property and making it a high value property, we can then sit back and watch the market take care of transforming all those low value properties without us having to spend a dime.

In other words, you’re no longer a bottom feeder. You are a catalyst for big change. And while bringing about big change, you’re embedding affordable housing within each block in a way that will be socially-viable over the long-term. No more concentrations of poverty — our neighborhoods will be fantastic places for people of all incomes to live side by side.

I want you to start an avalanche of redevelopment. You don’t do that by throwing snowballs. You start an avalanche by poking the mound of snow strategically in the place that will start the pile moving. Your job is to find that spot and get the pile moving.”

(Who doesn’t like a good snow analogy?) I like this strategy because it boosts the value of housing on each block and adds affordbale housing and density. I am well aware of the demand for nice, new, midlevel homes in my neighborhood and elsewhere around the city. There isn’t a good tool to achieve this. While focusing on the worst home on the block is also laudable, you must wait for that one home to become available through foreclosure or some other intervention, and that can take a long time. It is far easier to find someone willing to sell that median-priced home at a market price, not to mention the seller is probably having a positive impact on the housing market wherever they are moving.

And is there anything truly wrong with a single-family home being replaced by an attractive duplex or side-by-side rowhome? I’ll give you two reasons why not – when the single family home is immediatley adjacent a commercial or mixed-use parcel, and when the price of the lot (or the existing home on that lot) is too expensive to justify a new single-family home there. Maybe you could sell two $250,000 townhomes but not a $500,000 single-family home. In the case of a single-family home next to a commercial use, sometimes a two or three unit building is more appropriate use in that context (of course, the commercial use must also be well-designed – the back of a building is the back of a building). Sometimes these homes have a willing seller who is tired of living next to a commercial use but no replacement buyer for a single-family home in such a location. A third reason is the result can be quite appealing as this image shows, where four units now occupy two former single-family lots.

While new housing units built should certainly be along commercial corridors and transit lines as the mayor and countless others agree, we are leaving a lot of opportunities on the table by not pursuing policies that add ancillary units, replace single-family homes with duplexes in the right context, as well as replacing functionally obsolete single-family homes with new ones the market demands. Assuming some kind of stasis among the city’s single-family housing stock is a mistake for both government and the free market.

1 Comment »

  1. but parking parking parking what about parking parking blah parking? what? parking!!!

    Comment by Bill Lindeke — January 15, 2013 @ 2:31 pm

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