People need to live somewhere: the unintended consequences of micromanaging zoning and building codes

By: Michael A. Spotts, President (@MichaelASpotts)

Yesterday, I sent a tweet thread in response to an article about potential zoning changes in Denver:
















In short, Denver is addressing complaints that developers are exploiting provisions in its zoning code that allow them to build internally-facing rows of attached housing on narrow lots. These “slot homes” can result in less-than-desirable street frontage. This is not an illegitimate concern – street level activation is important for creating a quality pedestrian experience and encouraging livability. The city’s response has been to add requirements to the code that require modifications to orientation and building form, while also expanding the number of areas where such housing could be built.

As far as modern zoning compromises go, this one seems reasonable. The zoning/land use policies become more restrictive in some respects, while more flexible in others. Perhaps it will solve this specific challenge. However, I can’t help but think that this intervention fails to get at the underlying issue: the current zoning code was not accommodating current demand (in this cases, homeownership opportunities in urban neighborhoods), so developers found a work around. This reminds me of Seattle’s “apodments,” in which developers responded to sky-high demand for housing by creating “tiny” units (effectively, modernized group homes) in predominantly detached single-family neighborhoods, to much public controversy.

When I discuss the impacts of neighborhood change, gentrification and anti-displacement efforts, I try to point out that we cannot only focus on making sure existing residents continue to have a place in the community (though that is critically important). Those moving in are real people with the same fundamental need for safe, decent and attainable housing as those already there. We can’t simultaneously complain about the stereotypical “hipster millennials” still living with their parents, while decrying it when they go out and seek housing on their own.* People need to live somewhere.

Which brings us back to zoning. When demand is sufficiently high but zoning overly restrictive, it is inevitable that people will try to find ways to accommodate that demand, even if it violates the “spirit” of the rule. And when the “spirit” of the rule prioritizes form and aesthetics over the need for shelter, something has to give. If a work-around can’t be found, there are negative consequences in terms of cost-burden, overcrowding and homelessness. When developers find a way to be creative, the established (often aesthetic) preferences can be disregarded. Furthermore, once a work-around is identified, there is likely to be a rush to replicate it as much as possible before changes are made in response to neighborhood criticism. Allowing a more diverse set of building typologies (and yes, higher-density) by-right would create a “safety valve,” potentially relieving demand pressures and permitting neighborhoods to evolve in a more natural way.

Note: This is a comment on the basic ability to find shelter – there have been legitimate complaints in some cases about cultural insensitivity when a demographically different cohort moves into a new neighborhood, particularly when the new arrivals are higher-earners.