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Dear Decaturish – Planning Commission’s housing decision lamentable, but predictable

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Dear Decaturish – Planning Commission’s housing decision lamentable, but predictable

The boundaries of the city of Decatur. Source: Google Maps

This letter has been updated.

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Dear Decaturish,

It was quite a remarkable moment. Just after five hours of public hearing on the evening of October 11, the Decatur Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommend denying the city’s own community and economic development department’s proposed changes to Decatur’s unified development ordinance that would allow for the construction of “missing middle”—duplex, triplex, and quadplex—residential units in single-family zoning districts.

Only that wasn’t the remarkable moment. It was a lamentable one, but a predictable outcome. The planning commission is conservative by design. As a bulwark against impractical land use and zoning changes, the commission plays stickler for municipal code, ordinance, and “neighborhood character” in reviewing special use permits and rezoning proposals. This adverse recommendation is what the planning commission is set up for. Still, the city commission gets the final say. This rejection by the planning commission is just a recommendation that the city commission can take or leave, and I would urge the latter. The city commission would be wise to ignore the recommendation of the planning commission.

Before the vote, there was a glimmer of hope that a positive recommendation might be in the works. Harold Buckley, Jr., the chair of the planning commission, gave a moving speech that seemed to point in that direction:

“While, you know, this current effort has been ongoing for four years, the city of Decatur has been struggling and handwringing about what to do about affordable housing for at least 14 years. So, I think, we’ve come to an inflection point. Because while we have been fiddling with this problem, all of our affordable housing has gone up in flames—the naturally occurring affordable housing anyway. The duplexes have been ripped out. The quadplexes have been ripped out. . . . So, at this point, I think it’s really either time to do something or don’t. The time to try is over. So, either we are a community that wants to be inclusive and have a diverse range of people. And when people say ‘diversity,’ they always want to reduce that just to race, but I’ve seen old people forced out of my neighborhood. I have seen people of lower socioeconomic levels pushed out of my neighborhood. And either that’s not okay, in which case we need to do something, and we need to do it sooner rather than later. Or we need to decide that that is not what we believe at all, and just lean into it, and say ‘We are a wealthy community, that’s not open to everybody, and only the privileged get to live here.’ But, you know, we can’t do both. We can’t keep spouting these feel-good shibboleths and continue to do nothing while the problem gets worse and worse and worse. So, my suggestion, or my thought is that this ordinance the way it’s drafted may not be perfect, but it is the culmination of years, and years, and years, and years of work. And so, I think that my position would be not to make the perfect the enemy of the good. Obviously, there is work to do on this, but if we don’t do this, what are we going to do? It’s going to be another ten years before we’re going to get back here.”

This too was not the remarkable moment I alluded to. Just after hearing this speech, commissioners, predictably, decided to do exactly as Buckley warned against: they hastened to make the perfect the enemy of the good. (In what follows, I will avoid using names of commissioners since they are all volunteer public servants, and I am sure that despite my disagreement with them, they are operating in good faith; I will continue to speak of Commission Chair Buckley, for he plays the role of flawed hero in my account.) In fact, despite his rousing speech, it was Buckley who first suggested that the committee put forward an adverse recommendation. As chair, his job is to seek consensus where possible, and it appeared that he could see where his fellow commissioners were headed.

After the negative recommendation vote, one commissioner compiled a list of such concerns about the rezoning proposal as a rider to explain the commission’s vote. These included disallowing additional dwelling units for multi-family housing (commissioners took these to be “too much” without further defense or elaboration), a vague call for “additional definitions for on street parking,” and a concern about short-term rentals.

Before this, Kristin Allin, the Decatur city planner charged with managing affordable housing initiatives, had done a remarkably thorough job responding to and defusing the major worries raised about the proposed amendments to the zoning laws during public comments and commissioner questions. Allin had already justified the proposal’s on-street parking definitions as a traffic-calming, well-reasoned compromise between advocates against requiring any parking minimums and advocates against allowing any on-street parking to count toward such minimums. And she had already revealed commissioners’ concerns with short-term leases, absentee landlords, and corporate ownership of properties as red herrings. If these issues are genuinely of concern, they should be of concern for existing properties now too, and at any rate, they could be best dealt with by independent, companion policies rather than internal revisions to the rezoning proposal.

The commission, however, was unreceptive, just as they were unreceptive to the many public comments voicing well-evidenced support for the proposal. These voices were never mentioned in the commission’s internal discussions that night; it was Allin who was forced to highlight them.

One commissioner in particular seemed stuck on an idiosyncratic concern that new duplex, triplex, and quadplex units might be shaped like townhomes. “I’m concerned about townhouse development” and pointing to an example of Allin’s noted “even your example for a corner lot, those are kinda townhouses . . . I’m still concerned about that.”

On behalf of my friends and neighbors who reside in townhomes in Decatur Heights and around the city, I was flummoxed and offended. What is it about the fact that some duplexes or triplexes might be shaped like townhouses that so irked this commissioner precisely? Is it that these townhomes might not be cloistered off into their own special zoning district? That they would be integrated into the neighborhood of single-family homes, thus “disrupting neighborhood character” or some such? Do the questionable aesthetic choices of McMansions that are currently being built in place of demolished duplexes not disrupt neighborhood character enough? There is currently no prohibition against that latter functional and aesthetic choice, and when Buckley spoke in favor of the mere possibility of requiring an extra layer of scrutiny before existing “missing middle” duplex, triplex, and quadplex housing stock gets torn down to build multi-million-dollar single-family homes, he faced rebellion in the ranks.

It was this moment of rebellion, in fact, that I took as remarkable. For all the hand wringing about housing diversity with affordable housing, this was the time when many of the commission let their masks slip as predictable defenders of Decatur’s wealthiest landed interest: single-family property owners.

As background, one major item on the commission’s official list of their collective worries about the rezoning proposal was a recommendation that the proposal be revised to require triplex and quadplex developments go through extra bureaucratic oversight measures not required for single-family home development. Specifically that proposed triplex and quadplex developments get a conditional use permit, a process which requires an involved application, an on-site review of the application by city planning and zoning professionals, and an open-to-the public hearing before—who else?—the planning commission.

Many commissioners expressed that this extra-layer of scrutiny would resolve many of their worries about the rezoning proposal as it stands. How exactly it could do this is a bit of a mystery, since it could not possibly resolve worries about short-term rentals, absentee landlords, or corporate ownership. Those issues might only arise after development is permitted and completed. That is why these concerns are a red herring. If they are a concern, they should be dealt with by companion legislation rather than revising this rezoning proposal, as Allin noted.

Moreover, the commissioners did not seem forthcoming about the predictable consequences of adding such an added layer of conditional use permit scrutiny to building multi-family housing. Namely, discouraging the development of the very sorts of missing middle properties this rezoning proposal is trying to incentivize. Most developers could not risk purchasing a property for development as a triplex or quadplex if they are, at best, uncertain that the project would meet approval from a planning commission whose noted concerns in this meeting against such developments included the vague classics of “design considerations” (e.g., being shaped like a townhouse) and “neighborhood character.”

And then there is the sizable “Not in My Backyard!” crowd that would flood any public hearing over a triplex or quadplex with negative comments. The risk to potential developers of multi-family units simply would be too great compared to the comparative ease of developing a single-family home which does not require a conditional use permit. The planning commissioners know that the hurdles that conditional use permit authorizations require are substantial. It they did not, they would not have raised such alarm about Commission Chair Buckley’s fair-mindedly proposal for a concomitant, reciprocal requirement of a conditional use permit for redeveloping existing missing middle, duplex, triplex, and quadplex housing into single family homes—the remarkable moment I’ve been alluding to all this time.

In response to other commissioners’ push for such conditional use permits for triplexes and quadplexes, Buckley said, “I would like to see some provision made where if someone wants to tear down missing middle housing, that they be required to get a use permit and go before uh, you know, the firing squad and justify why they’re doing that, since we don’t want you know naturally occurring missing middle housing to disappear.” (Note the description of the conditional use permitting process as a metaphorical “firing squad”—not exactly an easy bureaucratic hurdle.)

Confused, one commissioner asked Buckley, “Is that only on behalf of somebody who wants to do a duplex, triplex, or quadplex? What if they want to just do a regular house?” (my emphasis). Notice the word choice of “regular” here as euphemism for “single-family home.” This was not a mistake either. This same commissioner tried to rule Buckley’s suggestion here as “off topic” later in the conversation by contending that the zoning revision proposal under consideration was “specific to a duplex, triplex, or quadplex and not … not standard single-family” (emphasis mine). This language choice publicly places single-family housing as the norm—as the standard—and deviations therefrom that require special “conditional use” authorization (but not vice versa). This bias toward single-family housing is how we got to the problem of missing middle housing in Decatur to begin with. Why should we entrust more oversight power over triplex and quadplex development to a commission that casually lets biases against such needed, missing middle housing slip during a public hearing?

But the real coup de grâce of this revealing and remarkable moment came when another commissioner noted of Buckley’s proposal, “But this is going to devalue somebody’s [property] who already had a duplex and can’t sell it [to a developer] anymore for a single-family” home redevelopment. Bingo. The reason it might lead to such a devaluation is precisely because such for a conditional use permitting process is incredibly uncertain and inherently risky—a “firing squad” as Buckley described it, that requires an application, city planner evaluation, and a public hearing. And it is this risk to established wealth of existing single-family zoned lot-owners, not principle about oversight, that explained the difference of reaction over Buckley’s proposal from the earlier conditional use permit proposal.

Landholders of existing middle-housing stock (duplexes, triplexes, and quadplexes) might see their land values decline if they could not be redeveloped into single-family McMansions. Buckley sagely retorted to this comment, “Well, if you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’re gonna keep getting what you’ve always gotten.” Still, with this comment about potential devaluation on the table, another commissioner warned Buckley, “I think you’re creating a very slippery slope by adding that comment in there.”

The “danger” these other commissioners were pointing to is both the threat the potential wealth bound up with existing multi-family housing on single-family zoned land, as well as any challenge to the supremacy of the single-family home as the unassailable “normal” or “standard.” Adding a conditional use permit process to develop “regular houses” threatens both. It might undermine the value of grandfathered multi-family housing on single-family zoned land, and it calls into question the tacit assumption that there should be fewer (if any) roadblocks to developing single-family homes as compared to multi-family housing.

This is why Buckley’s fellow commissioners reacted so tellingly to his late-coming suggestion at some sort of parity. It also speaks to why the planning commission’s recommendation of further oversight on their part in the form of conditional use permitting for triplexes and quadplexes should be refused. The planning commission’s own deliberations over the proposed zoning changes in question reveal why they cannot be trusted to play the role of fair arbiter over specific conditional use permits for multi-family housing developments. And it speaks against the wisdom of their negative recommendation to the city commission more generally.

I urge the city commission to ignore the recommendation of the planning commission and pass the community and economic development department’s proposed changes to Decatur’s unified development ordinance that would allow for missing middle housing in single-family zoning districts.

Thank you.


Micah Lewin

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