As coronavirus-induced economic strife strengthens the need for affordable housing, state and local legislators are renewing their focus on upzoning laws.

As the economy struggles to stay afloat, the need for affordable housing is greater than ever as a growing number of Americans rely on state unemployment benefits, federal stimulus checks, or reduced wages to survive.

In response, state and local legislators across the country are making another push to pass upzoning laws, which allows developers to build duplexes, triplexes, and other multi-family housing structures on land once reserved for single-family dwellings.

Oregon and Minneapolis successfully passed upzoning laws in 2019; however, similar efforts in California, Nebraska, and Virginia have faced long battles with bills stalling due to a lack of political and public support. But housing experts have hope the coronavirus might be what tips upzoning into the mainstream.

“Flexibility will be key to boost chances of rebounding, which may lead to solutions to problems that have long plagued urban centers,” George Mason University Mercatus Center researchers Emily Hamilton, Nolan Gray and Salim Furth told Axios. “Restrictions on the amount and type of housing allowed to be built are contributing to the public health crisis by causing overcrowding in some places and unsustainable rents in others.”

“As state and local policymakers deal with a huge budget crisis in the coming months, they may be more focused on more urgent problems than longer-term issues of land-use regulation,” Hamilton said. “But as business owners, in general, are struggling to stay solvent, we may see longer-term reform efforts.”

Here are five the cities and states revisiting upzoning:

California

Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) isn’t giving up on his fight for upzoning in California. After the failure of SB 50, which would have increased building height maximums to five stories near transit stops and areas of job growth, Wiener is back at it with SB 902.

Passed by the Senate on Monday, SB 902 allows smaller California cities to quickly upzone “non-sprawl” areas with 10-unit multi-family developments.

“SB 902 was initially introduced to allow cities with populations of under 10,000 and unincorporated areas to build at least two units per parcel in residential areas,” according to a San Francisco Business Times report. “In cities with populations between 10,000 and 50,000, it would be a minimum of three units per parcel, and in cities home to more than 50,000, it would be four units.”

“The bill has since been amended to allow local governments to pass ordinances allowing zoning for up to 10 units on any parcel — at a height specified by the local governments — so long as the parcel is located in a job-rich area, transit-rich area or is an urban infill site,” it continued.

The bill is now headed to the Assembly for approval.

Colorado

The upzoning debate has made its way to Denver, as residents oppose the ‘East Area Plan,’ a 20-year project aimed at revitalizing East Colfax through increased transit stops and affordable housing access. However, the plan drew the ire of homeowners in the area, who said they were unaware of the plan and opposed upzoning.

“We’ve been working with the community for two years now and we have had input from thousands of residents,” Denver Senior City Planner Elizabeth Weigle told CBS4 in August. 

The debate about the East Area Plan has reignited in recent weeks, as Americans grapple with racial and economic injustice. Council members, academics, local leaders, and residents have taken to the pages of The Denver Post to express their support or disapproval of zoning reform.

“I hate when people call me a racist,” District 5 Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer told The Post of her opposition to the East Area Plan. “Just because I value single-family zoning doesn’t make me a racist.”

Maryland

Although neighboring Virginia has been resistant to upzoning, Maryland seems to be taking a different route to address the state’s affordable housing issues. The Montgomery County Planning Board passed on Thursday an upzoning law for Silver Springs, which is less than 10 miles from Washington D.C.

As part of the 20-year Silver Spring Downtown Plan, duplexes, townhomes, and small apartment buildings, also known as “middle housing,” can now be built on land once zoned for single-family homes.

“We have unrest in this country because we have people who are excluded from opportunities,” Montgomery County Commissioner Partap Verma told Greater Greater Washington. “I grew up in missing middle housing, and if it wasn’t for the opportunities that my immigrant parents had then, I wouldn’t be here before you.”

Michigan

Affordable housing was the main talking point for four Ann Arbor City Council candidates during a digital debate on Thursday. According to a report by M Live, all four candidates agreed on the need for more affordable housing stock but disagreed on the methods. Only one candidate, environmentalist Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, called for upzoning.

“We need to house more people in a small space. Single-family zoning is a racist practice and it’s still being observed in Ann Arbor,” she said in reference to the connection between current zoning laws and redlining. “Once we do that, we have more space to place more people in, in a more environmentally friendly situation.”

Savabieasfahani’s push for upzoning comes following the current city council’s decision to downzone one of Ann Arbor’s largest neighborhoods in April 2019.

Virginia

The upzoning debate continues in Virginia, nearly six months after the Virginia House of Delegates’ decision to unanimously vote against Del. Ibraheem Samirah’s plan for statewide upzoning. Arlington County Board hopefuls answered a handful of questions about affordable housing, as median home values push the $800,000 mark.

According to local Arlington publication Inside Nova, three of the four candidates showed support for increasing affordable housing stock, but stopped short of directly supporting upzoning or other methods of reform. Republican candidate Bob Cambridge was the only candidate to offer a solution, which included underground dwellings.

“I’d like to see more creative thinking to get us all where we need to be,” Cambridge said.

Email Marian McPherson

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