Affordability? Vibrancy? Think Multi-Family.

After reading so many stories in the past week about people attacking proposed multi-family rental housing — from opposition among West Loop residents to an apartment building to people in New Lennox objecting to a “transit-oriented” development near their Metra station — it was refreshing to come across news in another region where leaders are taking a sensible approach to housing affordability.

“Space Needle002”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

That, of course, is Seattle, a city where a committee is considering whether doing away zoning in certain areas that solely permits single-family homes would help increase its housing supply and help make affordable living within reach of more people. It’s a noble — albeit politically tricky — goal that I believe our neighborhood and our city should aim for, as well.

[Editor’s note: Shortly after publishing this, I saw that the official recommendation in Seattle is a bit different than what had previously been discussed. There’s still seems to be much to like, including the proposal that the zoning would change for single-family areas adjacent to more densely populated neighborhoods, but I still think the conversation about a broader change to exclusively single-family zoning is worth having.]

The theory is this: Developers will build what is most economically feasible. Often, this would be multi-family or mixed use. Think townhouses, low-rise courtyard apartments or three-flats. Where land is expensive, this type of construction makes sense, as it would provide a solid return on the investment while also increasing the neighborhood’s tax base with more residents. However, in many neighborhoods, this type of construction, long a staple of cities, is outlawed by zoning that only permits single-family homes. The only thing that makes economic sense to build, then, is pricy single-family homes, the proliferation of which gradually makes a community less affordable to average people. It’s simple economics: A low supply of housing and high demand will cause prices to increase, not to mention force fewer people to shoulder more of the tax burden.

By changing the zoning, single-familiy homes would not have to become illegal; it would just make the path toward building multi-family housing easier. In many cases, the type of housing that would be permitted would be the type of low- to mid-rise construction I described above, helping prevent a neighborhood from becoming skyscraper city overnight (a fear of many people when they hear terms like “multi-family” and “population density”) and preserving the existing character of the area. Most importantly, though, it would open up neighborhoods to people who may have not been able to previously afford them due to the multitude of housing types at different price points.

I’ve written before about how I believe the Beverly area could benefit from diversifying its housing stock, and the steps similar to those Seattle is considering taking would be worth pursuing here — as well as in most other American cities, where single-family zoning has drastically limited the type of new housing built in the past half-century.

In our community, the areas with the most potential for this type of zoning would be near key centers of activity — Metra stations, intersecting bus routes and any area that we typically think of as a place where people tend to congregate.

In particular, we need this along struggling corridors like 95th Street, 111th Street and Western Avenue. And we need it to be paired with retail in order to create vibrant, mixed-use districts that support foot traffic and business activity.

Think about 95th Street for a moment. On most of this street, our zoning permits ground floor retail with a minimal residential component above (the B1-1 zone that exists generally will yield low-density development). This is hardly the type of construction that makes financial sense to developers who might take an interest in the area. And if residents object to anything with more housing units, more floors, etc., the only remaining option is what we are getting adjacent to the Metra station: A single-use building with a large off-street parking lot that only a chain retailer can afford to occupy. It’s the commercial equivalent of putting a luxury house on a large residential lot.

On the other hand, if we had allowed mixed-use, multi-family development by law, we would have eventually gotten a building that would have diversified our commercial space and our housing stock, bringing more people to the area who would walk our streets, visit our businesses and ride our train line.

The same goes for areas of single-family homes surrounding our business districts. While many of these properties will likely remain single-family homes for a long time, dilapidated and outdated houses along with vacant lots could potentially be redeveloped as low-rise apartment/condo buildings and townhouses, bringing more people to our community to help keep it vibrant. Businesses will locate where the foot traffic is, so let’s generate it. Meanwhile, people who either cannot afford a single-family house or are not in a position where a single-family house makes sense for them can find good housing in a friendly, safe and (hopefully) thriving area.

This is why the single-family and low-intensity business zoning designations that cover most of our neighborhood need to disappear and be replaced with something that allows our community to grow more naturally. The constraints we put on development will only hurt us in the long run. And for a community that prides itself on a history of inclusiveness when it comes to housing, taking steps to ensure the neighborhood remains affordable and accessible to people of all type should be a no-brainer.


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