Last month Kalamazoo’s City Commission cut down their lot size requirements in several residential areas. Notably, these amendments weren’t done in the name of permitting anything “new” in those neighborhoods—but to support and reinforce what’s already there and remove some headaches from residents.

These lot size amendments, one piece of the city’s “neighborhood zoning repair” work, are a great example of incremental code reform, and one that’s worth a look for any community with older residential areas, where overly restrictive zoning ordinances add burden to maintaining the traditional neighborhood fabric.

I had the chance to help Kalamazoo with this effort, through the League’s work in support of MEDC’s Redevelopment Ready Communities program: for the zoning and GIS enthusiasts in the audience, I’ve included some short methodology notes to help get you started with your own analysis.

These tree-lined streets of front porches and sidewalks are an important part of neighborhood sense of place. Too bad so many of them have been made illegal through zoning.

These tree-lined streets of front porches and sidewalks are an important part of our cities’ neighborhoods. Too bad so many of them have been made illegal through zoning.

The annoyance tax of mismatched residential zoning

Many of our favorite traditional neighborhoods predate the widespread use of zoning: Michigan’s first city and village zoning enabling act was in 1921, and the township zoning enabling act didn’t come until 1943. During the home construction boom that followed World War II, communities adopted zoning ordinances that reflected the current practices of the time—applying them broadly and bluntly not just to new subdivisions, but also to the neighborhoods that already existed, where they were”¦not a great fit.

A 1950s ranch home with a private driveway from the street needs a 50- or 60-foot-wide lot, where a 1920s two-story home with alley access or a shared drive can fit comfortably on a 40- or 45-foot-wide lot, for example. But apply that new 60-foot expectation to the older neighborhood as a legal minimum, and suddenly you’ve rendered wide swaths of homes non-conforming. While an “existing non-conforming” lot, structure, or use can be continued in perpetuity, the ongoing mismatch creates friction for the residents of that older neighborhood.

Non-conforming status can make it harder or more expensive to get a mortgage, or home insurance, or a home improvement loan—because the bank or insurer wants to know the lot will still be usable if the house burns down. Even where the local ordinance provides an escape clause (e.g. that any existing lot under residential zoning can be used for a single-unit house), buying or refinancing that historic house can require extra documentation of that fact.  Setbacks or lot coverage requirements might still make rebuilding challenging, as well as limit opportunities for additions, decks, garages, or other improvements. My friend David, a Realtor, refers to systemic hurdles like these as “annoyance taxes” that accumulate and subtly discourage people from living in these neighborhoods or from investing too much money or energy into their homes.

Where zoning renders the typical parcel "too small" for a home, houses destroyed by neglect, fire, or other catastrophe are hard to replace, leaving gaps in the neighborhood.

Where zoning renders the typical parcel “too small” for a home, houses destroyed by neglect, fire, or other catastrophe are hard to replace, leaving gaps in the neighborhood.

Kalamazoo’s neighborhood zoning repair

As part of Kalamazoo’s neighborhood-by-neighborhood planning efforts, the city’s planning staff has been looking for “zoning repair” needs—where the zoning doesn’t match the existing neighborhood context, and the existing neighborhood is valued as it is. When the League performed a “zoning stress test” for the city (as part of Kalamazoo’s Redevelopment Ready Communities technical assistance support from MEDC), I took a deep dive the zoning ordinance’s lot standards for the Edison Neighborhood, where local staff had identified repeated friction between the requirements and the existing neighborhood fabric. They then extended this approach to other neighborhoods which shared this challenge to finalize their recommendations to the City Commission.

First, I looked at lot sizes, finding that two-thirds of the residential parcels in the neighborhood were “too small” under the existing zoning. In parts of the neighborhood, every home on every block sat on a non-conforming lot, because of the lot sizes used in the initial plat.  In other areas, century-old lot splits created more scattered non-conforming parcels. (Using GIS, I selected all parcels within a given district, then did a “select by attribute” on those parcels to identify lots with areas below their zoning district’s minimum, and set a non-conforming flag for those; then repeated this for each other district.)

Before the update of lot size requirements, two-thirds of residential parcels in Edison were below the minimum lot area for their zoning district.

Before the update of lot size requirements, two-thirds of residential parcels in Edison were below the minimum lot area for their zoning district.

The next step was to test a few new lot size thresholds to see what would bring the zoning into compliance with neighborhood patterns, and suggest some revised minimums that would fix most problems, leaving only a few outliers that might need separate solutions. (This repeated the above process using a few different test lot areas and flagging each parcel for the lot size threshold that would make that parcel conforming. For simplicity, I used thresholds that were already in use within the zoning ordinance, either as some other district’s minimum or as a per-unit minimum in districts that allowed duplexes.)

Green-striped and red-striped parcels would be made conforming by lowering lot size requirements by different degrees.

Green-striped and red-striped parcels would be made conforming by lowering lot size requirements by different degrees.

Moving on from lot area, I next looked at lot width: again, over half the homes in the neighborhood sat on parcels that were “too narrow” under the existing zoning, having been platted for smaller lots. (If you have a parcel layer that includes a frontage or width attribute—possibly from assessing data—you can filter on this; without this, or in the case of irregularly shaped lots, you may need to approximate by drawing bounding boxes around your parcels and then filtering on the widths of those.)

The 60-foot minimum lot width of the R-5 district made nearly every Edison parcel in that district non-conforming.

A 40-foot minimum lot width fits the neighborhood's original pattern much better. (Apologies for color scheme change; few enough reds left they were hard to see!)

A 40-foot minimum lot width fits the neighborhood’s original pattern much better. (Apologies for color scheme change; few enough reds left they were hard to see!)

As applied, in Kalamazoo and in your community

Kalamazoo’s staff repeated my analysis for a few other neighborhoods to calibrate the thresholds, as shown in their presentation to the Planning Commission. The City Commission adopted a package of lot size and coverage amendments at the end of January. While significant, as the staff memo notes, these are not the last word on these neighborhoods, but a temporary patch: “These amendments are intended to relieve the pressure of the large quantity of nonconforming lots that exist throughout while City staff work to thoroughly update all the residential zoning districts in the first half 2019.”

Kalamazoo staff created this amazing overlay of a 1958 Sanborn fire insurance map on a current aerial photo of part of the Northside neighborhood, showing how much of the historic neighborhood pattern had been lost over time.

Kalamazoo staff created this amazing overlay of a 1958 Sanborn fire insurance map on a current aerial photo of part of the Northside neighborhood, showing how much of the historic neighborhood pattern had been lost over time.

In some neighborhoods, this ongoing work might mean additional tweaks; in others, more significant changes to the zoning might be needed to bring it in line with the neighborhood’s vision and plans. In general, these lot size amendments won’t bring any dramatic changes to Kalamazoo’s neighborhoods—where they enable new homes to be built on vacant lots, they will be reinforcing the built patterns already in the neighborhood. What they will do is peel away one layer of annoyance tax from residents already living there, an important piece of enabling people to love where they live.

Kalamazoo isn’t alone in facing this challenge—Muskegon also recently reduced the lot size requirements in some neighborhoods to better fit the existing neighborhood patterns. Not coincidentally, fixing out-of-scale lot requirements is the #1 recommendation for neighborhood form in the User’s Guide to Code Reform that we produced with CNU and MEDC. Both Kalamazoo and Muskegon provided input to that project about their code hurdles, and I used an early draft of the Guide to target my work with Kalamazoo.

While the GIS analysis certainly provides attractive maps, there are certainly ways to take on this zoning repair activity without it. For example, in smaller areas, comparing the minimum lot size in the zoning ordinance to the original plat map for a traditional neighborhood is an easy step. The plat will include lot widths and depths that can be used to quickly compare a “typical” parcel’s size to the zoning ordinance’s minimums.  Alternately, just looking for any place your zoning ordinance applies a 60-foot minimum lot width or 6,000 square foot minimum lot area to a neighborhood built pre-World War II is a good indicator that you have an issue.

Okay, you’re right. It costs the earth to build new in Michigan or do a significant rehab. But don’t immediately rush to load up the U-Haul and venture off to cheaper climes. All is not lost. The summers are too good here in Michigan, our quality of life is outstanding, we have some of the most highly rated universities in the country, and you’ll really want to hold onto your stake here once you read up on climate change. If you do your research, you’ll also find that it’s not necessarily any less expensive in most places elsewhere. At least for locations that folks might want to choose, and in many cases, you’ll find that costs of living are higher.

Now that we have examined some of the underlying factors contributing to increased construction costs, and determined that staying in Michigan is still a pretty good bet, let’s address some of the challenges facing communities that reflect these factors and provide some strategies for successfully pushing back into the market.


The former Ypsi Cycle building in downtown Ypsilanti, undergoing a complete gut and rebuild.

Strategy One:
Acknowledge that construction, new or rehab, is going to be expensive.

The first step is always to admit there is a problem. We have all heard the grumblings: “New construction is so expensive, developers are building only luxury lofts to turn a profit.” As discussed in a recent Strong Towns article, acknowledging that something is expensive is not necessarily a criticism. It is, however, a requirement for realistically tackling the problem that even when new housing units are created, they are often out of reach for working Michiganders.

Prioritization of supports to incentivize new workforce housing by reducing land acquisition costs and providing predevelopment technical legwork can help set the stage for the creation of new missing middle housing units. The Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s Redevelopment Ready Communities (RRC) program aims to help get cities prepared to attract and accommodate appropriately scaled development in the heart of cities, with built-in walkability and connections to existing community amenities. The League has provided several cities with predevelopment assistance through this program, with success stories reported out on our Developing Great Places page.

We cannot make building cheaper. In fact, we should advocate for lasting quality of construction in city cores regardless of occupants because of the value of creating a durable building stock which can pivot in use over time. We can, however, also focus on shifting costs such as utility hookups, environmental remediation, site prep, and even in some cases, architectural design work, to public entities to remove barriers for desired development formats in targeted locations in our existing downtowns. We can lower costs to purchase municipally owned vacant or under capitalized buildings. We can incentivize historic rehab of aging building stock with the re-establishment of the Michigan Historic Tax Credit and the upcycling of our aging industrial and commercial buildings to housing use.

As advocated by the National Development Council, we need to persist in clarify public interest in targeted growth, which could be alleviated with the easing of public bonding limitations and the promotion and expansion of housing-focused CDCs. Another tack is to watch as Michigan’s community capital investment scene continues to grow and expand while explicitly voicing our interest in local investment opportunities underwritten by local people, as enabled by Michigan’s MILE Legislation.

In the meantime, while such policies and instruments are being built, we can keep working our local economic development networks to convince those with the cash to free up capital to invest and traditional banking institutions to give developers the financing instruments they need to do the projects we want.

Strategy Two:
Make friends with people who know how to build stuff. Then scaffold your way up and support and advocate for skilled trades training programs.

Get it? “Scaffold” your way up? It was just too good of a joke to plaster over.

Every builder must balance the price of materials with the cost of time and labor. In some cases, the investment is in time and experience through apprenticeship programs and on-the-job training. Even a simple bathroom remodel or rec room addition can bring into stark light the lack of skilled tradespeople in some Michigan markets. Many experts departed our communities in the dark days of the Recession and the gap left behind has not yet been filled.

According to advice from the Incremental Development Alliance, a group of developers working to promote small-scale construction and rehab in existing city centers, working with local community partners for a common vision goes a long way toward cultivating a culture of slow and steady growth in small and medium sized contractor companies.

As shown by IncDev’s work in several cities across the United States, this type of approach works best when projects are patterned after regionally familiar building forms to fit into existing neighborhoods where housing is wanted by the community and called out as desirable in updated master plans. These projects are just-right-sized to get done by smaller crews and provide relatively stable and predictable demand for growing a construction crew one person at a time. And these types of projects tend also to fall into the not-quite-so-scary scale when seeking approval through local planning commissions. In the case of Chattanooga, Tennessee, a rapidly growing tech hub, “city administrators are collaborating to find ways to fast-track the proposed Missing Middle housing and minimize some of the risks and expenses which disproportionately stymie small multi-unit developments.”

Once developer confidence is built through municipal support and market analysis, sometimes all it takes is to start with one experienced contractor. Bring them in to get started with one site, gradually add team members, and set up a pipeline of projects to keep them in steady work.

Strategy Three:
Know your community’s data and demonstrate pent up demand.

Our state’s demographics are rapidly changing. In 2018, according to the American Community Survey, Michigan’s average household size is only about 2.5 people. Only about 22% of all Michigan households include children 18 years old or younger. To parse it another way, people in their 20s and 30s are choosing to prioritize education or careers and delay or entirely opt out of traditional marriage partnerships and childrearing. In older age brackets, we have a growing segment of longer-living, healthy seniors over the age of 65, many of whom are no longer partnered due to loss, divorce, or choice.

What does this mean? While nearly half of Michigan’s households have two spouses or partners living together, many households have only one adult. Even if you don’t want to live in a small apartment or a modest condo, many people do.

We are experiencing a rising demand for smaller housing options because people simply don’t desire or cannot afford that much space, but they do want to be connected to others in walkable neighborhoods. While a four bed, three bath Colonial with a pool and a 20-minute drive to town may be perfect for some of our households, the data tells us that large-lot, car-dependent housing options are abundant in many markets yet are probably not the best fit for the majority.

As we continue to witness these changes in our communities, in the lives of our own families and friends, we must track and present data on the pent-up demand for the creation of affordable and middle-income housing in walkable, real places. And if they’re connected to public transit to reduce car usage, all the better. When we think of who wants these kinds of housing – your 27-year-old daughter who finally finished school and just getting her career off the ground; your best friend who would rather pour her heart into being a pet parent than manicuring her lawn; your 70-year-old dad who has chosen to buck tradition and not decamp to Florida like his parents did; or maybe just you – we can and will respond to these needs with a more personal urgency.

Keep Thinking About the Why.

By setting proactive public policies and developing incentives to prioritize the expansion of these market segments, we’ll not only be taking care of our economy, we’ll be caring for the people we care about, too.

Yet with these factors in mind, we can continue to focus our efforts on building collaborative relationships with all involved to mitigate the underlying cost factors and make these projects not only worthy of investment but also creatively and appropriately financed. We can accomplish these goals by seeking more accessible financing instruments, encouraging reasonable expansion, holding a focus on appropriate density, elevating examples of right-sized builds, promoting the cultural and ecological sense of building reuse, and helping demonstrate the need for growth in skilled trades programs to carry out this work.

In the end, the most important thing to remember is that when we engage in conversations about the high cost of construction, both new builds and rehabs, there are many reasons behind those price tags. And there is also a myriad of reasons why quality construction needs to take place when thoughtfully building quality 21st Century Communities.

Read more on how to plan and do these kinds of projects in our Placemaking How-To toolkit at:

mag cover combinedThe Michigan Municipal League received a statewide honor recently for The Review magazine, which focuses on placemaking activites and programs of League member communities as well as other topics.

The League received a Gold Certificate for its magazine in the 17th annual Diamond Award program in the magazine publishing category for organizations with an annual budget of $1 million and greater. The League’s magazine has been honored multiple times in previous years in the Diamond Award program by the Michigan Society of Association Executives (MSAE).

As part of the contest, entrants submitted two consecutive copies of the magazine. The League submitted the November/December 2017 issue that focused on affordable housing, with additional stories on housing initiatives in other communities and a cover-story profile of 2017-18 League President Catherine Bostick-Tullius, Lapeer city commissioner. View that issue here:

The entry also included the January/February 2018 edition centered around essential building blocks for local government operation, such as improving your budgeting process, gun regulation, and avoiding charter conflicts. On the cover of that issue was Hudsonville officials celebrating the opening of the community’s Terra Square project. The city won our 2017 Community Excellence Awards competition for the creative conversion of an old auto dealership into a multi-use community venue. View that issue here:

The Review magazine is a nationally recognized example of an outstanding publication to be replicated for its thought-provoking content, overall appearance, and quality. Our members frequently submit ideas for stories on projects, programs, and initiatives in their community that their colleagues can implement in their own cities. It is published six times a year. Find current and past issues here:

We at the Civic Labs have been talking for some time now about how Michigan needs more housing. Or rather, that we have an abundance of single family housing choices across the broad geographies of our state, but lack the kind of desired housing units of the missing middle variety in walkable neighborhoods at a price range attainable for working households. There’s a mis-match in supply and demand.

When was the last time you logged into Zillow to look at the housing market, and when not seeing exactly what you want, wondered if it might be cheaper to build?

If you are like many Michiganders, it was probably yesterday. That option likely faded once you ran the numbers. New construction is expensive in not only the case of private housing, but also public and corporate housing sectors. It is even more expensive when the costs for retail and manufacturing facilities are taken into consideration. The trick is understanding exactly what the costs are and the impacts that are contributing to this high cost environment in Michigan, then addressing them head on.

Missing Middle-type housing example in Traverse City

Newly constructed multi-unit housing in Traverse City

Simple, right? You’d think so. It’s not a new problem to address. But land and materials costs, labor supply, and the permitting and site plan approval process add significantly to the cost of construction of higher density housing units. These three core variables create barriers to success for the kinds of projects that are ostensibly needed by Michigan residents.

In November, Richard Murphy wrote about Michigan’s lack of preparation to handle growth should it come our way. Many of the same reasons that Michigan is ill equipped to handle growth are the very same reasons that the costs of new construction are so high in this state compared to others.  As Murphy noted “Michigan’s classic strategy over the past decades has been to expand outwards—whether we’re growing on net or not. The state has expanded its developed land area by 50% in 30 years, a better (er, worse) than 5:1 ratio of infrastructure expansion to population growth. As we’ve found out, adding infrastructure so much faster than we’ve added new people to pay for it means that each of us has to pay more.” Unsupported and often unnecessary outward expansion directly impacts the cost of doing business in Michigan. Growing scarcity of land leads to increased costs for buildable lots which in turn increases the baseline cost to build new.

The common response to outward expansion is, “but growth is good, right?” Not necessarily.

We need to make sure that we are growing smarter, not just growing because we can.

This is where land use policy; green space and farm land conservancies; public transit; and population density enter the conversation. In the past decade there has been a lot of discussion around the “right sizing” of Detroit. This is a great example of a city that grew in the age of suburban ideals and decentralized its density in the name of the automobile.

There needs to be a balance between large lot development and the high rises of urban cores, the in-between size of most Michigan cities recently studied by the League’s Civic Labs with the MEDC and the Congress for New Urbanism in its User’s Guide to Zoning Reform. Walkability is central to these conversations on community and economic redevelopment in communities of all sizes across the state. The ability to easily pop into the local craft brewery, bike to the market, or for your kids to walk to school is prized by those who are also in the market for newly constructed housing options.

Tradesperson rehabbing a building interior in downtown Allegan

Rehabbing a building interior in downtown Allegan

We know that well-managed population density leads to vibrant communities with a strong economic core that improves property values over time. The drawback is that when cities invest in residential construction in their downtown areas it is often compounded by a costly permitting and site plan approval process that adds significantly to the cost of construction of higher density housing units. The Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s Redevelopment Ready Communities (RRC) program aims to help cities streamline their review processes and prioritize supported site redevelopment with a premium placed on the creation of new housing options in the urban core.

Even when new housing options are approved and encouraged, the most desirable housing choices come with a high price tag that many in the middle class cannot afford. The scarcity of a skilled labor force to build and rehab housing comes into play.

As you will recall from Econ 101, the supply and demand curve remains in effect.

When supply is low, and demand is high, then prices increase. Thus, in Michigan we have an unmet increased demand for skilled labor that is contributing to the higher cost of new construction. In a nutshell, a rate of outward expansion that is not supported by population growth is creating a reduced population density and higher demand for land and skilled labor (both of which are becoming scarcer as a result), leading to higher construction costs all around.

While we don’t have a magic wand to wave over Michigan’s cities to address housing needs, these challenges and responses are good strategies that communities can take to better understand the barriers them holding back and proactively address this growing issue. Dig into the publicly available data about your community, chat up your DDA, and ask your Realtors association. You will probably find that the one or two-bedroom townhomes just off Main Street have a waiting list of potential tenants, that the studio apartments above downtown businesses are rarely ever vacant. When you know your people, you will know your needs.