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Cincinnati isn't the first to try a zoning overhaul. Here's what similar efforts look like

cincinnati's skyline
Jake Blucker

Maybe it sounds wonky, but zoning reform has been a hot topic of debate in recent years. As housing prices have risen significantly, cities across the country have started changing their land use policies — or at least testing the waters.

Cincinnati is no exception. Its "Connected Communities" plan has put it right in the middle of a sometimes-controversial national conversation about land use.

One of the key points of contention: Should cities limit development to single family homes only in some neighborhoods, blocking construction of duplexes, triplexes or even slightly larger apartment buildings?

Those two, three, four and even six unit buildings are often called the "missing middle" because they represent options in between a single-family house and larger apartment buildings. Cities like Charlotte, Portland, as we'll talk more about below, Minneapolis, have made these kinds of housing easier to build. In many cities, though, they're very difficult to impossible to build new due to single-family zoning rules.

Zoning, including single family zoning, sprang up in the early years of the 20th century, as reformers sought to make cities less crowded and polluted. The idea was to separate out land uses so you wouldn't have big, sooty factories next to where people lived; and to promote greenspace and fresh air. At least, that was part of the logic.

But there was a darker side to zoning. Cities like Baltimore and Louisville began setting up racially specific restrictions on who could live where. The Supreme Court declared these unconstitutional in 1917. But some cities saw the single-family zoning that had started popping up in cities in California as a way to get around the law, since so many Black residents were renters.

Courts asked to consider questions about the legality of land use restrictions took a dim view of renters and apartment buildings at the time. In the 1926 U.S. Supreme Court case upholding residential, single family zoning, justices called apartment buildings "parasites" on the calm, pleasant landscape of single family neighborhoods and argued single family homes were the mark of good citizens.

RELATED: Mayor Pureval wants to redesign Cincinnati. Here's what that could look like

Cincinnati set up a planning commission that sort of zoned case-by-case starting in 1918 and formalized zoning in May 1924. It would significantly expand its single-family zoning starting in the 1960s, as residents fled to the largely single-family suburbs.

Wariness about renters has survived the proceeding decades, and some Cincinnati homeowners have expressed concerns that denser buildings will bring more crime, traffic and noise to their neighborhoods. But not everyone feels this way.

A group called the Congress for the New Urbanism has long been a vocal advocate for zoning reform, and specifically, eliminating single family zoning. The organization held its annual meeting in Cincinnati last week — right as the city's Planning Commission moved Connected Communities toward a final vote at City Council.

Peter Calthorpe is one of the founders of CNU. He told some of the roughly 1,500 attendees who gathered Downtown for the conference that changing land use policies is an answer for the skyrocketing cost of housing.

"I'm not even going to begin to list how the housing crisis affects America today," he said. "If we can't solve this problem, I don't know how we can move forward. And I think there are big solutions. But we have to be really thoughtful about how we explain them and what we go after."

Calthorpe thinks missing middle housing is fine and should be legal to build. But he doesn't see it as the main solution to America's housing problems.

For Calthorpe, increasing affordability means increasing density via the construction of larger apartment buildings along popular transit routes and increasing the useability of public transit with bus rapid transit. He's one of a number of urbanists proposing similar concepts, which he calls "Grand Boulevards."

Calthorpe has advocated for policy changes in his home state of California. The state has enacted a number of reforms including Assembly Bill 2011 and Senate Bill 6, which make it easier for developers to build on certain tracts in "commercial corridors." The laws waive some density and height restrictions as long as affordability and construction wage requirements are met.

Another statewide law in California, Senate Bill 9, makes it legal to split many single family lots into two lots and build two dwellings on each as long as the lot is more than 2,400-square feet.

California isn't the only state promoting density. In 2022, Maine passed a law allowing residents to build a second dwelling on land zoned single family, for example.

Some cities have also made big changes.

Minneapolis grabbed national attention in 2019 when it eliminated single family zoning in its comprehensive plan Minneapolis 2040. Now it allows duplexes and triplexes in places it didn't before.

Joe Bernard is a planning project manager for the city of Minneapolis. He told CNU attendees there's more to the plan than they might have seen in headlines.

"One of the main policy objectives of Minneapolis 2040 is to increase access to housing," he said. "The plan calls for doing this in a number of ways. Single family zoning wasn't the most important piece of the puzzle, but definitely garnered the most attention."

One of the big changes that flew relatively under the radar: In 2009, the city began relaxing regulations requiring developers to provide parking along with their housing developments. The new policies in the Minneapolis 2040 plan do away with those requirements entirely.

The new policies also require buildings in some transit-rich areas to be a minimum number of stories high. Most cities do the opposite, setting height maximums.

There is at least some evidence the approach is working. Rent prices in Minneapolis have only risen about 1% in recent years, while rents across the rest of the state have gone up by about 14%. And the amount of housing being built in the city has increased by more than the plan's 18,000-unit-a-year goal. That's mostly a result of medium- and large-scale apartment construction, not from duplexes being built in single family neighborhoods.

But it's also worth it to note Minneapolis had one of its biggest years for housing constructionin 2019 — a year before the first parts of its new reforms went into effect.

Housing production dipped in 2020, likely due to the pandemic. It's since rebounded, but there are questions about whether the high levels are being spurred by Minneapolis 2040 policies.

RELATED: Answering questions about the 'Connected Communities' plan to reform zoning code

There has been pushback, including a lawsuit that paused implementation of the plan for months. But Bernard says the policies were based on more than 150 public meetings and tens of thousands of comments.

"We didn't start by determining implementation steps or specific policies," he said. "We asked the public."

Proponents point to a reduction in homelessness in Minneapolis. HUD data for 2017 to 2022 showed that homelessness dropped 12% in Hennepin County, where Minneapolis is, while the rest of the state saw a 14% increase.

But there are some nuances in this. Another count of people experiencing homelessness by HUD found the number of people without housing actually increased in 2023, though that count took place on a single night in December.

Minneapolis has also rolled inclusive zoning into its zoning reforms.

That policy requires developers building more than 20 units of housing at a time to make 8 percent the units affordable at 60 percent of the area median income or 4 percent at 30 percent of AMI. Developers can also opt to accept revenue loss funds from the city in exchange for making 20 percent of the units they build affordable at 50 percent AMI, make payments in lieu of the affordable units or develop affordable units offsite.

In first two years after Minneapolis 2040 was adopted, the region around the city added about 6,000 new units of affordable housing. But the region also has a robust affordable housing trust fund and units directly related to the inclusionary zoning requirements in Minneapolis proper have been a small shareof the overall number built — about 500 units so far with another 500 in the pipeline.

These factors could all be part of the reduction of homelessness in Minneapolis. Cincinnati officials are not considering inclusionary zoning at this time.

What Cincinnati's plan would do

Cincinnati's Connected Communities proposals are less ambitious than Minneapolis' in some ways. They include allowing developers to build housing with up to four units within a half mile of the city's seven major transit corridors and within a quarter mile of the city's 39 neighborhood business districts. Development directly in the business districts and along the transit corridors would be allowed more units and an extra story. The reforms would eliminate parking requirements along those major transit corridors and also relax them in business districts.

Some residents are worried about the changes, citing concerns about parking, crowding, and changing the character of their neighborhoods. Ellen McGrath lives in Westwood. She spoke at Cincinnati Planning Commission last week.

"Does the proposal do enough to ensure safe, affordable housing for the over 20 percent of Westwood's population living in poverty?" McGrath asked Planning Commission last week. "Does the proposal do enough to provide parking? Does the proposal do enough to provide more police and fire services to meet the expected growth in our community?"

Supporters, including Mayor Aftab Pureval, say the city has more than enough parking and can build the power and water infrastructure to support more people. He says what it needs is housing — and relaxing some land use regulations is the way to get there.

RELATED: ‘Connected Communities’ moves to City Council with Planning Commission support

"We're not Minneapolis where we're doing away with all single-family," he says. "It's all very intentional."

The city isn't alone wrestling with the issue. Research from the University of California Berkeley shows more than 100municipalities across the country are mulling changes. Some of those efforts also involve inclusionary zoning.

Close to home, residents of Columbus are weighing in on big reformsto land use rules there through early June. The proposal, which aims to create 88,000 new units of housing over the next decade, would create six mixed-use districts allowing much greater density than current rules allow without a lengthy approval process. Developers could build up to 12 stories tall in some areas, and add another four floors if they meet the city's affordable housing requirements.

Elected officials in Pittsburgh earlier this year floated changes to their zoning code.

Cincinnati City Council will make a final decision on Connected Communities early next month.

Nick has reported from a nuclear waste facility in the deserts of New Mexico, the White House press pool, a canoe on the Mill Creek, and even his desk one time.