Duplexes to drop in front of Bloomington’s city council as permitted use

At its meeting on Thursday (April 1), Bloomington’s plan commission voted 6–3 to forward an ordinance to the city council, with a positive recommendation, that will affect the status of duplexes in much of the city.

The yellow areas are the places in Bloomington where the plan commission is recommending that duplexes be allowed as a permitted (by-right) use.

The recommended ordinance would revise the unified development ordinance (UDO), so that duplexes are a permitted (by-right) use in four districts.

The areas where duplexes would be permitted are the R1 (Residential Large Lot), R2 (Residential Medium Lot), R3 (Residential Small Lot), and R4 (Residential Urban) districts.

The city council could take up the question before the end of April, depending on how long it takes the plan commission to finish its work on the 10-ordinance package it’s now considering.

The city’s plan staff had proposed an ordinance that would change duplexes in R1, R2 and R3 from disallowed use to conditional use. A conditional use requires approval by the board of zoning appeals (BZA).

Through an amendment to the staff-proposed ordinance, approved on a 5–4 vote taken on Monday (March 29), the plan commission made duplexes a permitted (by-right) use in those three districts.

The amendment approved on Monday also changed duplexes in R4 from conditional use to permitted (by-right) use, which is consistent with the city’s current UDO. The planning staff’s unamended proposed ordinance had made the use of duplexes in R4 conditional.

In Monday’s action, the plan commission also voted to remove a 150-foot buffer that would have, for two years, prevented other duplexes from being constructed in the buffer area around a duplex that has received a certificate of zoning compliance.

Bloomington’s plan commission put three meetings into the question of duplexes.

Arguments that were made by supporters of plexes included: more compact built structures, which reduces energy use and greenhouse gas emissions; increases to housing supply, which pushes housing costs down and improves social equity; and improved feasibility of public transportation.

Arguments against allowing plexes included: concerns about the elimination of existing cheaper housing; the loss of the social fabric that ties single-family neighborhoods together; the lost benefits of owner-occupied housing; and conversion of single-family houses to multi-unit dwellings that send rent payments to out-of-town owners.

An indication of how controversial the status of duplexes is—in areas where they have not been allowed—has been the public commentary offered by former and current elected officials, generally opposed to the move.

They include former mayor Tomilea Allison, and former city councilmembers Chris Sturbaum and Charlotte Zietlow. Current city councilmember Dave Rollo also spoke against making duplexes a permitted use in the R-districts.

Pausing the process

Jeff Richardson, a former city councilmember who served with Allison on the city council in the second half of the 1970s, is a prominent member of a group called “Go Farther Together,” which is calling for a pause to the process for more study.

Richardson has recently moved back to Bloomington. In his remarks on March 29 to the plan commission, he said, “I love Bloomington—I get choked up talking about it. This is the best city in the world. I could have lived anywhere in the world, my partner and I, anywhere. And we chose to live in Bloomington, because people respect each other and are civil.”

Also in his remarks at the March 29 plan commission session, Richardson said, “I’m a 30-year renter, and it’s only in the last 22 plus years that I became a homeowner. I rented in Bloomington for 12 years, and four of those years I represented District 6 on the Bloomington city council.”

Richardson was the first person elected to the city council while a student. In his remarks to the plan commission, Richardson said, “I love [Bloomington] because of the students…. So please don’t frame this as a student-anti-student issue.”

The “Go Farther Together” group includes many opponents of allowing duplexes in the R-zones.

The leading idea pushed by “Go Farther Together” is that more time is needed to create a collaborative approach to the zoning decisions.

On March 25, Kerry Thompson, who was CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Monroe County for 20 years, spoke in favor of pausing the process. She spoke from her perspective as Habitat CEO: “I was a developer and homebuilder. But more importantly, that work refined my skills as a collaborative problem solver. I supported housing density and supportable and affordable housing.”

About the UDO revision process, Thompson said, “There are several problems I believe need to be solved: the lack of affordable housing; need for more middle-income housing, and workforce housing.” She concluded that the proposed revisions to the UDO does not solve those problems.

Thompson said, “The zoning amendment to add duplexes creates more student housing. Bloomington has a housing economy which is vastly different from other cities our size: The majority of rental properties are paid for by people who do not live in them.”

Predicted impact of allowing duplexes

Much of the friction over duplexes is based on different opinions about the way duplexes will be developed and who will develop them, if they are allowed in the R-districts.

In his remarks on March 29, Bloomington resident Eric Ost sketched out the three possibilities he sees, if duplexes are allowed in the R-districts: “The preponderant outcomes are likely to be: (1) conversion of an existing rental single family home to become a duplex, so as to double the realized monthly revenue; (2) the purchase and conversion of a naturally-occurring affordable home, its perpetual sequestration as a rental, again to double the realized monthly revenue; or (3) purchase of a naturally-occurring affordable home and its renovation to become either a duplex, where each of the two units is unaffordably priced for sale, or renovation to become an even larger, more unaffordable property.”

Supporters of plexes point to the fact that single-family zoning allows for conversion of cheaply-priced single-family houses to larger, more expensive single family homes—in a by-right process. And that’s already happening, they point out.

In his remarks to the plan commission on March 25, Bloomington resident Greg Alexander said, “When people update houses in my neighborhood, they are uniformly being converted into luxury single-family housing. It takes a long time for this destructive single-family zoning to have an impact, but it’s nearing a critical mass in my neighborhood. Whole blocks in my neighborhood are becoming entirely luxury houses.”

When the plan commission deliberated on the UDO revisions in 2019, Alexander gave an example during public commentary about a single-family house that sold for $73,000, and was essentially torn down and rebuilt, as a single-family house, then sold for $320,500. That was in May 2016.

In December of 2019, the house sold again for $350,000—an increase of 9 percent over about three years.

A 9-percent increase was realized over just the last year, according to numbers from Zillow.com. The typical Bloomington house cost $243,252 in February 2021, compared to $222,745 in February 2020.

At the March 25 plan commission meeting, Alexander put his support for allowing duplexes in the R-districts in the context of his general agreement with some of the specific sentiments from opponents.

“Our core neighborhoods are fantastic because they’re still diverse, with renters and owners living side by side, students and everyone else all together…,” Alexander said. He continued, “There are duplexes and small apartment buildings in almost all of our neighborhoods. Before they were banned about 30 years ago, it had been legal for decades to put duplexes in these neighborhoods. And that process built the neighborhoods that I love.”

In arguing for duplexes as an allowed use in the R-districts, Alexander said, “We need to restore zoning which legalizes the historic diverse neighborhoods we love, before it’s too late. We do not need more time to study this.”

Several public commenters have pointed to the fact that the city’s state goals include encouragement of homeownership.

Homeownership doesn’t necessarily mean owning a single-family home, which was a point made by Dave Warren during public commentary at the March 29 plan commission meeting. Warren said, “Single-family homeownership is not synonymous with single-family homes. That is one type of home you can own. You can also own a unit in a duplex or triplex, you can own a condo, you can own a townhome.”

The idea of homeownership as it relates to duplexes factored into the thinking of plan commissioner Karin St. John, who cast a swing vote on March 29, amending the proposed ordinance to allow duplexes as a permitted (by-right) use. St. John appeared persuaded in part by the idea that it’s possible to own just one half of a duplex.

Regulatory takings?

The concern that deep-pocketed investors will buy up single-family houses, convert them to expensive duplexes and rent them to students who can afford them, was summed up during public commentary at the April 1 plan commission meeting by former mayor Tomilea Allison: “The city threatens to set in motion real estate investment forces that could change forever the unique face of the city we love and have labored over 30 years to build.”

A standard counter to the idea that allowing duplexes in the R-districts could lead to the rapid conversion of broad areas of the city to student rentals is that the UDO is a living breathing, document. It can be revised in the future, just as it is being revised now, goes the argument.

In her remarks, Allison questioned whether that kind of revision would be easy: “If an experiment in upzoning goes bad, a corrective downzoning will likely be ruled a taking, and we know how expensive that is.”

If duplexes are allowed for a while but then disallowed, the idea is that removing away the right to build a duplex—that is, downzoning—could be analyzed as a “taking.”

A “taking” is when a government regulation limits the way a property owner can use it, so much that the regulation practically deprives the property owner of the economically reasonable use or value of their property.

The specter of lawsuits based on downzoning was enough to prompt a question from plan commissioner Beth Cate to city attorney Mike Rouker. Rouker said, “I think it’s just impossible to talk about in a vacuum. We’d have to look at a specific case, in order to have any sense about whether or not it presents a takings issue.”

Rouker continued, “Downzoning down the road, it’s not something that we anticipate would be create an unusual risk of litigation, although it might warrant additional research. It is an interesting point.” Rouker added, “That’s not something that I’ve come across or that I’m familiar with being a potential risk, that we need to be worried about.”

On the possibility that a downzoning could be analyzed as a taking, Bloomington’s development services manager, Jackie Scanlan, pointed to the fact that the 1995 repeal and replace of Title 20, was considered to be a downzoning. [April 5, 1995 city council meeting minutes]

That legislation put single-family zoning in place in the areas described as core neighborhoods.  Scanlan said she was not aware of any litigation over takings issues that was prompted by that downzoning.

Urgency of action?

The possibility of subsequent revision of the UDO is one of the arguments is support of acting now, without the need for further study.

But it’s not the only argument based on urgency. Bloomington resident Daniel Bingham told the plan commission on March 29, “This is a policy we really need in order to respond to the forces we are facing—including climate change, including housing affordability, including undoing the harms of structural racism.” Bingham added, “We don’t have time to take things slowly, where climate change is concerned.”

Warren, in his comments on April 1, talked about the time frame for the impact of the change in the status of duplexes. “Local governments have to stop using the long-term planning tool of zoning to satisfy short-term desires to keep certain certain housing types or people out.”

Warren continued, “Many other more specific ordinances can address noise behavior, historic preservation and other things.” Warren added, “Let’s use zoning rules as a long-term planning tool they’re intended for, and remove the inequitable ban on more affordable homes.” Warren wrapped up by saying: “The Bloomingtonians of 2040 and 2050, tens of thousands of whom haven’t even been born yet, will thank us.”

Richardson, the former city councilmember picked up on Warren’s remarks as a way of asking: If the problem is urgent, then why are we not focussed on some solutions that will yield shorter-term results?

Richardson said, “Dave Warren always eloquently makes his case for upzoning. But at the end of the three times I’ve heard him speak, he mentions that we are going to really see the benefits of that for our children and grandchildren.”

Richardson continued, “And we’ll see that may be the case. But in the meantime, there’s some actual real tangible things that the city can do with affordable housing, because [the city’s administration] presented this as an urgent matter. Urgent.”

Richardson wrapped up his point: “So if it’s urgent, waiting 15 to 20 years might be good for some, but others would like to see some plans that might come to fruition, let’s say in the next three to five years. There’s an excellent opportunity to do that with the [2nd Street IU Health] hospital property—the city owns that property.”

Next steps

The city’s current unified development ordinance (UDO) does not allow duplexes at all in R1 (Residential Large Lot), R2 (Residential Medium Lot), and R3 (Residential Small Lot) districts. The current UDO allows duplexes as a permitted (by-right) use in the not-yet-mapped R4 (Residential Urban) district.

The ordinance recommended on Thursday on a 6–3 vote will change the use of duplexes from disallowed to permitted (by-right) use in the R1, R2, and R3 districts.

Dissenting on the 6–3 vote were: Susan Sandberg, Israel Herrera, and Beth Cate.

The ordinance is part of a 10-ordinance package proposed by the city’s planning staff, which would revise the citywide zoning map and the text of the UDO. A public outreach effort on the proposal was conducted in late 2020.

On Monday (April 5), the plan commission will take up the 10th ordinance, which would revise the citywide zoning map.

There are two new zoning districts defined in the UDO that was adopted by the city council in 2019, but not yet placed on the zoning map: MS (Mixed-use Student Housing) and R4 (Residential Urban). So the ordinance will add MS and R4 zoning districts to some areas of the city.

The map ordinance would also change many planned unit developments (PUDs) to a basic zoning district.

Six different amendments have already been proposed to the map ordinance.

One of the amendments, sponsored by the city council’s representative to the plan commission, Susan Sandberg, would remove any R4 districts from the map, with the idea that the process should be paused for additional study.

2 thoughts on “Duplexes to drop in front of Bloomington’s city council as permitted use

  1. Does the proposed amendment of the UDO treat R1, R2, and R3 the same as regards plexing? Has there been discussion as to whether they should be plexed differently?

    One possible argument:

    Since an R3 district is already denser than an R1 district, you could say that plexing in R3 doesn’t change its relative character while plexing in R1 tends to reduce the difference between R1 and R3. If the distinctions between R1 and R3 have a purpose, then the way plexing is applied to them should reflect it, meaning that plexing might be applied differently in R1 than in R3, or more precisely that application of plexing in R1 should only allow different (less dense) results than plexing in R3, comparable to the difference in density intended by the difference in districts.

    Why would policy declare an area R1 and at the same time adopt plexing rules that make it R3 (in terms of what’s allowed)?

    1. Short answer: Yes, R1, R2, R3 are treated the same wrt to plexing in the plan commission’s recommended ordinance (as amended).

      The current UDO has duplexes disallowed in R1, R2, R3, and permitted (by right) in R4. The plan commission’s recommended ordinance (as amended) has duplexes permitted (by right) in R1, R2, R3, and R4.

      Dating back to the discussions in 2019, just working from memory, I don’t recall a lot of interest, among plan commissioners or city councilmembers, in differentiating the R1, R2 and R3 districts with respect to their allowance of plexes.

      An additional place to check for differences between R1, R2, and R3 might be the use-specific standards for each district. The use-specific standards are what the asterisk (*) denotes in the table. For plexes, some of use-specific standards include design standards that I would paraphrase as saying: a plex has to have the basic look and feel of other single-family houses in the neighborhood. I have not checked use-specific standards for plexes with an eye towards _differences_ among the R-districts.

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