The Housing Discussion Up to Now

The Housing Discussion Up to Now

While out knocking doors I've gotten some questions about the "story" of how the housing discussion started and how it's gotten to where it is now. I've written a few emails about it to Ward 6 residents but decided to consolidate those notes here for everyone to read. I hope it's helpful!

I co-chaired the ad-hoc housing committee that produced a set of recommendations for zoning reforms that we should investigate as a council and planning commission. Those recommendations came before the council in June of 2022. The council unanimously sent them to the planning commission for study and implementation. The word "implementation" has been a source of some consternation, but here it only means "to draw up something we can talk about and/or vote on." The housing recommendations were based on results from the UCS housing study and Village Vision 2.0 (the city comprehensive plan). The recommendations (redlined by council amendments over time) are here. PV, like much of the metro, is pricing ordinary people out. What can we do about it, if anything? Who do we want to be? Mission Hills 2, or a city that made measured tradeoffs with density and planning to retain diverse people from a socioeconomic standpoint?

To boil it down, the recommendations suggested investigating updates to the zoning codes in our various zones:

R-1A, R-1B: Single Family

R-2: Duplexes

R-3: Apartments

R-4: Condos (owned shared-wall multifamily)

C-0: Offices

C-1/2: Shops businesses

MXD: Mixed Use Districts (think Meadowbrook).

For general zoning codes, I refer you to the city's Municode here.

The suggestions for R1 single family have been the ones that have garnered the most attention, controversy, and disinformation. The suggestions there were to investigate allowing smaller lot sizes (reducing the cost of a "lot" and allowing smaller homes to be built instead of only large ones), allowing ADUs in PV to some greater extent (we can have them now, but they can only be attached to the primary dwelling and are only for blood relatives and live in servants/domestic-help [anachronistic]). In 2018, the council approved "accessory structures" in single-family districts for uses incidental to residential uses, which is incredibly vague. The structures are subject to greenspace requirements but can have a footprint of up to 576 square feet. These include pool houses, carriage houses, home offices, workshops, etc. They highly overlap with what the concept of an ADU is.

Our codes are vague and need to be fixed because you could argue with the city that we already allow nearly all forms of ADUs given a particular interpretation of the codes.

Other ideas included considering other single-family style forms that aren't generally allowed here, like small lots that share a common space. Initially, a "multi-unit house" was included in the list of things to consider, but that was removed because it confused the public. Some folks thought it meant duplexes, but it was intended to mean houses that can be converted back and forth between a single unit to two units or something similar. These are common in cities like Saint Louis and parts of KC but not PV. Removing it from consideration was meant to allay those concerns and acknowledge that PV doesn't build houses that can be internally subdivided, so the suggestion didn't move the needle.

You can review the suggestions for the other zoning districts, but I'll provide some high-level summary. For R-2 we were considering allowing triplexes or quadplexes instead of only duplexes. But this has largely been shelved as R-2 takes up about 6 acres in our 6.2 square mile city. Juice isn't worth the squeeze there.

The R-3 ideas were to allow new apartments to become denser. How dense is currently up for discussion at the Planning Commission. The idea is that instead of gutting existing apartments and charging a premium to renters for the in-place rehab (like in Kenilworth), we can allow the market to develop a housing product with greater volume to reduce the cost of each new unit. The current limitation on our apartments limits them to about 12-13 units per acre of land.

For R-4, it was a similar idea, allowing row homes and other common building forms where owner-occupied units exist but can be built at a higher density to produce homes at a lower price point. Other suggestions for the commercial and mixed-use districts included further integrating residential into those zoning districts. Meadowbrook is a success, but we need to evaluate its shortcomings in producing almost nothing affordable to folks making a median household income.

The upshot here is that prices for homes in PV are skyrocketing due to our housing crisis. It's pricing out police, teachers, firefighters, city workers, and many other people who used to live here. The prime driver of this is that our residential zoning (and residential zoning more broadly) is restrictive, constraining the market from producing any new housing that is remotely "affordable" (read 500-700k even; the new stuff is all easily 1.3+ million). Zoning reform is done to allow the market to produce smaller units on perhaps smaller amounts of land. The cost of a housing unit, though floating on the market, is largely determined by the size of the housing unit and the amount of land it sits on.

If we reduce the amount of land a thing can sit on, we can reasonably reduce its size and cost while retaining a standard margin for developers to build. That was the general idea behind the R1 proposals and the proposals across all of the districts.

I gave a talk at Asbury UMC about this in the Fall of 2022 you can watch here.

So where is it now? Council has shelved the R1 proposals entirely (to my chagrin, but that's democracy). The only things we are working on in single-family zones are exterior guidelines in R-1B (small lots), which weren't done when the city did exterior guidelines in 2018 or so. The other thing on the table is limiting short-term rentals in PV so those don't distort the market. So the focus is on apartments, condos, and integrating residential into commercial zones (last I've heard). The planning commission is still working on all of this. Currently, no actual proposals are on the table to be considered by the council for a vote.

One last piece to this is worth mentioning -- though this was not a prime driver of this discussion originally. Prairie Village's zoning codes are inherited from the JC Nichols-style developments that founded the town. It is very hard to view the codes as something apart from the systems of racial and economic exclusion that the city was based on. While I'm not trying to claim that people who live here are personally guilty of anything, I think it's worth noting that these two things are linked systemically. The reason Prairie Village remains 94% white cannot be considered apart from zoning, which is inherited from the city's origins. It's a systemic problem and systemic racism. Not the fault of any individual but just how the system perpetuates an effect. I gave a short speech at Village Pres earlier this year about this here. While diversifying our housing stock via zoning updates in the short term can't address these issues short term, it has been shown that diversity in housing stocks lead to broader diversity in people. This cuts across socioeconomics, race, gender identity, and sexual orientation.

On October 2nd, the council voted to re-clarify and re-state its position on what the status of zoning updates currently are in R1 zoning. I voted against the motion because I found it redundant and confusing given the timing, but the majority disagreed. You can read the statement here – it's accurate and captures the current state of play for planning in R1 zoning here in PV.

If you'd like to learn more about this type of thinking as it relates to zoning, walkability, diversity, fiscal sustainability of cities, and other related things then I recommend you check out StrongTowns which provides a wealth of easy-to-approach resources to get you thinking about new urbanism and city planning for modern cities and suburbs.