Public Notice – LDC Rewrite: If Not Now, When?
Further thoughts on housing affordability and how it might be affected by the city Land Development Code
Just to put a fine point on what has become a three-part miniseries on housing affordability and how it might be affected by the city Land Development Code, let me restate the obvious from the first two parts:
Part 1, "The Housing Conundrum": Real estate prices are rising precipitously; but what sounds like a boon for homeowners is a crushing cost-of-living increase for those on the lower end of the income scale, and an eviction notice for many. As for anyone who cashes out, their old home will almost certainly be occupied by someone wealthier.
Part 2, "Devil's in the Details": While the hope and the hype were that the embattled land code rewrite was going to fix that (or at least start to), the final product was a Frankenstein's monster of political ambitions that fell far short of its basic goal of providing a simple, logical guide to what can and can't be built on various sites in the city. I gave one small but infuriating example from a friend's personal experience, but the code was riddled with them – parts that were needlessly prescriptive, parts that opened huge unforeseen loopholes, parts that were too open to staff interpretation, and parts that left staff no leeway for logic or local circumstances. And that led into today's...
Part 3, "If Not Now, When?": The LDC process has been in the works for some eight years now, and had we taken the time from the start to do the necessary groundwork – bringing the city's out-of-date neighborhood plans up to date being one salient example – I have little doubt we'd have a new code in place by now. But early on, the process fell prey to political pressures: There was no time for such planning, because of the dire need for housing, which the code was unreasonably expected to fix. And as the mission increasingly became interpreted as, "Make things as dense as possible," the arguments shifted to zoning – where can 10-plexes be built? – and the code itself suffered as staff tried to satisfy various interest groups; by the end, the proposed code failed the basic goal of simplifying the current welter of rules that staff, builders, and residents bemoan.
Nor would Code New have done much to further the city's equity goals. Projecting the overall impact, the outlook was for more of the same: expensive condos Downtown and along some major arteries, but very little "missing middle" in areas where it's lacking now, because of the continuing problem of the dirt being too expensive and the code not making it any easier or cheaper to navigate development review.
And now, I'm afraid we're facing more of the same, all over again. Faced with a legal rebuff of the last effort, a change in the political calculus on City Council, and the various dire events of the last year, both sides in the debate have gone to ground and have been studiously too busy to give any time to this issue that was a "crisis" 18 months ago. But it still is a crisis. The existing code still needs an overhaul, and it continues to cost people money and create bad outcomes. And a lot of fixes have been identified. The fact that there's been no movement to implement any of those (drainage regs, perhaps?), and the fact that neither side of the density divide seems to want to propose a way forward, leads me to think we're headed toward another impasse and another political fight over theoretical density – and my friend Alice still isn't going to be able to build her garage apartment ("Public Notice," April 2).