Reading Between the Lines and Multi-unit Buildings

Dear Building Community,

I have an urban planning question, though I don’t live anywhere very “urban” – how can I read between the lines in planning documents or town meetings to find out what the actual issues in a municipality are, and who’s being included/excluded?

I.e., when we were outside Chicago, our town was one of the few that banned backyard chickens.  I’m guessing this impacted land use & the people who lived there at least a bit, but also I think the actual rule was maybe a decade old & mostly involved one set of neighbors & their dispute.

Now that I’m living in a small town, it seems relevant to ask what it takes to have multi-unit dwellings, and what kinds of residential businesses are allowed? Maybe? I know that local planning is a policy statement, but I don’t know how to read it.  Suggestions?



Dear J,

Ok, I’m going to give you some general advice about policy then talk more specifically about multi-unit buildings and zoning.

One thing to do when reading policy or listening to neighbors’ complaints is to pay attention to words that seem to mean one thing but imply racist motives. For example if people are worried about an “increase in crime” or “maintaining property values,” that can be a cover for not wanting brown people to move in. Another example is “neighborhood character” which can mean “I don’t want anything to change ever” and change is needed in most places. Because populations change and people move around communities need to adapt to new circumstances. Besides many places in the US have have legacies of poor or just plain  unjust choices that should be rectified.

So more positive words to look for are “affordable housing”, “smart growth”, “Neighborhood density”(this refers to how many units are in a land area), “walkability”, and “transit oriented development”. Obviously you don’t want to judge a project or policy just by the words its supporters or detractors are throwing around, but you can use them as flags to see what you need to pay more attention to.

For general understanding of planning policy in your town I recommend checking out the general plan. These are are non binding (in most states) policy documents describing where the city planner(s) hope the town is headed.  The non-binding nature of these is frustrating but as an activist these documents can be useful for holding officials accountable. The general plan should contain policy statements about a variety of issues such as housing, transportation, historic preservation, and natural resource preservation. You can just read the parts that are relevant to you. It will be written for the general public, not lawyers. Some general plans are very vague and some are more concrete. But either way it should give you some sense of your town’s key issues and priorities.

To understand what’s happening on the ground it can helpful to actually be on the ground. Walk around as see if anything is being built. Some places have signs that go up during the permitting process. Read them. If you see something that concerns you, talk to your neighbors or your city councilperson.

To find out about residential businesses you are going to have to take a look at your town’s municipal code or talk to the city planning department. Municode is frequently available online but is quite dense and difficult to make sense of, especially since it tends to reference other bits of code by number that then in turn reference other bits of code. It can be frustrating.

For a multi-unit building to be built a bunch of conditions need to be met. First, there needs to be some kind of zoning that allows multi-unit development. This is another place where you’ll need to look at the municipal code. If it’s not online you’ll have to call the city planning office or the city clerk. You are looking for the zoning code or ordinance. Look for zones labeled Residential. Generally higher numbers are more dense. So if your city has zones labeled R-1 through R-4, R-4 will generally be the densest. Some places also have mixed used development zones that allow both residential and commercial

One you have a zone that allows multi-unit development the next condition is to have an area of your city that is zoned with that zone. Here it is helpful to be able to see a zoning map. Once again these are often available online, but if not, you’ll have to ask the planning department for one. A zoning map is a color coded map of a city (or county) with each zone marked by its own color. Related zones are generally marked in similar colors. So for example all the residential zones might be marked in different shades of yellow. Smaller towns tend to have fewer zones with less gradations than larger towns and cities.

Next you need someone willing to build a multi-unit building. This will generally be a private developer who expects to make money off of the project, but you might also see a non-profit focused on affordable housing in this role. Whoever the developer is they will have to get the project approved by the local planning process.  This might involve several public meetings where residents will have the opportunity to speak for or against the project, especially for large projects, or projects that are larger than standard in the community. It can be helpful for people to go and say they support the project.

If you are wanting to see more density and affordable housing in your small town it might also be worth looking into Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs as they are called in planner jargon, also know as in-law units or granny flats). These are small apartments built on the same lot as an existing single family home. They can be attached or detached — think backyard cabins. Allowing these types of units can create more density without changing how things look from the street.

Getting involved in your local planning process can be pretty time intensive, especially because it takes time to learn about all the issues, but I hope you can find a way to be take action. What gets built where is very important and will impact your community for years to come. Good Luck!