RLG Senior Planner/Project Manager Nick Labadie talks long-term steps cities and development community can take now in response to COVID-19 (Part II)

By Nick Labadie, Senior Planner at Rose Law Group

There are a lot of people doing a lot right now to help get this pandemic under control. The help , however,  is mostly from politicians, scientists, doctors, nurses, first responders, and law enforcement. For many of the rest of us, we just need to stay put–away from others and figure out how to work from home. There’s more we can do, however. For those of us in the real estate, development, and planning professions, there are already lessons we can learn from this pandemic, as well as those we’re sure to face in the future. Surely, there will be many lessons learned from these trying times, but some we can learn right now are that we need 1) facilitate multi-generational living, 2) diversify housing options organically, 3) plan for alternative uses of public and quasi-public facilities. The best part is these are beneficial even if there was never another public emergency.

Diversifying Housing Organically

For many decades, the predominant method of diversifying housing has been government mandated zoning districts, programs, and incentives. Some of this is absolutely necessary. However, it takes more than that. We also need to be able to allow organically derived housing diversification. Simply, we need to allow smaller rental units within neighborhoods of traditional homes. I can hear the groans and see the eye rolls from many of you reading this. It’s ok. I know those come from the headaches you’ve had over them and completely understand. The thing is: we can’t let that stop us. In trying times, everyone needs to dig down a little deeper and try a little harder. As ordinary citizens, we can’t treat people on ventilators. We can’t help with distribution of needed supplies. We can’t enforce social distancing orders. We can look to our own professions. The catalyst for my interest in a planning profession was seeing how it really drives so much of the way our cities function. A 15-year career in planning has dulled the edge of my youthful naiveté and idealism with experience and a deep understanding of the many obstacles, stakeholders, social and economic factors, as well as market realities. But the truth remains that planning is a key component of how a city grows and operates. It’s why I’m still passionate about it today.

We need to figure out a way to permit smaller rental units within larger traditional neighborhoods. An obvious and important benefit of such is that it provides lower cost housing in areas where individuals and young couples would not otherwise be able to locate. Diversity typically equals stability. Why is this a good thing? Where do I start?

It simultaneously diversifies and stabilizes populations because people who have a rental income are less likely to sell their home and more likely to stay put, while people renting smaller units are very different demographically from those who own them.

Smaller rental units reduces some of the problems often seen with both high density residential and low density single family residential. We’ve all heard the issues with high density, but yes, there are issues with low density, single-family as well. In Arizona, our typical urban fabric is large swathes of single family residential with commercial at the arterial corners. That’s not likely to change in a major way any time soon. Those businesses (small, large, local, corporate…all the above), however, benefit from more people closer to them. Adding smaller rental units within traditional single-family provides a larger population in proximity to businesses. That helps our economy.

Our addiction to ever-increasing exclusionary zoning has effectively segregated the various demographics of our cities. People in their twenties only see older people on the internet (they don’t watch TV) and at the movies. People in their thirties and forties see little more than the inside of their car, office, and stores. The generations above that are increasingly locked away in age-restricted communities. It’s worse between economic demographics. There are several factors that play here, but one is cost of living. At the lower end, you basically have multifamily only. Above that you have whole neighborhoods of relatively low quality single-family rentals. Then, you get first-time homebuyers. After that, the move-up buyer. The next major level, if you get there, is the estate or luxury home before moving to the age restricted community. We need to mix this up. We need people to get exposure to each other. I believe the benefits would go far beyond planning and well in to sociology.

Getting back to the original reason for this discussion, achieving a diversity of housing options in this way would create safety in the same way it does for your investment portfolio. What hurts one sector of our population would leave some in the same area able to help. Having our populations vulnerable to COVID-19 nearer to those who aren’t, would have more help. Families far from them would be able to worry less. That’s just the start.

Even in non-pandemic times, if your daughter or nephew or other young relative graduated college and struck out on their own, would you rather hear they got an apartment with a million others in their early 20s in that part of town where all the apartments are, or would you rather hear they are renting a small guest house owned by a wonderful family, who will expose them to so many beneficial things they wouldn’t get in the apartment? We underestimate youth if we think there aren’t many who would prefer the latter.

Like the multigenerational living, this will take some work, problem solving, and creativity on both the public and private sector sides. But the benefits abound for both as well.

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