Yesterday, in an 11 to 9 vote, Madison’s common council approved zoning policy changes that could streamline housing development and address the city’s housing shortage. But, some community members have raised concerns that those changes will limit opportunities for public input on new developments.
Broadly, the changes seek to increase Madison’s “missing middle” of housing — that is, all housing between single family homes and high-density apartments.
But, in the process of that simplification, developers will be allowed to create certain projects “by right.” That means they can leapfrog the city’s plan commission — where residents, city leaders and staff can offer input on a project — and push ahead on a project with just city staff permission.
That “by right” development process was at the core of last night’s debate. One concern raised by residents is that, without public input and inspection, developers could just plop down more luxury housing.
Maia Pearson, a south side resident and member of Madison’s School Board, says that could end up pricing out existing residents — defeating the purpose of an ordinance change aimed at creating more housing.
“I believe that we need to grow housing, however there is no guarantee that true affordable low-income housing will be built,” Pearson told alders. “I do not oppose development, as long as it’s equitable.”
But, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, one of the measure’s sponsors, says the changes will stabilize housing costs in a growing city. She says that the city will need to add about 2,000 housing units each year to keep pace with anticipated population growth.
Addressing that ever-growing need has been a major platform for the mayor and is a part of her Housing Forward initiative.
“I find this conversation incredibly frustrating,” Rhodes-Conway says. “We are facing multiple crises in our housing market in Madison. Yes, we have an affordability crisis, but we also have a supply crisis — and we’re frankly not doing very much to work on that.”
Rhodes-Conway says that many of the city’s existing zoning policies can be traced back to discriminatory housing practices established in the 20th century — commonly known as “redlining.” In order to address and rectify that history, Rhodes-Conway says those policies need to be changed.
“Madison, like almost every other city in this country, has a really disgraceful history of redlining. When redlining became illegal, the next thing they did was to make it impossible to build multi-family housing in the vast majority of our city,” she says. “Why is it okay for some people’s homes to be easy to build? Why is it okay to have some people’s homes be desirable and wanted in our neighborhoods, and not others?”
Heather Stouder, the city’s Planning Division Director, says that the zoning changes shouldn’t be considered in a vacuum. They’re just one part of the city’s multi-pronged effort to create more affordable housing.
Says Stouder: “There’s many other things that we as a city are taking on, with regard to taking on our affordable housing strategies.”
The ordinance changes were also supported by developers, realtors and at least one advocacy group — the Realtors Association of South Central Wisconsin.
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