The proposal would affect about one-third of the city of Madison. It would allow more people to live together in places zoned for single-family homes. And the change, say proponents, is aimed at addressing one of Madison’s ongoing crises: a lack of truly affordable housing and a need to increase housing density.
The proposal would up the number of renters who can live in a house zoned as a single-family home, from the current standard of two unrelated people up to five unrelated people in one home. And, it would standardize occupancy limits across the board for all housing, rather than using a different standard for renters and homeowners.
In a public information meeting earlier today, zoning administrator Katie Bannon outlined three main reasons behind the proposal.
“One is to increase or improve equity, second is to increase housing choice and access, and lastly because the current practice has negative impacts,” said Bannon.
The Plan Commission has supported the changes, pointing to the need to update standards at a time when finding housing in Madison is both difficult and expensive.
While the change could markedly improve the market for renters, some homeowners are not so optimistic. Those opposed to the proposal say the proposed redefinition could change the nature of their neighborhood.
“What I haven’t heard and what I think is being ignored is the rights of homeowners, of people who have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to be in a single-family, to be a homeowner in a single-family neighborhood,” said one homeowner.
Those opposed also say they’re wary of large property management companies infiltrating the neighborhood, of rental housing becoming run-down, or a disruption to their surroundings.
But Bannon says it’s unlikely rental companies will buy up houses – according to city research, there’s not enough profit for landlords to do so: “A couple reasons we think those will be limited. Nationally, single-family house rentals are usually more small-scale operations, we find this to be true in Madison as well. Although there are some larger investment groups that do buy up groups of single-family houses they tend to go to inexpensive houses and places like the southwest, places like Florida where property taxes are low and property maintenance costs are low. Both of those are higher in Wisconsin,” said Bannon.
And, she adds that concerns about student occupation and noise are outside the scope of zoning regulation and are instead the police department’s responsibility: “A lot of how they [MPD] approach it reminded me a little bit of how we in zoning enforcement approach enforcement in that, you know, the first time we get a call about something really our goal instead of being punitive is to get compliance. So we’re really gonna talk with the person, explain what needs to be done and then hopefully get compliance and that’s what happens in many of the cases,” said Bannon.
Bannon points to another reason to make a more flexible zoning code: equity. She says that sometimes, the current standard gets abused – and the city ends up with racist or classist complaints.
“In phone calls with complainants we hear things like, ‘These people don’t belong here, I don’t think these people are related. This household looks different and I don’t think they should be allowed to live here,’” said Bannon.
The proposal, floated by a contingent of alders and Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, has gotten support from the Plan Commission. The Commission is slated to take up the proposal two Mondays from now.
The proposal comes as the average rent has jumped. According to RentCafe, the average rent for an 840 foot apartment in Madison is $1,491 a month.
Even mayoral candidates are weighing in on the zoning change. At a mayoral debate on Monday, incumbent Satya Rhodes-Conway defended the position, calling it necessary to address the growing need for housing. Scott Kerr, a longtime employee of the city’s Traffic Engineering Division, agreed, saying that concerns over noisy college students were overblown. But Gloria Reyes firmly opposed the change, saying that it would bring chaos to small neighborhoods across the city.
There will be another public information on the zoning change next Monday at 6pm. The proposal heads to the Plan Commission two Mondays from now, and then to the city council at the end of this month.
Photo courtesy of City of Madison, from Housing Snapshot Report