An overarching question in my mind is this: if the City is unwilling or unable to enforce a given zoning ordinance, as has recently occurred in my single family neighborhood, of what value is the effort to draft proper Code distinctions? And how can we be assured of enforcement in the future? It seems the time window for enforcement activity is very scanty. Perhaps this neglect is fostered by NRS.

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Thank you for following the “Affordable Housing Initiative” zoning changes and sending out these thoughtful articles. I am very concerned for the same reasons you are and appreciate that you can articulate so well.

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Apr 29Liked by Alicia Barber

I agree that the Housing Initiatives' structure is a little contorted. I would much prefer we straightforwardly eliminate single-family zoning (and maximum densities across the board), but I'm afraid of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. When I asked a question somewhat to this effect, but from a different angle, in one of the virtual meetings, I was told that these initiatives are specifically a response to Assembly Bill 213, crafted in a way that they think fits our community, and that if I want to see more sweeping changes, I should advocate for them with my City Council member. I would craft these initiatives differently myself, but I don't see them precluding further changes in the future, and I find it hard not to support something that moves the needle even a little bit in the direction I want to see it go.

I'm not sure more public hearings are what we need to clarify the issue. While I think it's important for the community to be informed and that the City should make every effort to publish and publicize these proposals as early as possible, hearings tend to be dominated by a vocal minority with time on their hands, usually invested in the status quo, who will do anything in their power to prevent things from moving forward. I think we need to be judicious about how extensive of a process we use for this and not allow it to drag on endlessly, because I suspect calls for more hearings and more input are often a delay tactic used by people who don't want anything to happen. At some point, the final public input process needs to be that elected officials make a decision, and they either win or lose their next election on the merits of those decisions.

I don't understand the basis of your claim that duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes are rental properties by nature and therefore qualify as "apartments." Units in such structures, here in Reno and elsewhere, are frequently purchased and occupied by their owners. During my school days in Baltimore, I frequently visited friends in a neighborhood almost entirely composed of owner-occupied duplexes. Many are also offered as rentals, but so are single-family homes. There is nothing about a shared wall that in itself implies "rental," so I have to dispute your conclusion that duplexes qualify as "apartments" because they are presumably more likely to be rented out than single family homes. Maybe I misunderstood you?

More importantly, though, I don't understand why we should be concerned about this in the first place. Your intention here may just be to police the accuracy of the City's phrasing, rather than to present a specific policy position, but hostility to renters from older, established homeowners is a common thread in local housing debates, so concerns raised along these lines make me wary. It codes to me as a desire to segregate neighborhoods by age, family structure, and economic class, or something borne out of a belief that renters are inherently undesirable neighbors, despite the fact that people choose to rent for a variety of reasons. As a renter myself, I find this incredibly pernicious, and I don't want to see such sentiments channeled against these or similar housing initiatives. Trying to exclude renters from one's neighborhood is not something I recognize as a valid policy goal.

I share your concern with lower than allowed densities in the developments you highlight, and I think that means we need to do more to bring developers to the table with a broader range of projects. I often hear that developers prefer single family homes because the find them a safer investment, and developers willing to dip into multi-occupancy projects tend to be large developers that prefer large structures, because they are more capable of assuming risk and feel more likely to get a return on a large development. To me, this (and the RGJ article about decreasing rents potentially scaring developers away from future projects) goes to show that we need to lower barriers to entry for housing construction by minimizing uncertainty introduced into the process by discretionary approval and bad-faith litigation, finding ways to make it easier for small, upstart developers to secure financing for projects, anything we can do to encourage more construction from a more diverse set of actors.

Overall, my goal is to see more density around town, as well as more diverse neighborhoods with a healthy mix of housing types and retail/services, so I certainly have my priors. I don't think the City should be in the business of assigning specific housing types to specific parts of town. There is plenty of market demand for single family homes, they will be built, and people will buy them, but nobody should be extended a public commitment that every other structure in the neighborhood is going to look like theirs. It stifles growth, isolates people from one another, and makes life in our city less convenient. I can follow the logic that these initiatives are phrased strangely and they should be more clear, but I fear that attacking them from this angle when we have an actual proposal on the table will just lead to nothing happening, which is exactly what some people want. I don't want to give succor to opponents of densification, diversification, and growth. Do you think someone like me should oppose these initiatives on the grounds of how they are written, and if so, how can I be sure doing so would not run counter to my goals?

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Thanks for the comment, Maia--you make a lot of great points. As for my focus on language: this is precisely the time to work through all of that, when these ordinances are in the drafting stage. There's no final policy or language yet to "support" or "oppose," just intentions and implications to clarify, so that's my primary purpose here. There's an enormous need for precision in language when it comes to formulating any kind of land-use policy, as many many issues I've discussed through the years have demonstrated.

It's a lot clearer and easier to understand when cities simply eliminate the single-family-only zoning designation altogether (as many have) but because that's not on the table here (at least at the moment), I think some aspects of these proposed policy changes are still confusing. I'm hoping that putting some of these questions out there will help generate some healthy discussion (and more clarification) at the May 8th Council meeting. Not everyone will like whatever ordinances get adopted, but we definitely want to ensure that all residents understand precisely what the changes would enable.

Similarly, my point about how duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes generally function as rentals, like apartments do, was to try to figure out the implications of treating them differently from apartments in the code. It's true that one unit of those is often (but not always) owner-occupied, but the other one, two, or three are usually rented out, right? So does it make sense not to categorize them as "multi-family" dwellings? The proposed revisions to the code include changes that would no longer categorize them that way (that's new), and I'm not sure why. It's the larger implications of changing these definitions in the code that I'm questioning here, not the status or presence of renters.

So to answer your last question, which is a really thoughtful one, I don't think there's anything to "oppose" at this point, and I'm certainly not opposing (much less "attacking") any of these initiatives, or encouraging anyone else to do so. I'm just trying to encourage the crafting of clear language that can prevent any confusion as the ordinances move toward possible adoption.

If any of the language seems to you like it could be revised for greater clarity, I think this is the time to let our Councilmembers know, so they can talk it through in their meeting next week. Letting them know what changes you'd like these ordinances to enable--what you'd like to see in our neighborhoods, as you've written above--will help them make sure that the final wording of the ordinances reflects what they're hearing their constituents want.

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Thanks for considering my thoughts! This proposal can be tricky to discuss due to possible overlap of concerns about the way the changes are structured, and concerns with the actual intent. Perhaps I was too hasty to employ words like "support" or "oppose," but what I really mean is a stance leaning more supportive or skeptical as the process plays out. I'm honestly trying to tread carefully and read the room here as someone who wants more, specifically a more explicit break from exclusionary zoning, but doesn't want to undermine actual in-progress efforts to loosen restrictions to some degree and end up with no changes at all.

My impression, based on the available information and the answers to my questions during the meeting, is that the authors of these initiatives were at pains to try to come up with something they thought a consensus could be built around, and that could be tied directly to Assembly Bill 213. My overriding desire is to see something happen in the direction of housing abundance, density, and more mixed-use neighborhoods, even if it's a small step, and I'm nervous because I've seen and heard about procedural objections being used repeatedly by opponents of change as an indirect way of killing proposals.

We definitely need to talk about the classification of duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes, because there is some difference in our understanding, and the proposal to allow them in single family districts makes sense in the context of my own experience in other cities. I am not a zoning expert, but I'll do my best.

My experience with duplexes ("semi-detached" housing in Baltimore zoning parlance) back on the East Coast is that each unit is entirely separate in terms of ownership. One person may own both units and rent out the other, but this is not inherent or even typical. They're independent properties that just happen to share a wall, and they are considered distinct from multi-family structures. They are single-family, they just aren't "detached." The same concept extends to the city's famous rowhouses. Here you can see some tables of Baltimore's residential zoning codes, classifying detached, semi-detached, rowhouse, and multi-family structures separately, in increasing order of density:


Philadelphia, where I have also lived, defines a progression from attached (rowhouses) to semi-detached, to detached, to multi-family, all separate classifications:


At a glance, it looks like the obvious distinction of multi-family is that residential units are stacked atop each other, rather than merely sharing side walls. Classes of residential housing can be subdivided in various ways, and obviously I'd prefer we did away with these zoning distinctions entirely, but semi-detached and attached structures are not in violation of the single-family concept as I know it. We need to talk about what kinds of single-family homes we want to allow in different parts of Reno, of course, but it would not be at all unusual for us to include semi-detached and attached housing in the single-family classification, as I believe is being proposed. I think this is entirely reasonable, and I hope people will come down on the side of fewer restrictions.

I'm still mulling over exactly what I want to convey to my Councilmember, but reading your posts and discussing this with you is very helpful in honing my thoughts on the matter. I'm afraid that the meeting will draw out a chorus of vocal opponents of density, and I don't know what I can do as an individual resident to counter that, besides share my view and hope I'm not in a minority. I don't have a good feel for what the typical resident of a fully-detached single family home desires and values, either, or whether the outspoken opponents of increased density speak for them. Do they consider it important that their fully detached home exist amongst a broad expanse of the same? If so, why? I think that style of urban planning has been incredibly harmful, so I hope there is a way we can negotiate towards some changes without such people feeling threatened and trying to shut it down.

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