Empowering shared-use housing in our city


I have encouraging news for those of you who have been following the year-long conversation in this column about shared-use housing.

In late May, the city of Lansing Planning Office, led by principal planner Andy Fedewa, completed the internal review of proposed zoning code changes. The changes clarify options and reduce barriers to creating shared-use housing in our neighborhoods. By options, I mean rooming houses, boarding houses, co-ops, cottage development and ACUs — accessory dwelling units (like backyard granny flats). 

The proposals are now with the city’s Planning Commission for review. Once it’s done, it will forward the proposed changes, along with their recommendations to the City Council, which gets the final say.  The hope is that by early fall, ordinary citizens and small-scale developers will have fewer obstacles to creating shared-use housing in Lansing.

The five housing options addressed in the proposals are neither dramatic nor character-changing for a neighborhood. Rather, they will gently densify, or “thicken,” housing over time to meet the needs of our diverse households.

At its Aug. 7 meeting, the Planning Commission will focus on ADUs. Such backyard cottages have been banned in Lansing since falling out of favor in the mid-1900s (along with most other forms of shared-use housing).  Planning staff is preparing a comprehensive presentation for the meeting that will lay out the proposed regulations with diagrams and examples of what Lansing-approved ADUs would look like.

Our city planners could draw from the experiences of 20 other Michigan cities that have already approved ADUs.  These include municipalities of all sizes, ranging from Oscoda to Grand Rapids, including Kalamazoo, Traverse City and Ann Arbor.  Rowan Price and Dave Muylle of the Shared Use Housing Advocacy Network here in Lansing, a group of approximately 40 volunteers concerned about housing shortages, have been talking with planners from other cities who invariably tell us that allowing ADUs has been largely positive for their communities.  In fact, Traverse City is steadily increasing its annual cap on ADUs, while Grand Rapids continues to tweak requirements regarding lot coverage, height and setbacks to create greater flexibility for those desiring to build a backyard cottage. Other Michigan cities are contemplating following South Bend and others by providing down-loadable ADU architectural drawings.

Lansing’s Planning Commission has so far received 18 letters supporting ADUs and other forms of shared-use housing, including from Michigan AARP, whose national organization is  a strong backer of  ADUs nationally.

 “Because they tend to be smaller and more affordable than single-family houses,” the letter says, “they can be a good housing option for older adults who want to downsize but still live in a neighborhood setting. According to AARP’s 2021 Home and Community Preference Survey, (To learn more about AARP’s support of ADUs, check out their ABCs of ADUs: A guide to Accessory Dwelling Units at https://www.aarp.org/livable-communities/housing/info-2023/slideshow-abcs-of-adus.html.)

ADUs are not the only form of shared-use housing that might appeal to seniors.  In a recent article called “What ‘Boommates’ Are and Why You Might Want to Join Them, ” Washington Post writer Michael J. Coren wrote, “Baby-boomer households without children living at home own an estimated 28 percent of the nation’s large houses with three or more bedrooms compared with just 14 percent of millennial households with children, despite this generation outnumbering its boomer counterparts. That means millions of bedrooms sit empty. The real estate company Trulia estimated in 2017 that 3.6 million vacant bedrooms in baby-boomer households could be rented out in the 100 largest U.S. metro areas.”

Making it easier for a senior to carve out a rentable room or suite in their house not only provides shelter for someone and a revenue stream for the senior. It also mitigates the loneliness epidemic that we are grappling with.

In crafting modern-day versions of once-popular housing options, it is helpful to understand the broad historical trends that resulted in today’s frustrating housing shortage.  In “Escaping the Housing Trap,” renowned urbanists Charles Marohn and Daniel Herriges lay out the impacts of early 20th-century planning reforms (intended to solve problems at the time they were instituted) that have resulted in problematic exclusionary zoning for single-family housing, postwar patterns of development (the “suburban experiment,”) and the hardening over time of regulatory barriers. Regarding the disparagement of shared-use housing in the first half of the 20th century, they write, “To bring legible order to America’s cities and neighborhoods, we broadly outlawed many of the housing forms that had been basic building blocks of our cities. We curtailed many of the ad hoc strategies by which Americans had built wealth while simultaneously meeting their need for shelter.”

Let’s implement local, bottom-up strategies that allow us to create housing units in our neighborhoods quickly. Please send an email to Andrew.fedewa@lansingmi.gov or attend the Aug. 7 Planning Commission meeting to encourage leaders to make it easy for resourceful residents to convert a spare bedroom to create a rentable suite or to construct a backyard ADU.

Further, let’s allow small, incremental developers to add a few more units to our neighborhoods by building housing co-ops (where residents are also owners) or cottage courtyards like the eastside’s model Cottage Lane rental development.

Shared-use housing isn’t the only strategy for addressing the housing crisis. However, it is an approach that allows us to move forward decisively and immediately in Lansing. By removing regulatory barriers while establishing thoughtful guidelines, we empower ordinary citizens and emerging incremental developers to, as Jane Jacobs would say, co-create our neighborhoods and our city.

(Joan Nelson is the retired founding executive director of the Allen Neighborhood Center. He column appears monthly.)



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