Fixing our housing shortage: Lansing to consider shared-use zoning changes

Dave Muylle, who has been restoring homes for more than 40 years, working on one of the properties comprising Cottage Lane on Lansing’s east side. Muylle has built six new properties, restored seven, and has one more to build to complete the project. The last step will be to convert them to condominiums.
Dave Muylle, who has been restoring homes for more than 40 years, working on one of the properties comprising Cottage Lane on Lansing’s east side. Muylle has built six new properties, restored seven, and has one more to build to complete the project. The last step will be to convert them to condominiums.
Raymond Holt for City Pulse

For six years, Dave Muylle ran into regulatory roadblocks as he chased a dream: a cottage-style housing development on Lansing’s east side.

Muylle persevered, and today Cottage Lane is a prime example of one part of one solution to Lansing’s housing crisis: shared-use housing.

Now, efforts by Muylle and other advocates of shared-use housing are paying off: The city’s Planning Office is unveiling a series of proposed changes that represent an important first step toward making shared-use housing much easier to achieve.

Why is shared-use housing, which has been dramatically reduced by 20th-century planning and zoning decisions, so compelling right now?  Most immediately, it offers options other than single-family homes to ensure that we can meet the housing needs of a diverse population, which we have been unable to do for years. In Lansing, 83% of residential housing is zoned exclusively single-family —when only about 40% of households consist of a parent or parents and children under 18 years. Even in areas zoned multi-family, many parcels still feature only single-family homes.

This demographic mismatch of far more single-family homes than families ignores that people live in many different constellations and combinations these days. Further, many more folks live alone: In the 1890s, fewer than 5% of adults in America lived by themselves; today 28% do.  American Community Survey data suggests that in Lansing, the number is even higher. Our rich mix of current urban residents requires diverse options for housing, including the five that are the focus of proposed changes that the planning office will soon present to the Planning Commission and then the City Council for consideration.

These long-anticipated and forward-looking recommendations for zoning changes are fairly modest. They address housing options such as rooming houses, boarding houses, co-operative housing, cottage developments like Dave Muylle’s, ADUs (accessory dwelling units — aka backyard granny flats). Over the coming weeks, you’ll be able to see and comment on how these five housing options might be thoughtfully integrated into various zoning districts in Lansing to help alleviate our critical housing shortage.

The planning staff’s proposed “zoning edits,” as they refer to them, go into detail about the districts for which various of these shared-use housing options are appropriate (commercial, downtown, institutional and residential). There are also the typical considerations regarding square footage, lot coverage maximums, set-backs, utilities, and more. Watch for these detailed recommendations to be made public in the near future.  

In the meantime, here is more general information about the five options that the proposed changes address:


Boarding Houses and Rooming Houses

In the 19th century and a good chunk of the 20th, millions lived in boarding and rooming houses.  In fact, historian Wendy Gamber, in “The Boardinghouse in Nineteenth-Century America,” wrote “Between one-third and one-half of 19th-century urban residents either took in boarders or were boarders themselves.”  Immigrants, refugees, laborers, and young people from the countryside streamed into cities in large numbers. To meet demand, the YWCA started by offering young women safe and well-managed room and board. Some referred to these lodgings as “bricks and mortar chastity belts.”

Upon my retirement in 2022, I followed the example of older single women of yesteryear and opened a rooming house in my home to generate retirement income. Almost as important as enhancing financial security, operating a rooming house has allowed me to enjoy the company of boarders who, in addition to their private suites, have access to and are often found in the common areas — cooking together in the kitchen, studying or reading in the living room, enjoying a summer evening on the porch while discussing events of their days.  A special treat for me has been introducing the people with whom I share my home to the lively amenities of my eastside neighborhood.  And, of course, I am not the only one doing this!

My good friend, Diane Harte, one of the four founders of Allen Neighborhood Center and the first president of its board, is doing the same.  Her foray into operating a rooming house is less about generating income than it is an extension of her long career as a Girl Scout administrator and her life-long mission of empowering and supporting young women and children. 

Diane’s first boarder was a young woman she had known for years. As a young adult, the woman was struggling, as many do, with attending Lansing Community College while working full time. Diane, newly widowed, invited her to move into her eastside home. Another young person, a classmate of the first, soon followed. So, Diane now has two boarders, both young women who are carrying full loads at school while working long hours.  Being a student and preparing for a career has become an unofficial requirement at Diane’s home; the rent stays low as long as the boarder is enrolled in school.

The two boarders have kitchen access at any time of day, although Diane does a fair amount of cooking meals for them, given their jam-packed schedules. Diane says she feels like “a character out of the Old West — a widow woman who opens her home to boarders.” This former Girl Scout administrator and Vietnam-era Army nurse continues to empower young women by providing an affordable, safe, and nurturing place to live, learn and grow.



Co-operatives also date from the 1800s, although most of us associate them with student co-ops, such as those that have been part of the East Lansing community since the 1960s. Co-ops are distinctive in offering an alternative ownership structure; that is, members are considered owners. They are expected to help run the household and, in the process, learn about maintenance, upkeep, household finances, cooperative living and shared governance.  Locally, Spartan Housing Co-operative manages 18 co-ops, 16 in East Lansing, and, since 2017, two in Lansing. 

(From left) Joan Nelson and her boarders, Izzy Wejrowski, an AmeriCorps serving with the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, and Jess Whitmer, an MSU.
(From left) Joan Nelson and her boarders, Izzy Wejrowski, an AmeriCorps serving with the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, and Jess Whitmer, an …

One of Spartan’s Lansing-based co-ops is Rivendell, a 40-year-old co-op on the west side of town that Spartan absorbed in 2017. Rivendell member Marsha Parrott-Boyle, 72, is credited with integrating that co-op, age-wise, when she moved in almost two years ago. “The mix is a good idea,” Marsha told me last fall for one of my City Pulse columns. “We older members have philosophies and skills that we can share as do the younger members. It’s helpful to all.”

Marsha also predicted an increase in the number of people over 55 years old interested in co-ops. Indeed, “boomer co-ops” are springing up across the country. It turns out that boomers are drawn to living situations that combine private space with lots of common areas and a built-in social support system.  Given elders’ consistent preference for steering clear of nursing homes and their desire for aging in place/community, it’s unsurprising that boomer and multi-generational co-ops are increasingly popular.  The fact that members are “owners” and involved in the governance of co-ops seems to be an attractive feature for this age group.

Marsha is not only a member of Rivendell Co-op, but also of the adjacent Genesee Gardens Cohousing community, a 21-year-old retrofit cohousing community. She belongs to two unique intentional communities at different ends of the spectrum, with cohousing (multiple houses where members live in one city block) on one end it and the housing co-op (one bedroom for each member, all of whom live in one house) on the other end. These intentional communities offer co-living spaces that appeal not only to young adults and elders but also to families with children of all ages.

MC and Tamiko Rothhorn moved into Genesee Gardens Cohousing in 2003 along with other families with children. They raised their two children in this intentional community, described by MC as “one in which a traditional nuclear family can thrive within the larger co-housing extended family.” His now college-age children enjoy visits home to see their folks as well as others in the close-knit community in which they grew up.  MC points out that today there are three families with children living in Genesee Gardens, with kids ranging from elementary age to high schoolers. He notes that “an extra set of hands to care for the very young or old” and “a community culture that strives to appreciate elders and children for their gifts, not to mention those in the middle ages” are hallmarks of co-housing as experienced in Genesee Gardens.


Cottage Developments

Found in Up North communities and on the coasts, cottage developments have emerged as yet another urban housing option.  Small cottages organized around a commons and shared outdoor space are another desirable way to efficiently use the land and organize buildings to create community.

For over a decade, local builder and developer Dave Muylle has been developing Cottage Lane, eastside Lansing’s model urban cottage community just south of Michigan Avenue.  Situated on a site the size of five typical parcels, Cottage Lane consists of six colorful 1,000-square-foot cottages arranged to take full advantage of, as Dave puts it, “the shade, the view, and the breeze.” The cottages feature Craftsman-style design themes that blend nicely with the surrounding neighborhood.  Dave even ensures a “porch” experience (in a part of the city that proudly claims to be “The Neighborhood of Porches”) with delightful balconies overlooking the central courtyard. 

Dave struggled for six years with frustrating regulatory hurdles, but this is typical for first-of-a-kind projects like Cottage Lane.  However, eastside neighbors affirmed their delight with the project by participating in a celebratory tour each time a cottage was completed. Scores of folks would stop by to check out the amenities of the latest cottage, looking for hallmarks of Dave’s buildings: placement of windows and transoms to maximize light and lengthen site lines, ingenious methods of creating storage space, roll-in showers and heated floors.

Cottage Lane is a model and an inspiration for other developers. And if the proposed changes regarding cottage developments are approved, these developers will face a much clearer and more routine process with the city than was Dave’s experience.  Our hope is that, heartened by the city’s embrace of cottage developments (with all the necessary guidelines), developers will take up the task of building cottage courtyards in approved districts throughout the city. 

When I asked Dave what impact he thought approval of cottage developments might mean, he replied, “It is extremely important to allow innovation in shared-use housing forms, including cottage developments, that promote energy efficiency, innovation, affordability and community.”



Accessory Dwelling Units are another form of 19th and early 20th century shared-use housing that was once ubiquitous — carriage houses, lane houses, granny flats, additional houses built on farms, etc.  And, like co-ops and boarding houses, ADUs have re-emerged over the last five years —  in some places quite dramatically. 

These small attachments or separate buildings have their biggest fan in AARP, which has worked with 17 cities and 10 states to craft pro-ADU legislation. On the AARP website are several articles depicting ADUs as a source of rental revenue for retirees, a space for a caregiver to live, or a smaller space to move into while renting out a larger house. Indeed, the increase in numbers of down-sizing boomers choosing to live in an ADU with their children in the main house has sparked a whole new acronym: PIMBY, or Parents in My Back Yard.

 Generally ranging between 600 and 1,000 square feet, ADUs can be freestanding or attached to the main house on the property they share. They are often a garage or basement build-out. Though compact, they are more substantive than “tiny houses.” They are also often invisible from view, given that they are located behind the main dwelling. As noted by AARP, “ADUs offer a way to include smaller, relatively affordable homes in established neighborhoods with minimal visual impact and without adding to an area’s sprawl.”

ADUs are not only attractive to elders. According to AARP, “ADUs work well for the one and two-bedroom homes needed by today’s smaller, childless households, which now account for nearly two-thirds of all households in the United States.” Clearly, ADUs offer a practical option for people, whatever their age, seeking small, affordable housing.

Residents of the nearly 40-year-old Rivendell Housing Co-op, on West Genesee Street in Lansing, are (clockwise from bottom left): Tamiko Rothhorn,  Marsha Parrott-Boyle, Dinah Dewald, Marshall Clabeaux, William Lawrence and MC Rothhorn.
Residents of the nearly 40-year-old Rivendell Housing Co-op, on West Genesee Street in Lansing, are (clockwise from bottom left): Tamiko Rothhorn, …

I had hoped to offer a story involving someone living in or constructing an ADU in Lansing. Alas, they are not allowed in our city! Elsewhere, though, at least 15 cities across Michigan see ADUs as a winning strategy to address serious housing shortages. These include Grand Rapids, Holland, Royal Oak, Ypsilanti, Traverse City, Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor, Manistee, Beulah and Oscoda.  If approved by the City Council, Lansing could garner a competitive edge by becoming the first municipality in mid-Michigan to establish a process for adding an ADU to one’s property.

Note that all five housing options allow for private space, access to common space and a potential support system.  They are, for many, less isolating and more sociable than a single-family house. We have plenty of single-family houses in our city, but not many of these other options.

I’m hard-pressed to understand why anyone opposes the shared-use housing proposals.  More inclusive zoning would provide a more diverse range of housing options to better meet people’s needs today. Further, the rent in rooming and boarding houses and in co-ops is generally significantly less than what is being charged for a studio apartment in one of our new apartment buildings. Certainly, there are pricey co-ops (like the boomer co-ops in Frankfurt and Ann Arbor), but many forms of shared-use housing are simply more affordable. For instance, local co-ops and rooming houses typically charge $450 to $600 a month.

The proposed zoning changes, if approved, would allow for gentle densification of Lansing’s established neighborhoods.  Gradual, steady densification brings transit options, shops, restaurants, services, and more — bringing us closer to the 15-minute neighborhoods that many urban dwellers find desirable.


Look for the city’s Planning Office to detail proposed on proposed zoning changes to enhance shared-use housing and on a schedule of informational meetings. To find out more or share your thoughts, email the City Council at or leave a message with the city’s Planning office at (517) 483-4066.  Members of the Shared Use Housing Advocacy Network, a new initiative established some months ago, are also happy to come speak to your neighborhood group or other organization about this issue. To schedule a presentation or join the group, call (517) 862-6918.


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