Today’s briefs are zoning heavy. We’ll look at a law in Kansas that makes it illegal to have too many roommates, a set of statewide zoning reforms signed into law in Maine, and an Austin lawsuit opposing zoning reform that could have statewide implications.
Shawnee, Kansas, Outlaws 4 Roommates Living Together
Shawnee, a city outside of Kansas City, Kansas, voted on April 25th to ban co-living situations of 4 or more adult roommates who are unrelated, according to the Kansas City Star. The Shawnee city council’s vote was 8-0, the Star reports. A memorandum introducing the ordinance says it intends to address “a relatively new trend where single-family homes are being purchased and converted into rental units with multiple individual tenants.” Yet the ordinance amends the city’s housing laws so that areas zoned for single-families, residential garden apartments, residential high rises, duplexes, country estates and agricultural districts no longer allow 4 or more unrelated roommates. The law runs counter to a nationwide trend — beginning in Minneapolis — where cities are loosening single-family zoning restrictions to deal with a shortage of affordable housing. According to a 2020 report from NYU’s Furman Center on single-family zoning, “Dozens of studies show that cities with stricter land-use regulations have higher housing prices.” A presentation before the Shawnee City Council stated that Johnson County — in which Shawnee sits — saw home prices rise by 37% between 2017 and 2021, according to the Star.
The ordinance drew outrage from housing advocates. Tara Raghuveer, director of KC Tenants, a Kansas City tenant union, tweeted the following:
Shawnee just banned roommates. Crucial context: Shawnee is in Johnson County, the wealthiest county in Kansas. Poor people and tenants are already invisibilized in places like this. Policies like the one passed this week make these communities even more hostile to non-homeowners. https://t.co/4aDyLdOg9x— Tara Raghuveer (@taraghuveer) April 29, 2022
Maine Governor Signs Zoning Reform Into Law
On April 27th, Governor Janet Mills signed a bill that allows for denser housing construction, the Maine Beacon reports. According to a press release from the governor’s office, the law permits the construction of accessory dwelling units, or ADUs. It also permits up to two units on lots zoned as single-family, and up to four units on newly constructed lots in a “designated growth area” which requires cities to apply with the state planning office. And the legislation allows affordable units to be built with 2.5 times the density otherwise allowed by local zoning. An earlier version of the legislation would have permitted four lots to be built on any residential lot across the state, not just in neighborhoods approved by the state planning office. But that version, which would have appointed a state board to overrule local land-use decisions, was pared down after pushback from local officials, according to the Beacon.
As Next City covered last week, similar changes to single-family zoning in California have faced aggressive opposition from localities. The effectiveness of the California laws have been dampened by a lack of enforcement, per Cal Matters. A statewide authority to address local zoning decisions could have helped mitigate a similar problem in Maine.
Texas Ruling Could Block Austin’s Zoning Reforms
According to Bloomberg CityLab, a March ruling in a Texas appellate court sided with Austin homeowners who oppose sweeping citywide zoning reforms. The zoning reforms, which would have allowed more dense housing construction to accommodate the city’s booming population, have been deliberated as far back as 2012, per the Texas Observer. According to Bloomberg, the revisions to the code were nearing passage in 2020 when a group of homeowners sued the city on the grounds that their right to protest had been denied. The lawsuit is enabled by 1922 Texas laws that allow homeowners to block zoning changes that impact their property. These laws have historically been used to block neighborhood-level zoning changes, not citywide changes, and the city of Austin appealed an earlier court ruling in favor of homeowners on that basis. But the state’s 14th Court of Appeal has sided with homeowners, and the city has no plans to appeal to the state supreme court, Bloomberg reports. The ruling only applies to 10 counties but could set precedent across the state, per Bloomberg.
Austin’s land-use changes are not only meant to address housing costs amid a growing population, but urban sprawl, which leads to longer car commutes and more greenhouse gasses. According to a 2017 New York Times analysis, Austin became 5% less dense between 2010 and 2016.
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Roshan Abraham is Next City's housing correspondent and a former Equitable Cities fellow. He is based in Queens. Follow him on Twitter at @roshantone.