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Zoning Complicates Housing Solutions

Published on 10/30/2021
Question: how is zoning affecting Crawfordsville’s housing and diversity?

All good columns begin with a question, and one on Crawfordsville’s growth, as it intersects with our housing shortage, population growth, and diversity. Mayor Barton has noted in interviews and on podcasts that Montgomery County and Crawfordsville have a housing shortage in spite of our stagnant population growth. He stated that our county would more likely attract the kinds of shops and development we find in Brownsburg and Zionsville, if we had a population of about fifty thousand, which is almost a fifty percent increase. While community members called for greater diversity, Barton also spoke to the need for a diverse police department.
In short, the mayor and community have bold and big goals, but the simplest of policies has a way of clothes-lining those goals. That policy is zoning, which some may nod their heads in agreement- consider the “No zoning” signs that have mottled our county over the decades.  Yet not all zoning is alike. There are four types of zoning- two F-types and two I-types- functional zoning, form-based zoning, intensity zoning, and incentive zoning. 

A quick explanatory comma on these. Functional zoning defines land use for residential, commercial, or industrial. Practically, that means where housing, shops, and factories or warehouses exist. Form-based looks towards how it appears, like height. For example, St. Augustine, Florida zoning codes prevent building hotels and apartments over so many floors. In Angola, IN, form-based zoning kept the roller coaster at a now defunct amusement park from being taller than ten stories, and that included the flags that decorated the coaster. Intensity zoning is about the number of units, usually housing units, in an area. In swanky areas, zoning allows for developers to build a single huge manse on a large swath of land, reducing the number of housing units, making some neighborhoods as efficient as golf courses when it comes to land usage. In areas where housing shortages are so acute that people live in tents on the sidewalks of the city center, like Portland and Seattle, codes for intensity zoning have changed. People have rented out their pool houses or put in ADUs (accessory dwelling units) for singles, seniors, and small families. Finally, incentive zoning grants regulation breaks to businesses or developers to attract specific businesses.

In many places, zoning regulates how much housing we can establish and where. Spencer Gardner, advocate and contributor for StrongTowns, noted in 2017 that a community that serves all economic levels will build affordable rental units intermingled with single-family structures. He asserted that this design ensures that neighborhoods are sustainably quality in the long term. One area won’t become “the bad neighborhood” or the wrong side of the tracks while the other thrives. The exclusivity that follows some residential zones won’t create school districts that are less diverse and will ensure a quality equitable education for every kid in the community. Furthermore, zoning residential areas to include ADUs, also called granny flats or backyard cottages, resolves housing crises for those who are economically stressed. AARP recently noted that these ADUs can make it possible for seniors to age in place.

This requires a change in how we zone residential areas, and a short historical lesson on how residential zoning has divided the USA is in order. Back in 1910, Baltimore enacted the first residential zoning code that indicated a clear desire to exclude “certain groups,” meaning Black Americans migrating from the Deep South. Having spent what little they had, they needed schools and affordable housing. In 1917, the law that allowed Baltimorians who wanted to create exclusive neighborhoods and schools was challenged, but the lesson of how to use zoning creatively spread out across the nation. In San Francisco, functional zoning against wash houses was meant to exclude businesses run by Chinese and Asian Americans. The lack of access to equitable schools, to affordable housing, and to business districts turned into an economic embargo against ethnic groups. If a person can’t afford their home, can’t get a good education, cannot run their business, they can never get ahead, and that stress falls back onto families.

Here in Crawfordsville, the community is changing, and lacks the history of sundown towns that plague hundreds of Hoosier towns. Perhaps the Speed family, the through-way of the Underground Railroad in Alamo, Thorntown, and Darlington, ensured that we didn't hang Sundown signs, but the census of population diversity confirms that few people of color felt safe or were even able to afford housing here in Montgomery County. 

In the 1940’s and 50’s, one neighborhood close to Fremont Street was the “safe” neighborhood for the few Black families and was referred to by the racial epithet of N-town. Lincoln School, once located where Lincoln Park sits, served Black students in its early years. These disparities are evidence of how housing and exclusion worked in Crawfordsville. It wasn’t just zoning that worked against the diversity of an otherwise famously “friendly” community. It was the use of all kinds of formal and informal codes to keep out “certain groups.”

In the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, Black kids could go to school side by side with white kids, but couldn’t eat at the Gingerboo or swim at the Sportsman’s Club. Now as more of our communities identifies as mixed race or non-white, the question remains. Are we creating a community that is both socially and economically available to “outsiders”? We are famously fine with those we know, but are we Good Samaritans?