Gainesville city leaders move to revise multi-family housing regulations
Florida is in the midst of a workforce housing crisis that is creating ripples across the wider economy. To ease the crunch in Gainesville, city leaders are moving to revise regulations on where multi-family housing can be built, and that’s creating new controversies.
Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe makes his case to address his community’s housing crisis: The city population grew 30% faster than its housing supply in the past decade, pushing rents and home prices — in a trajectory replicated across Florida — beyond the means of the less affluent. If the city changed its regulations so that areas now zoned exclusively for single-family homes could instead also become the sites of duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes, builders would construct more housing that people could afford. Eliminating exclusive single-family zoning would be a first in Florida, and while it wouldn’t solve the housing shortage by itself, it would help, Poe says. It also would help the city achieve equity and sustainability with inclusive and diverse neighborhoods. “I think that will be a positive for the community,” Poe says. The scores of people who turned out in early August at City Hall, though, beg to differ.
“What’s going on here is an attack on the American dream,” said Gainesville resident Telford Cartwright.
Housing for owners and renters is in short supply across Florida and the nation, driving up prices and rents. Florida’s housing deficit is the third worst in the nation, reaching 288,885 homes in 2019, a 307% increase from 2012, according to Up For Growth, a Washington-based organization that advocates for easing landuse regulation. A rental industry group, WeAreApartments, says Florida needs to add 34,000 units a year to keep pace with its population growth.
The state needs more rooftops. Florida’s population is projected to grow by 1.6 million to 3.5 million by 2030, according to the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research. At the current 2.47 people per home, Florida requires another 647,773 to 1.42 million homes by 2030 just to keep the housing shortage from getting worse.
Housing availability is critical to Florida’s workforce and development future. “Population growth is the state’s primary engine of economic growth, fueling both employment and income growth,” the state Legislature’s Office of Economic & Demographic Research said earlier this year. Florida Atlantic University business professor Ken H. Johnson, who tracks the nation’s house prices and rental rates, says, “We have to build more units. People have to realize it’s not the end of the world to have a multifamily dwelling down the street from you. We can’t fight density at every turn.” Writing in the fall 2021 Journal of the Tallahassee-based libertarian think-tank James Madison Institute, Charles Koch Institute senior fellow Adam Millsap argued that if local Florida governments won’t ease land-use restrictions, the state needs to take action or it will see housing prices soar out of reach, as they did in California. “Florida’s population is booming, and that’s likely to continue, but only if the state can avoid the mistakes that have derailed California’s rise,” he wrote.
In Gainesville, city commissioners met about the area’s housing shortage in 2020 and gave the city staff 22 potential changes to investigate. The city later passed an ordinance allowing up to two accessory dwelling units per residence, one attached, one detached. It passed a rental rights law. In some new projects, it required developers to include a share of affordable housing units — what’s called inclusionary zoning. And it took up the proposed elimination of the exclusive single-family zoning category — called exclusionary zoning.
A new “neighborhood residential” classification would allow duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes — provided certain lotsize requirements are met — in areas currently zoned only for single-family homes. A quadplex would have a footprint no bigger than that of a large, single-family home. No building would be more than two stories. The change, Poe says, will allow construction of “missing middle” housing — small-scale multifamily buildings said to be compatible with single-family homes. “Ma and Pa developers” say existing land-use regulations keep them from meeting the strong demand from people in the workforce who earn lower wages, “a large percentage of whom are African-American and other minorities,” Poe says.
In practice, even with the change, many lots in entire Gainesville neighborhoods are of a size that only will accommodate single-family homes. A growth in duplexes will be the main result of the change. A minority of lots — only those at least a third of an acre — will be able to hold triplexes and quadplexes, though property owners still are free to put only a single home on them. The change also will provide more flexibility for construction of “tiny homes” and smaller homes. “If we free up the restrictive zoning and land use, it will gradually over time allow a more diverse set of housing,” Poe says. “It’s really expanding people’s individual rights.”
Gainesville’s attempt is unheard of in Florida and unusual nationally. “It’s really rare,” says Victor Claar, an economics and finance associate professor at Florida Gulf Coast University.
Minneapolis in 2019 became the first major city to eliminate single-family zoning. Oregon recently required cities to allow duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes in areas zoned for single family. California passed a measure allowing up to four dwellings on a single-family lot. Other cities and states have investigated curbing single-family zoning.
The shift against exclusive single-family zoning represents a remarkable turn. Single-family neighborhoods with white-picket fences and big back yards for swing sets and cookouts are as American as apple pie. In municipal zoning fights, the traditional morality tale pits neighborhood homeowners against profithungry developers. The emerging story frame: Propertied people protecting their privileged asset versus those shut out of homes. NIMBY homeowners, in the new frame, face off against a YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) movement of people who often identify as libertarians, progressives, urbanists and environmentalists.
Zoning’s political, racial history
Zoning has a complicated past, starting as a way of keeping industrial uses from encroaching into residential areas. But when it comes to exclusionary zoning and housing, the practice is rooted in northern cities early in the 21st century as a seemingly “raceneutral” way of keeping minorities and new immigrants out of white neighborhoods by blocking more dense and affordable housing development. When the federal government created the Federal Housing Administration in the 1930s to insure mortgages, the practice of redlining further ensconced housing segregation via zoning. Nationwide, in most cities today it is illegal to build anything except single-family detached houses on an estimated 75% of the land.
Mayor Poe says single-family zoning came to Gainesville in 1958 in reaction to a 1948 landmark Supreme Court case from Missouri that declared unconstitutional and unenforceable the restrictive covenants preventing non-whites from buying in some white neighborhoods. Poe says local press reports in the 1950s openly acknowledged single-family zoning would be a means of keeping the minority population from moving into white areas. Single-family zoning — 63% of the residentially zoned parts of Gainesville are designated for single-family only — ossified existing race ownership patterns and continuing segregation to the present day while also stifling densification and new housing construction, he says.
The Obama administration pushed the nation to change its zoning practices. In the 2020 contest, Democratic candidates, including eventual nominee Joe Biden, favored using federal tax dollars to persuade cities and counties to eliminate exclusive single-family zoning. In opposition, Republican President Donald Trump and Ben Carson, his secretary of Housing and Urban Development, in a 2020 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, vowed, “We’ll Protect America’s Suburbs.”
Upon taking office, Biden pressed Congress to incentivize local governments to get rid of exclusionary zoning in exchange for grants for affordable housing, road, water, sewer and transportation improvements. “Exclusionary land use and zoning policies constrain land use, artificially inflate prices, perpetuate historical patterns of segregation, keep workers in lower productivity regions, and limit economic growth,” says a White House fact sheet. During a visit to Miami in June, Biden’s HUD secretary, Marcia Fudge, called Miami the “epicenter” of the nation’s housing crisis and called out zoning regulations. Said Fudge, “We can no longer sit back and say, ‘Yes, we want to make things happen’ and then make things as difficult as possible through zoning and planning.”
Gainesville is a Biden city. He lost Florida 48% to 51% in the 2020 election. But in precincts wholly within Gainesville, Biden won 78% of the vote — one of his brightest blue spots in Florida. Yet Biden’s and Obama’s views on single-family zoning found little support among the citizenry at the city commission meeting in August.
‘An attack on the American dream’
Citizens who spoke numbered 90 against the plan to 13 in favor.
Advocates argue that eliminating exclusive singlefamily zoning would address the housing crisis, create denser, tight-knit, walkable communities and curtail suburban sprawl. They said more houses are needed for climate change refugees from Florida’s coasts. Opponents painted the change as a gift to developers and investors. They promised court challenges and defeat in an August municipal election for commissioners who supported it. Speakers presented petitions signed by hundreds against the change. A number of elderly white women worried the change would negatively impact historically African-American neighborhoods. African-American speakers — as did the two African-American city commissioners — unanimously opposed the change. Heads of neighborhood associations spoke against it. Some noted that Alachua County’s commissioners, the city’s advisory committee on affordable housing, the city’s historic preservation board, the city planning board and 1000 Friends of Florida all oppose the change. One selfidentified “very progressive” resident who identified himself only as Scott worried about how proposals like this would affect the “progressive cause.” Said Gabriel Hillel, another resident opposed to the zoning change: “The idea that we’re all progressive Democrats arguing about this makes it even more ludicrous.”
In an interview, City Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut, a prominent Democrat and opponent of the change, says the city can address the housing shortage by other means. She says eliminating single-family zoning will lead to gentrification and student housing, not affordable housing for permanent residents. “This is the largest single investment we will make, and we want that investment protected. As an African-American, we are raised to do two things: Get an education and get a house. With that house you can accumulate some wealth and pass that on as a legacy to your children. Black, white, rich, poor — people do not support the proposal before the city commission,” she says.
Mayor Poe says he recognizes that eliminating single-family zoning is viewed as disruptive but says it’s one step of several the city needs to take to address the housing shortage. The two core objections, he says, are that it will harm property values — he says studies show the opposite is true — and that it will change the character of neighborhoods. He argues “missing middle,” small-scale multifamily housing already exists in areas of Gainesville developed before single-family zoning. “They all fit together really well,” he says. “That gentle diversity approach works over the long term.”
The August meeting ran toward seven hours and midnight. At its end, a 4-3 majority of commissioners approved the “first reading” of the change. Passage requires a second vote. Also, the state must review and approve changes to municipal land-use plans.
A couple of weeks later, Gainesville held its city election. Three of the four members of the four-vote majority were term-limited out. Two of the three races to replace them will be decided in a November runoff. But given the views of the remaining candidates, the 4-3 majority for the change come January will switch to at least a 4-3 majority against it. The question in Gainesville became whether the four in the current majority will vote it through before the new commission takes office in January. Chestnut says that if the lame-duck commission passes it, she is certain she’ll have the votes to rescind the approval.