The Suburban Housing Zone

Metro Detroit municipalities are changing their zoning laws. Will that create housing and ease renter burden?
Illustration by James Heimer

Owning a home has long been an integral component of the American dream, yet finding and affording one has become an increasing challenge. In fact, a recent survey by Bankrate found that while 74 percent of Americans think homeownership is part of that dream, many prospective homeowners say affordability problems (73 percent) and housing market conditions (54 percent) prevent them from achieving that goal.

While real estate sales data is plentiful, ordinances that regulate housing construction — zoning laws — are not the stuff of common conversation. Politicians don’t always discuss them, and they aren’t often front page news. But these codes matter: They determine the “what” and “where” of housing and business development, the former often zoned “residential” and the latter frequently zoned “commercial.”

In Michigan, many cities haven’t altered their zoning laws in decades, and the consequences abound: Fewer housing units have been constructed, and development projects have stalled. With fewer housing units around, renters and prospective homebuyers have felt the pinch.

Often uninterrogated (and in recent times ignored by Oakland County commissioners), metro Detroit’s zoning laws are now in the spotlight as suburban city council members and city planners alter them to spur development and increase local populations. The examples are numerous.

Royal Oak and Ferndale are revising their master plans, with the former opting to increase housing in its downtown and other areas, allowing developers to build more multifamily units. Southfield approved the building of duplexes on lots once zoned for single-family use and is converting a closed 6-acre school site into condos. And Hazel Park is allowing multifamily units in previously single-family-only-zoned neighborhoods, according to city leaders.

These cities have seen their populations decline or stagnate since the 1970s, in part because developers can’t earn enough on projects without densely packing housing. So, while each suburb has a different tactic, there’s a common thread weaving through their efforts: Suburban cities can’t develop by expanding their boundaries out, so they are building up and clustering together.

Their desire to create housing aligns with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s plan to “create or preserve 75,000 housing units across Michigan,” according to Michigan’s 2022 Statewide Housing Plan — the first ever produced by the state. Her administration is responding to a pair of statewide problems: a housing shortage and skyrocketing housing costs.

Between 2010 and 2019, the number of rental units in Michigan declined by 40 percent and the number of homes for sale decreased by 42 percent — both of these figures outpacing the national average of 15 percent and 33 percent, respectively. The decreased supply tilts power in favor of home sellers and landlords, who have increased sale prices and rent at an inflated rate. In 2019, 48 percent of Michigan renters were rent-burdened, meaning they had to spend over 30 percent of their income on housing costs (the national figure for rent- burdened individuals is about 41 percent). And all these housing units have dried up even as the population has declined.

Justine Ko is one of those rent-burdened people the governor wants to help. Ko, 24, grew up in Canton and rents a Ferndale home with her partner. The freelance flight instructor says the couple pay $1,700 a month on rent (excluding utilities) and were recently told by their landlord that rent will increase next year. They are now considering living elsewhere, but Ko says they would happily stay in Ferndale if they could rent a smaller unit for $1,000.

“It feels like for people our age, [housing] is kind of unattainable now,” Ko says.

Illustration by James Heimer

How We Got Here

The state has taken small steps to encourage development and density. In 2022, Michigan created the Missing Middle Housing Program, which is named for the term coined by architect Daniel Parolek to refer to the lack of housing that falls in between detached single-family homes and high-rise apartment buildings. The program aims to increase the housing supply and rehab old properties through grant incentives to developers.

The grant funding — $100 million from the American Rescue Plan Act — is being offered in two phases. The first phase ended in December 2022 and included over $9 million to create a projected 158 housing units across the state.

The program also encourages the building of accessible housing to meet the needs of older people and those with disabilities, writes Katie Bach, communications director for the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, in an email to Hour Detroit. To supplement the state’s actions, Bach suggests cities consider rezoning to increase their housing stock.

“Municipalities should be aware of their primary housing needs and consider re-zoning when it will help address their residents’ specific housing needs,” she writes.

That advice — namely, for cities to rezone to allow more multifamily housing — runs counter to dominant trends in zoning laws over the past half-century or more, which have favored restrictive, single-family-only districts. Such zoning laws helped birth a key element of the lifestyle many Americans desire most: the suburbs.

Consider the image of a detached home with a white picket fence, dog, and two-car garage. That picture is an R-1-zoned single-family home under many Michigan municipalities’ zoning systems, and it is deeply associated with the American dream. That’s why these homes are popular — 72 percent of Michigan’s housing stock comprises single-family homes.

But that aspiration to live in an idyllic neighborhood of detached homes, which has resulted in widespread single-family-only zoning, has created a “second crisis of housing scarcity,” according to the Niskanen Center think tank, by both constricting housing supply and preventing poorer Americans from entering particular neighborhoods. As M. Nolan Gray, author of the book Arbitrary Lines, writes, zoning laws helped “slow the growth of cities, segregate the United States based on race and class, and enforce an urban ideal of detached single-family housing.”

Restrictive zoning laws antagonize both liberal principles of equality and conservative principles of freedom, but single-family zoning is nonetheless found in both the more conservative suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee, and the more progressive ones of Madison, Wisconsin. But this model hasn’t been around forever.

Before the mid-20th century, people migrated to Michigan in droves, frequently living in multifamily homes. These homes, according to a 2022 report from the Michigan Municipal League, “were located within walking distance from employers or the nearest streetcar.” The design created density, allowing duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes to exist on one block.

But by the 1980s, many cities had implemented restrictive zoning laws, which increasingly burdened renters’ incomes and obstructed prospective small-budget homebuyers. That time period — the year 1980, to be exact — is the same moment multifamily units started going “missing,” dropping from about 25 percent of America’s housing share to about 8 percent in 2013.

Today, some Detroit suburbs are once again embracing multifamily units. In Hazel Park, this measure is densifying the city, which has become more popular with young professionals, according to Hazel Park City Manager Edward Klobucher, an official who decades ago struck down proposals in favor of creating multifamily zoning.

“As we evolve and continue to evolve, we see there’s a need for different types of housing — more so than just the standard single-family, detached, residential housing unit that we’ve seen as prevalent for the past 75 years,” Klobucher says.

Illustration by James Heimer

Change Isn’t Always Easy — or Popular

Oak Park is also becoming a hot spot for young people after changing its zoning laws, says Oak Park Mayor Marian McClellan.

Much of Oak Park’s zoning is from the 1970s, but incremental changes have been made over the last decade to increase density and create mixed-use development districts, says Oak Park Economic Development and Planning Director Kimberly Marrone, adding that the city’s zoning laws were rewritten in 2019 and 2021 and are updated every six months.

Those changes have brought new business: Dog & Pony Show Brewing and Unexpected Craft Brewing Co. now sit along a rezoned section of 11 Mile Road; a new apartment complex stands on a previously vacant school site; and Marrone says Oak Park hopes to build senior multifamily housing near the recreation center.

“We’re all about increasing density,” McClellan says.

Ann Arbor, too, is on a path toward “gentle densification,” says City Council member Lisa Disch, who voted to rezone areas near transit options and is pushing to relax single-family zoning laws to allow homeowners to build more housing units on their property.

Disch says she wants Ann Arbor zoning to inspire more choices, not restrict them. She imagines more coffee shops and bookstores on more blocks across the city.

“I would just like fun to be dispersed throughout the city, and density helps that,” Disch says.

Zoning laws are changing only gradually, though, in part because, across the country and the state, some are actively trying to stop rezoning efforts.

In Royal Oak, City Manager Paul Brake says a small but “very vocal older population” of single-family homeowners is fearful of multifamily units near their homes.

“Don’t put multi-family [homes] in single-family neighborhoods” is a consistent public comment noted in a recent city Planning Commission report.

Andrea Carollo agrees with the sentiment. A Royal Oak homeowner since 2006, a real estate agent, and a member of Royal Oak’s anti-rezoning group, Protect Royal Oak, Carollo writes in an email to Hour Detroit that she became involved with the group in January when she heard about an upcoming conditional-rezoning project in her neighborhood on West Fourth Street.

She says pairing multifamily units with single-family homes not only obstructs “privacy, sunlight, and summer breezes,” but it also diminishes property values and threatens the American dream of “owning a home with a yard.”

“Without a doubt, changing zoning laws could cause weed/adult stores next to homes and parks, higher traffic on residential streets, difficult parking for existing Royal Oak residents and extreme stress on our already delicate utility infrastructure,” she writes.

Some also say loosening restrictive zoning laws won’t do much to create housing in Detroit and its suburbs. Rather, they point to the fact that the state is bleeding residents year over year, leaving land and properties undeveloped. Urban planning expert Michael Manville suggested as much in a 2021 interview on WDET’s Detroit Today.

“Detroit has many problems, but I don’t think a shortage of housing is one of them,” he said. “Detroit in general has struggled with losing its population — it has excess inventory.”

While this may be right, the most desirable places, the places with the least number of homes in need of repair and where the residents have, on average, higher household incomes — Detroit neighborhoods like Indian Village, and suburbs like Royal Oak and Ferndale — remain out of reach to many renters and small-budget homebuyers due to a limited housing supply driving up costs.

Hazel Park’s Klobucher sees changing zoning laws as a way to course-correct. He says that in the 1980s, he personally helped eliminate multifamily homes from neighborhoods while working on the city’s zoning appeals board.

At the time, he says, the units caused friction because they did not fit neighborhood character or allow for adequate parking.

Today, it’s a different story, he says. Klobucher and James Finkley, Hazel Park’s planning and community development director, say they are densifying the suburb and reintroducing multifamily housing by tinkering with the city’s zoning laws.

“If nothing happens and you don’t continue to evolve, obviously things begin to decline,” Klobucher says. “You have to evolve with changing situations.”

This story is from the October 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.