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Homes are expensive for many Louisvillians. Could changing the city’s zoning laws help?

A sign for "Windy Hills" in a suburban neighborhood
Jacob Munoz
Almost all of Windy Hills' residential land is exclusively zoned for single-family homes. Middle housing amendments to Louisville Metro's Land Development Code would impact the independent city, along with many others.

Louisville planners want to allow “middle housing” options, creating more density than traditional single-family homes, in areas that currently prohibit them. They say it could help residents struggling to find affordable places to live.

John Roberts wasn’t planning on running for mayor, he said, but when no one else filed in time for the deadline, he decided to throw his hat in the ring.

The write-in candidate successfully won the 2022 election to lead Windy Hills, a small city just west of Interstate 264 where he’s lived for around three decades.

“I had not served in the government at all. I had attended only one city council meeting in those 30 years,” Roberts said.

Windy Hills is one of over 80 independent cities outside the original city of Louisville in Jefferson County. Roberts said the community celebrates Arbor Day and Fourth of July and has an annual Shakespeare in the Park event.

“The city was incorporated in 1952. And it's currently regarded as a very mature neighborhood. There are very few properties left to be developed,” Robert said.

But it doesn’t have complete autonomy, and it could be affected by the Louisville Metro Government’s work to redefine what housing could look like in local communities.

Many residents in the county, especially from low-income households, are struggling to afford housing, according to a March report. As part of a yearslong process to update zoning laws, Louisville’s Office of Planning is now working on changes that would promote more diverse housing options in areas that currently lack them — though it could take until next year for them to be implemented.

If approved by city lawmakers, the changes would allow for “middle housing” to be built in areas zoned for residential uses, including districts currently restricted to single-family houses, which Louisville Metro says makes up about 75% of land in the county.

Middle housing often refers to multifamily buildings like duplexes and triplexes, which have separate living units and can resemble and be converted from single-family homes. But it also includes townhouses and group buildings like cottage courts and walking courts, where homes are arranged around a shared entrance space.

Future updated zoning laws wouldn’t affect the 12 independent cities in Jefferson County with separate land development codes, which include highly-populated communities like Jeffersontown, St. Matthews and Shively.

But other independent cities without zoning authority are not immune. And Roberts said he thinks that in Windy Hills, where almost all residential land is zoned for single-family houses, families expect to have a typical suburban experience.

“When people start talking about changing that environment, making it more dense, perhaps — apartments instead of some houses, multifamily units instead of single-family homes — they get nervous,” Roberts said.

Creating more options

While multi-family buildings, including middle housing, can be found in historic neighborhoods like Old Louisville and throughout the Highlands, single-family homes dominate land farther from downtown. The Office of Planning attributes that to the earliest local zoning laws, which restricted land uses in then-unincorporated areas to help enforce racial segregation.

Louisville Metro Council in 2020 ordered the office to recommend changes to the Land Development Code that would support “equitable and inclusive development.” The office’s Planning Commission has to review suggested amendments before recommending whether council members should approve them. The council can also make changes to the amendments.

So far, the process has led to a few updates, including one making it easier for property owners to create accessory dwelling units. The city promoted that change as a way to expand home options, and its middle housing proposal would more significantly build on that, mirroring efforts in cities like Minneapolis and Salt Lake City.

Louisville Metro planning supervisor Joel Dock said that the changes look to give residents more options for where to live and change policies built on discrimination.

“As we've gone through the process of looking deeply at the Land Development Code, we're looking at housing choice and breaking down the exclusionary zoning elements,” Dock said.

Multi-family homes on a tree-lined street
Jacob Munoz
A large portion of the Bonnycastle neighborhood allows for two-family or multi-family housing.

The Office of Planning argues that middle housing doesn’t just improve housing affordability by increasing an area’s supply of units, but also takes less money to build.

Under the proposed changes, middle housing structures could be as tall as two or two-and-half stories, depending on which residential district they’re created in. Multiplexes would be restricted to at most 60% of a block’s buildings, and they wouldn’t be allowed in suburban areas unless they are either next to a local road or near a TARC bus stop.

Dock said those guidelines would help promote a diversity of housing units and residents, while blending in middle housing with existing single-family homes. He also said that prohibiting multiplexes in some areas is based on pedestrian safety concerns.

“We've taken some exceptions to recognize that many of our roadways aren't fit for walkability, which is one of the goals of middle housing,” Dock said.

Dock added that planners haven’t finalized the suggested zoning amendments and aim to present them to the Planning Commission next month.

But it will be a while before the plans could go any further.

House Bill 388, which state legislators passed this spring, temporarily restricts Louisville from making changes to its Land Development Code that would increase the allowable density in residential zoning districts.

That moratorium lasts until next April. Metro Council President Markus Winkler, a District 17 Democrat, said he has not sought legal advice on whether city lawmakers could pass legislation before the deadline if it took effect afterward.

Republican state representative Jason Nemes, whose district includes part of eastern Jefferson County, pushed for the controversial change.

Interim planning director Brian Davis said his office isn’t overly concerned.

“We see the moratorium on changes to the Land Development Code that they put in place as more of a detour, not necessarily a roadblock,” Davis said.

The expected zoning amendments would also reduce the minimum lot size needed for many single-family houses in residential zoning districts.

A far-reaching concern

As the Office of Planning has pursued middle housing amendments, they’ve also done public outreach events, from open house information sessions to interactive workshops.

The city collected more than 200 comments about the proposed changes. Around a quarter of the responses were from the 40207 ZIP code, which includes Windy Hills and other surrounding communities, and most of them were opposed to the plan.

Dock said he’s glad that the office is getting responses “reaching all ends of the county,” and acknowledged that many residents feel anxious about zoning changes. He said that he doesn’t think the middle housing changes being proposed are similar to controversial rezoning requests for highly populated buildings.

“It's not going to create a lot of change, because it's going to be dispersed throughout the community,” Dock said.

Davis said Louisville Metro planners have also had brief conversations with the leaders of independent cities that have zoning authority, which could adopt similar middle housing laws if they wanted.

Roberts, Windy Hills’ mayor, said he and other mayors have heard from Louisville Metro about the proposed middle housing changes. He hopes that Louisville will consider residents’ input and clearly explain the changes to them, in order to relieve the public’s concerns.

He brought up issues like increased noise and commercial ownership of property as examples of what he thinks community members are worried about.

“Will they take as good a care of the property as an owner who lives there would? That's part of the fear,” Roberts said.

Louisville’s middle housing work is also taking place while Kentucky housing experts raise concerns about the lack of available and affordable housing across the commonwealth.

A recent report from the Kentucky Housing Corporation estimated that the state is short around 200,000 housing units that would be affordable to residents across income levels, meaning they wouldn’t have to spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs.

Wendy Smith, the group’s deputy executive director of housing programs, said that she views middle housing as an essential tool to help address that gap.

But she said her organization, which funds and develops affordable housing, has not supported much middle housing so far and will need more money through the state’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund to make that happen.

Smith said KHC is on track to get less than $4 million from the fund this year, which is below average.

“That's not very much money to construct affordable rental properties,” Smith said.

She attributes that dip to fewer housing sales, which in turn contributes to collecting less in fees from deed registrations.

Smith also said that middle housing could be supported not just by zoning changes, but also by providing better financial support for small builders who want to build housing like duplexes.

“In towns and cities around the state, it's really hard for your small builders to get a loan, and to get it at an interest rate right now that makes it make any sense for them,” Smith said.

Earlier this year, Republican state representative Steve Doan created a bill to promote middle housing development across Kentucky, but it failed to pick up traction.

This story has been updated.

Jacob is LPM's Business and Development Reporter. Email Jacob at jmunoz@lpm.org.

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