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A Zoning Debate in Bloomington, Indiana

Is eliminating single-family zoning, in a city that is already 66% rental, the best course for the future?

[Editor’s Note: This editorial appeared in the Herald-Times of Bloomington, Indiana, and is being reprinted here with permission from its author, Chris Sturbaum.]

Real estate is like mathematics. It is like science. You up-zone single-family zoned property and its value increases. This action alone prices many homes out of the range of potential homeowners. Then increased rental ownership slowly makes the area less attractive to existing homeowners who move elsewhere, selling out to new investors. In our area, that means homemakers will be moving to Ellettsville or the surrounding counties. From these new locations, they will incidentally have longer commutes to work using more fossil fuel.

Rental conversion is the new Gentrification. It is better named: “Rentrification “.

Rentrification results in the displacement of local single-family tenants, the pricing out of many new home buyers, and the loss of naturally occurring affordable housing. The up-zoning instantly changes the value of a rental property and previously single-family rentals are demolished for denser and market-rate rentals.

These are well-understood laws of how real estate works.

Real Estate Deniers believe that adding density in single-family neighborhoods will automatically create more affordable housing in Bloomington. In spite of the fact that market-rate rentals are always competing with the student market in Bloomington, there is a faith-based belief that taking homeownership opportunities from local citizens and creating investment opportunities for absentee landlords with increased bedrooms will have a positive local impact.

Well-meaning idealists who deny this science are not going to do Bloomington any favors. Some people even speculate that this up-zoning has nothing to do with affordable housing and is intended to simply increase workforce housing for middle-class millennials in Bloomington. That would at least be in line with Real Estate Science. It would turn core neighborhoods into denser rental neighborhoods for young people. Ironically, when they look to buy a house later to raise a family, these wonderful neighborhoods will be less desirable and less affordable and the young families will find themselves competing directly with rental investors for a home in Bloomington. Hello Ellettsville, Green County, and commuting.

Apartments (Accessory Dwelling Units ) both inside or outside the owner’s occupied house are currently allowable as conditional use. Allowing a homeowner to add a small apartment to their home can actually help with affordability while respecting homeownership. But the conversions to duplexes have negative consequences to the single-family neighborhood mentioned above and allowing triplexes and quads will simply result in demolitions, displacement, and market rentals for workforce/student housing. It is pretty well understood that affordable low-income housing will always need local, state, and federal subsidies. Without subsidy, the free market simply cannot create low-income affordable housing.

Prop 40, a statewide up-zoning effort in California, has been met with an outcry from lower-income citizens calling out the displacement this will cause in their neighborhoods. Some YIMBYs (Yes In My Backyarders) are starting to realize that up-zoning alone, without affordability covenants or requirements, will not result in affordable housing. Simply up-zone? Let the market solve this? A solution to climate change? A “Magic Bullet”? Not so simple. Not so fast…..

About the Author:

Chris Sturbaum is a former city council person of 16 years, a plan commission member for many of those years, a preservation commission member for more than 20 years, and a neighborhood association past president. Chris created an ongoing historic restoration and remodeling family business in 1979. He is a long-time CNU member and congress attendee who lives in one of Bloomington’s core neighborhoods.

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