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Legalizing Missing Middle Housing in Louisville, KY

“Missing middle housing is critical to building a strong town. It’s incremental, affordable, financially productive, and built bottom-up using the efforts of many hands.”

- Charles, Mahron, Author, Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity

As new urbanists, one of our great responsibilities is education – we provide solutions for society’s various built environment crises. In Louisville, KY, city planning staff is advancing this work through community outreach, education, and policy change related to a key missing middle housing type: the Accessory Dwelling Unit (commonly referred to as an ADU).

How do we update our codes and regulations to eliminate “missing” as a qualifier of middle housing? I sat down with Joel Dock, Planning Coordinator for Louisville Metro Government to learn more about their practical approaches.

“Way too much of our land is single-family zoned and every time non-single family housing is proposed it’s a battle,” Dock said. “This, coupled with a housing shortage, creates a lot of anxiety in the public… We are trying to help people understand middle housing isn't missing, it’s illegal to build. It very much exists today in the fabric of many of our most eclectic and vibrant urban communities, but building it today usually requires a zoning change. We want to re-legalize it.”

Dock shared that middle housing, including ADUs, have been referenced in Louisville’s comprehensive plans for decades, but the administrative hurdles on the books kept people from actually pursuing those housing types. “Implementation required a conditional use permit and a public hearing,” Dock said, “those administrative hurdles scared most people off.”

Eliminating administrative barriers

Metro Louisville’s Office of Planning and Design Services, where Dock works, led an effort to eliminate those administrative barriers. The conditional use permit and public hearing are no longer required for ADUs. “Since July 2021 we’ve had 38 ADUs Permitted in Louisville. Compare that to the 35 combined applications we had over the previous decade.”

In addition to these changes, outreach and education about middle housing have been major focuses of Metro Louisville’s efforts. The city received a Community Challenge Grant from AARP and hired MKSK. According to Carley Lemmon, Planner with MKSK, the city hired them to “engage the Louisville community on ADUs, research comparable ADU experiences within other comparable communities and develop ADU resources (infographics, video, graphics). Over the past 30+ years, MKSK has worked with hundreds of communities across the Midwest and Mid-South on planning, zoning and development related projects.”

The outreach started through the city’s social media accounts, but they found engagement was high only in the wealthier parts of town. So the team pivoted and set up shop at grocery stores around the city, finding that the less wealthy parts of town had never heard of granny flats, mother-in-law suites, or carriage houses. But once folks learned about these ADU types they got excited. “People started realizing what is possible for them in their existing zoning, without public hearings or administrative hurdles,” Dock said.

“We are really focused on outreach and education. That effort started in December 2020,” Dock said. His team hosted an ADU conference with the City of Lexington in February 2022 that was keynoted by Dan Parolek, author of Missing Middle Housing: Thinking Big and Building Small to Respond to Today’s Housing Crisis, who ends the preface of his book with the sentiment, “Let’s help everyone find a home.”

Pre-approved plans could reduce the cost burden from thousands of dollars to a couple hundred

Dock said the city has applied for a second grant through AARP, this time the hope is to obtain funding for a design competition that would result in pre-approved ADU plans. “California, Oregon, and Washington already do this,” Dock said, “We are thinking about how we can take away the upfront costs of hiring an architect to do plans and allow people to get a permit pulled within a week.” Dock said these pre-approved plans could reduce the cost burden from thousands of dollars to a couple hundred. “The goal is to get people 85% of the way there through pre-approved plans.” This effort would also include contractor and building inspector education to further streamline the process.

AARP has proven to be a great partner to cities in advocating for and implementing middle housing. The AARP web site offers resources such as an ADU Model State act and Local Ordinance, ABCs of ADUs: A guide to Accessory Dwelling Units and How They Expand Housing Options for People of All Ages, and ADUs: A step by step guide to design and development.

As part of Metro Louisville’s continued outreach and education efforts, they are hosting a series of Middle Housing tours this month (April 2023). Dock reiterated that the best way to get buy-in on diverse housing options is “to get people hands on with it. We want them to see it, feel it and experience it to understand it. That’s the purpose of these tours, to get people out to walk these communities.”

“Diversity of housing options supports a diversity of incomes and demographics,” Dock said. “We cannot ignore that many of these historic restrictions aided racism in local, state, and federal policies, such as redlining and racial covenants. We need to break these dated rules down and create incremental development options.” Dock emphasized the importance of equitable focus, sharing that just having the idea of promoting middle housing or new urbanist design doesn’t get you there. “It takes a commitment from a larger group of people, including nonprofits, developers, designers, planners, and city leaders to get there,” Dock said.

Source for images in this article:

Author BIO:

MK Lindsey is Vice President of Real Estate Development for Crawford Hoying in Columbus, OH. For the last decade, MK's work has centered around creating dynamic destinations - distilleries, museums, corporate visitor centers, parks, and walkable neighborhoods. With a project portfolio of ~$1B across 7 states, her key projects have included the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience in downtown Louisville, KY, Sagamore Spirit Distillery in Baltimore, MD, the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, VA, boutique hotels throughout bourbon country, and mixed-use district developments in Dayton, Cincinnati, and Louisville. MK has a unique blend of experience in storytelling, master planning, project management, construction, historic redevelopment, and finance. She works with architects, designers, engineers, municipal staff, builders, bankers, and equity investors to make difficult, multi-year projects happen across the region.

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