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Cultivating Your Farm

One of many blighted homes returned to working order as part of the award-winning Renewal Homes project in New Orleans.

We spend a lot of time working with the Incremental Development Alliance training folks to be small developers. One of our many goals is to help build community wealth through infill housing at a scale compatible with traditional neighborhoods, also known as Missing Middle Housing. This is housing that fits within a single-family neighborhood, but with more units than a single family home. This might be a home with an accessory dwelling unit, a duplex, fourplex, maybe even a six or eight plex.

It’s really helpful to differentiate “single-family character” which describes the massing and scale of buildings from “single-family zoning” which strictly prohibits forms of missing-middle housing.  Successfully bringing Missing Middle types of housing to what is often perceived to be a “single-family neighborhood” takes some political and social skill, in addition to urban and design knowledge. If the neighborhood in question was originally developed between 1890-1929 (we at KW have an EXCEEDINGLY strong bias towards neighborhoods like these, particularly if they are proximate to employment areas/downtowns and have some form of transit choice), there is an good chance there are a range of these Missing Middle Housing types present. It is also likely that your city went through a zoning process 25-35 years ago to set a zoning ordinance in place to only allow single family houses, making all this other stuff illegal.

Landing and starting a small development career in these communities will likely be a process. I would venture to guess that most places prohibit housing types we need to be building, and small developers need to show a commitment to place to have credibility to pursue zoning relief for exotic projects like a fourplex. But what exactly is “commitment to place,” and how does one build that credibility?

Logical first projects in these communities might be buying a smaller house and adding an as-of-right ADU (if permitted). Alternately, there may be some non-conforming duplexes around that could be renovated. These are great entry level projects for folks launching a career in small development. You can typically avoid complicated entitlement processes, and hopefully start building trust and commitment to your community.

Convincing neighbors that they would be better off approving zoning permission to allow a fourplex next to them instead of a large house can often be a challenge. That large house will be expensive, potentially raising their property value, while a fourplex will likely be perceived negatively, as rentals often are: different and potentially evil, possibly managed by a slum lord. As more and more cities face a housing crisis – a shortage of affordable or just general housing – we have to change the conversation.

Convincing folks that density change is going to be acceptable takes a fair amount of trust. Building this trust takes time and effort. Showing people that you are committed to making this community better, and not just trying to exploit economic opportunism is not the easiest of tasks. Being physically present in a community is a big part of earning this trust. We’ve had debates at Inc Dev about whether you need to live in this community (your farm) to be credible. The consensus has been that you don’t have to live there, but it sure helps. Locating your office there to maintain a daytime presence is often a viable alternative to moving there.

Community meetings in Edgewood, Atlanta (photo credit: Edgewood Redevelopment Plan)

One of the many things I’ve learned working on a range of projects and spending time with retail experts like Bob Gibbs is that cultivation is a critical component of a successful place. Cultivation of place can take many forms and can occur at a number of different scales. Homeowners and commercial developers alike can engage in these activities, just a few examples of which include:

Examples of Large Scale Cultivation

  1. Careful programming of commercial tenants (to balance neighborhood need, parking demands, etc)

  2. Leveraging of community assets such as on street parking, parks, and sidewalks

  3. Organizing and management of business improvement districts or downtown development districts

  4. Programming of events, such as seasonal festivals or weekly farmers markets

Smaller-scale cultivation opportunities are even more plentiful. The simple act of picking up trash and cutting the grass in front of your property counts. To take it a step further, one could help maintain the appearance of blighted nearby properties, and push for blighted properties to be condemned and sold for redevelopment, or torn down if there are no renovation opportunities (we believe there are usually redevelopment chances without tear down). Other efforts include:

Examples of Small Scale Cultivation

  1. Organizing neighborhood cleanups

  2. Maintaining a community anti-graffiti task force

  3. Coordinating a community mural program

  4. Coordinating neighbor-led public space improvements

  5. Pushing for better youth programming

  6. Volunteering time as part of a local neighborhood organization (because sometimes improvements to a community’s needs have to come from improved service from the City’s Public Works or Code Enforcement Department)

Distressed or transitioning neighborhoods have often been neglected by city services. Holding public entities accountable is a good way to build trust.  Many folks have just gotten used to missed trash pick up, lack of enforcement of junked cars in yards, lack of penalty for vacant or unsecured properties, general code enforcement, and on and on. Engaging with a neighborhood organization to help push the city for better services for your neighbors is a good way to build credibility and trust. It also provides a chance for you to get a sense of neighborhood opportunities and challenges.

Up and coming places don’t happen accidentally. They get there due to the blood, sweat, and tears of community activists and leaders. Lending your time and effort can go a long way towards not appearing like a Johnny-come-lately. A few things that you can count on: gravity holds us down, math is relentless, and volunteer organizations are always short of volunteers. Communities appreciate folks that roll up their sleeves to help.  The key as a newbie volunteer is to listen first, come with an attitude to help, and not boss other volunteers around.  If you’re new to the organization, the approach should be to learn, not to tell.

If the community in question doesn’t want your help as a volunteer, you may want to rethink things. Fully stabilized communities often become more entrenched after all the hard work is done and become exceedingly resistant to change. These are not the best places for a small developer to start – they don’t need you. Property prices often exclude small developers from such places anyway.

All these cultivation activities circle back around to the question of how to engage with your metaphorical farm. All these activities take time and a physical presence. Engaging in these activities is hard to do from afar, hence the recommendation to live there or work there.

It is also important to be clear that you are committed to a place, and not trying to keep a tally, like three neighborhood cleanups equals one variance request. Parachuting in from afar with the desire to help make change is as likely to raise suspicions as it is to inspire trust.  People trying to change a community are typically viewed with a default lens of suspicion, and it will take genuine commitment to overcome that.

Cultivating the community soil for all to benefit is an essential component to building trust, and an important step in making better communities with critically-necessary Missing Middle Housing options. No one said it was going to be easy.


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