Years ago I had hopes of building two affordable homes on one lot. I had plans drawn for two very nice small houses that are true to the style of our historic neighborhood. At around 800 square feet, I hoped to price each of them somewhere between $100k and $120k.
However, I misunderstood a city code, and soon found out that I would have to go through a lengthy and expensive process involving multiple layers of city review before a permit would be issued. Instead, I changed the plan and built a $225,000 home on the lot. It was great for the neighborhood, but not at all what most consider affordable housing. There was very little review, and I could pull a permit on the same day that I submitted plans.
As the city takes steps to correct racial injustices and remove divisive monuments from public places, I hope we will also correct zoning and building requirements downtown that were likely motivated by race and class politics. As a home builder in downtown neighborhoods, code requirements encourage me to only build homes that are unaffordable for the majority of legacy neighbors.
In two cases I wanted to build more than one dwelling on a standard-size lot. This allows the cost of the land to be split between homes and increases the city's property tax revenue and population, which would contribute to sales tax revenue.
But in both cases I was required to go through an expensive months-long process with no assurance that it would be allowed. I should point out that in my neighborhood there are lots as small as 1,900 square feet; it's not unusual to see small homes on small lots all over downtown neighborhoods.
On the flip side of this experience, if someone were to buy two or three or four lots that are side by side, they can treat the lots as one to build one house without the city considering any feedback from neighbors, while simultaneously decreasing the city's potential revenue. The city's liabilities--streets, curb, sidewalks, and sewer--stay the same, but one development produces much less revenue for the maintenance of the city's obligations.
I want my neighbors' feedback, especially those who have been around here longer than me. A lengthy review process provides for neighbors to comment. This is a clear advantage for those who have the means to buy multiple lots.
Building downtown does have an advantage over new developments: We do not have a minimum of square foot home size. This allows us to build tiny homes, as we have done twice. One of those was built without asking any additional permission. But suburban zoning requirements have been imposed on urban neighborhoods. Builders have to jump through many hoops and get the permission of neighbors within a block of the lot to build where a home sat just a few years ago.
City codes don't just impact where we live, they impact how we live. In the age of covid-19, starting a home business is making more and more sense. Unfortunately, city code is outdated and restrictive except in the case that you wish to build "servants' quarters." Yes, current city code will allow this.
For most home businesses, though, you're going to need the city's permission. Historically, working from home was always a matter of right, even necessity. It is only now that you need permission. This is counter to self-
reliance and self-determination.
In my home, I should absolutely be able to provide for my family. I can feed myself from my garden and harvest energy from the sun from my roof, but if I want to provide for myself by using the resources I have available as a home business, city code restricts that from happening. It's allowed in some areas, but is highly regulated as to what and where.
In most cases downtown you can build a duplex--not a terrible thing--but if you want to build two dwellings on a lot zoned for multifamily, this requires a months-long process for permission, despite the fact that, typically, detached homes are worth more than duplexes and bring in more sales tax revenue, not to mention look better and bring more value to the neighborhood.
Neighborhoods are the beating heart of a city. So why would a city, whose entire budget is reliant on property tax and sales tax revenue, do this to itself?
Many of the codes we are guided by today were put in place sometime around 1937 and codified in the 1960s. All across America similar rules were adopted, and in many of the cities it was no secret that these rules were put in place to keep poor people or black people out of "white" neighborhoods.
In the years of redlining there were multiple parties complicit: bankers, insurance companies, real estate agents and politicians. And over the years we have taken steps to dismantle the system that was used to oppress people of color. Banks, insurance companies, and real estate agents have all taken steps to correct bad policy. The city has not. To quote Mayor Frank Scott Jr.: "It's time."
Every politician I know in Arkansas preaches or campaigns on the importance of affordable housing options. I want to build affordable housing. But city codes encourage me and every other builder to do what is simpler. Right now affordable housing development in Little Rock is anything but simple. Taking down a monument is much easier and sexier than dismantling a system put in place to oppress people of color.
I hope city leaders do not read this as a sucker punch. Instead, this should be read as a rally cry. Let's do ourselves a favor and recreate the city so that everyone can thrive.
Mike Orndorff is a downtown Little Rock home builder and real estate developer.