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City Council Proposes Amendment Banning Duplexes In Core Neighborhoods

A photo of a multiplex house in Bloomington's Elm Heights neighborhood.

Plexes already exist in the core neighborhoods, but many residents feel the numbers will increase exponentially with this policy change. (Joey Mendolia, WFIU/WTIU News)

For several months, the Bloomington community has questioned if allowing duplexes in residential areas is the best way to create more affordable and equitable housing citywide. Another wrinkle was added to the ongoing debate Wednesday night with a newly proposed amendment to the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO). 

Councilmembers Susan Sandberg, Dave Rollo and Ron Smith introduced Amendment 1 as co-sponsors, which would prohibit duplexes in zoning districts R1-R3. These zones in city code are commonly known as the core neighborhoods.

This proposal does not change the city's plan to allow duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes in the R4 (Residential Urban) zoning district, but it is a significant measure in the UDO process because the Plan Commission previously approved duplexes in R1-R3 zones.

READ MORE: Plan Commission Moves Ahead With Proposal Making It Easier For Duplexes To Get Approval 

"I think the point is to do no harm. Let’s take a more conservative approach to this. Let’s not put duplexes in the core at this particular time," said Sandberg.

The amendment's co-sponsors, as well as a large group of community residents, worry that allowing duplexes could create a sort of boom in single-family houses being converted into plexes.

And with that fear is the question of, who will be orchestrating these conversions? Councilmember Dave Rollo said he believes it will be large real estate investors. 

READ MORE: How Could Changes To The UDO Impact Bloomington's Core Neighborhoods?

"The rental units will not be affordable. There is no way to assure that whatsoever, so one should expect them to rent at market rate," said Rollo. "The development community and the private equity firms, who see investments such as this as highly lucrative, will seize on this opportunity."

But the city and other members of the public who support plexes do not necessarily fear investors. They're optimistic plexes will provide more opportunities for housing.

"We’re [the city] trying to decrease sprawl. We’re trying to encourage people to use other forms of travel opposed to vehicles. We want to use smart growth strategies for development and redevelopment, and that is what this proposal is doing in adding another option for equitable access for housing," said the city's planning services manager, Jackie Scanlan.

Scanlan said if passed, the change to allow duplexes would generate fewer than 20 conversions for single-family homes in the next year. 

She said the city has tried keeping restrictions on the neighborhoods for several decades to only allow single-family housing, and it's not working to create more housing for residents who need it.

"We also have high rental costs and we have a lot of people in town who rent, and so the lowering of rental costs could also benefit this community," said Scanlan.

Other councilmembers said they can see the benefits that duplexes could have on a larger scale for people looking to find a place to live at a reasonable price.

"When two units share the cost of one plot of land, that naturally makes them lower cost," said councilmember Matt Flaherty. "Also, there is less space to turn on the lights, heat, cool, etc. typically with a smaller unit in a duplex."

Council didn't make any decision about the amendment Wednesday because there was so much public comment. At one point, the meeting had over 280 virtual participants, on both sides of the issue.

The debate will continue next week at a special council session on Tuesday, May 4 at 6:30 p.m. 

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