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Sunday, March 03, 2024
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Common Council amends zoning code to increase housing accessibility for renters despite community concerns

The Common Council met Tuesday night to amend the city’s current zoning laws to expand the definition of “family” and increase equity for renters in single-family neighborhoods.

The Common Council amended a section of Madison's zoning code in order to change the definition of “family” in single-family homes by a 13-6 vote Tuesday in an effort to address the city’s housing shortage. 

Previously, one-third of Madison was zoned to prohibit more than two unrelated renters from living together. In these same areas, owner-occupied housing allowed up to five unrelated individuals to live together. 

The code changes the definition of “family” to remove the requirement that family members be related by blood, marriage or adoption, allowing up to five unrelated people to rent housing units together. The code also allows for the same number of people to live together regardless of whether they are renters or homeowners. 

The original proposal said the previous zoning law discriminated against people of color in Madison, who are more likely to be renters than homeowners.

“People of color and lower income residents are disproportionately affected by the current zoning definition of ‘family’ because they are more likely to be renters and more likely to need to share a housing unit to afford rent,” the proposal said.

Madison Street Medicine employee Allison Davidson, who provides housing for people experiencing homelessness, voiced support for the change. She said the previous definition of family harms vulnerable communities in Madison.

“Many of the individuals experiencing homelessness we serve rely on staying with friends [or with each other] both long and short term while they try to obtain other housing,” Davidson said.  “This definition of family is clearly outdated and is being used to target populations that are supposed to be protected classes in this city.”

Other community members raised concerns about the changes in their neighborhoods. 

While the bill is targeted towards improving equity for renters, some single-family homeowners are concerned about student housing landlords raising prices for housing, further pushing families and renters out of affordable housing.

“As currently written, the definition will encourage new concentrations of student housing in what are now considered family-oriented neighborhoods...without increasing the availability of housing for low-income families,” said community member Claude Kazanski.

Laura Schwendinger, another community member, said the changes would increase noise levels in the neighborhood, which she believes is already “too loud.”

“This action will destroy the fabric of our community,” homeowner Neil McCallum said. “We understand that there is an affordable housing crisis in the city, but stuffing people in the available housing is not a solution to the problem.”

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Affordable student housing 

Patrick Heck, District 2 alder and sponsor of the new change, said University of Wisconsin-Madison students will have more housing options as a result of the amendment. 

“It should increase housing options for students living in these neighborhoods,” Heck said. “This could lower rental prices for some students and others.”

District 8 Alder Juliana Bennett also rejects the rhetoric made against students. 

“We are in a student housing crisis,” Bennett said. “The reason this helps the student housing crisis is because all of the current apartments being built are luxury high rises. This is serving the low- to moderate-income students that can't afford anywhere else to live in the city.”

In contrast, District 3 Alder Erik Paulson does not believe the zoning laws will ultimately impact student housing.

“I don't think this will actually make much of a difference for UW students,” Paulson said. “For one, we've seen more and more students move closer to campus in buildings where the two-person limit already doesn't apply.”

Despite opposition, Heck said the new change passed will increase affordable housing choices for renters, including students, young adults and retirees. 

“While some areas nearer to campus could possibly see more student renters and there could eventually be some changes to these neighborhoods, I believe we can address those in future years,” Heck said. “The option of continuing to discriminate against students and others should be off the table.”

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