Debating the Stability of Neighborhoods Should Be Done Face to Face

By Victoria Witte

I have lived in one of core Bloomington neighborhoods that is the focus of the city’s current upzoning proposal since 1981. This is a complicated proposal and one that needs an open forum — an in-person forum — to truly consider the ramifications of densification. The middle of a pandemic, with people’s attention and very real concern focused on their health, doesn’t seem to be an appropriate time for considering such a far-reaching and possibly destabilizing change as this.

The problem that I foresee, if this short-sighted experiment is actually implemented, is a very real reduction of livability and stability in these neighborhoods, if the balance between renters and homeowners is shifted sharply toward predominantly rental occupancy.

Renters, whether professional adults or students are undeniably transient by nature. They have little incentive to invest in the area where they live or contribute to the general upkeep of the property.

Core neighborhoods near the campus are presented time and time again with the very real likelihood of students becoming their new neighbors. Students have very little reason to moderate their behavior to more closely match surrounding households and thereby establish and maintain cordial relations with neighbors. Becoming acquainted with the nearby renters is an ongoing challenge for permanent homeowners.

Over the past five years or so I have begun to see an encouraging trend on the street where I live. It’s a long street (about 15 blocks) running between Henderson and High Street. In the last several years, five or six small houses have been remodeled or added onto. This represents a small resurgence of investment on the part of permanent residents, some with families, some
without, wanting to live close to town and campus and able to buy or renovate small affordable houses and make them into homes.

Not just places to hang their hats but “homes” to refashion to their own desires, an accessible yard where they can plant gardens and children can play. A place where they have the opportunity to get to know their neighbors and become part of a coherent established community.

The core neighborhoods like the one I live in already have many rentals. They remain stable and livable, but the balance in these communities is tenuous and easily destabilized. If this shortsighted innovation comes to fruition, the small houses here will be extremely tempting to developers to buy and replace with more profitable rental duplexes.

As owners and residents of these small houses relocate or sell out to developers with deep pockets, this patchwork of living situations will be gone forever — there will be no do-over.

There is nothing wrong with rentals, in and of themselves. But the core neighborhoods, particularly those near the university, already have lots of them, mixed in among owner-occupied homes. This healthy mix provides renters the opportunity to live in a stable, flourishing environment. But some of these neighborhoods are already 55 or 60% rental. They can be easily destabilized when more and more rentals are added to the mix — which is exactly what the trends in real estate suggest will happen when developers have the opportunity to multiply their investment returns by buying small houses and up-sizing them to duplex rentals.

It seems to me that a more measured approach should be taken when considering a change of this magnitude. Neighborhoods are very different from one another and because of this more time and engagement with the people who actually live where duplexes are being considered should be part of the process. This is very difficult to achieve in impersonal online meetings, where comments are severely time-constrained and speakers cannot see one another.

I understand that conducting official city business over Zoom is legal. But I believe it is the wrong way to go about the consideration of a plan to alter the ratio of rentals to owner-occupied houses in our neighborhoods, when that plan has the potential to impact the stability of those neighborhoods.

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