Matt Flaherty Says the Quiet Part Out Loud

By Peter Dorfman

A couple of weeks on from the disheartening finish of the City Council debate on upzoning, with annexation hanging in the cicada-thick atmosphere over the suburbs, Bloomingtonians are waiting for the next shoe to drop. Our local NPR affiliate, WFIU, organized a May 27 Noon Edition panel discussion, hoping for fresh perspectives on the zoning debate.

The hour-long conversation made it clear that the Council’s debate did nothing to narrow the ideological chasm between densification proponents and their critics. In a June 3 follow-up article, WFIU News Director Bob Zaltsberg acknowledged debate on the impact of upzoning is far from over. 

The Noon Edition panel included Council members Dave Rollo and Matt Flaherty, city planner Jackie Scanlan and architect/urbanist Marc Cornett. Rollo and Cornett drew attention to the flawed debate process and risks the densification decision poses for Bloomington neighborhoods. 

But what was most memorable in the exchange was the cascade of YIMBY sophistry from Flaherty, one of the city’s most outspoken pro-upzoning advocates. 

There was a lot to pick apart, but perhaps the most revealing moment was when Flaherty said the quiet part out loud about how the pro-density planners, commissioners and Council members dealt with the self-evident conflict between the plex development proposal and the insistent, very specific and very blunt counsel in Bloomington’s Comprehensive Plan against imposing new density on its existing core neighborhoods.

“Depending on how you want to read the Comprehensive Plan, you can kind of read into it what you want.”

Matt Flaherty, At Large City Council Member

This statement should be disqualifying for anyone running for or holding public office.

Every city in Indiana is required by state law to have a Comprehensive Plan. It spells out the city’s objectives for growth and development, expressing the will and consensus of citizens, experts and elected and appointed public officials. In Bloomington’s case, it was the product of two years’ deliberation by 85 people who took what they were doing seriously. The Comp Plan is the guiding document for the Unified Development Ordinance, whose purpose is to define how the principles laid out in the Comp Plan will be defined and enforced in practical terms.

The Comprehensive Plan can be denigrated and treated as a purely political document — but it shouldn’t. That wouldn’t be just an insult to the people who dedicated their time and energy to developing it. It would be legislative malpractice. Flaherty’s statement is legislative malpractice. 

Pushing a destructive municipal development policy that explicitly contradicts the guidance developed by the 85 co-authors who hammered out the Comprehensive Plan, based on the treatment of the Comp Plan as a bit of malleable political fluff into which any cynical interpretation can be read, is legislative malpractice on the part of the administration, planners, commissioners and Council members who imposed the upzoning on Bloomington.

If Matt Flaherty cannot be relied on to treat a legally required document from which impactful public policy and binding legal decisions flow with the seriousness and respect the document’s authors brought to the work of drafting it, he should resign from the Common Council, effective immediately.

But Flaherty’s casual deprecation of the Comprehensive Plan was only one of the ways he sought to put the zoning controversy in the past tense. The Noon Edition performance could have been a brainstorming session for authoring a glossary of libertarian growth-at-any-cost grandiloquence.

Missing Middle — A term used to describe plex housing, along with townhouses, “courtyard apartments,” and other attached housing. “Middle” refers to scale — plexes fit between single-family detached houses and high-rise apartment buildings in density and capacity. The trouble begins with the term “missing.”

“Over the last number of decades, if not half a century or more, in most cities, these types of housing forms have largely disappeared,” Flaherty asserted, “so that we mostly see large, you know, 50-, 100-unit or more multifamily units or detached single family homes. And that’s all.”

Except, no they haven’t. There are multi-unit housing structures of all kinds, all over Bloomington, 706 of them by the city’s own count.  

“You know, I live in an eight-plex in Prospect Hill, for instance,” Flaherty said. “In a two block walk from my home, there is an ADU [accessory dwelling unit]. There are several duplexes. There’s a triplex. These have always existed within the fabric of our neighborhoods.”

Absolutely. The Near West Side, by my own count, is at least 10% multi-family residences — probably more. That number comes from a deep-dive into Elevate, the GIS database that contains essential data on every residence in the city and county. It’s a bit of work, but it’s worth doing for all of Bloomington’s other neighborhoods, if only to make a really basic point: The term “missing middle” is absurd — or cynically misleading — when applied to a set of housing forms that are demonstrably not “missing” from this city and have in no sense of the word “disappeared.”

Affordability at Market Rate — An oxymoron that has evolved in YIMBY circles as it became obvious that no city that has upzoned was experiencing a decrease in rents as a result of building more market rate apartments. This has caused advocates to retreat to a dubious hypothesis that duplexing houses or building new ones with multiple units in walkable neighborhoods would lead to lifestyle changes that would be less expensive than owning or renting a detached single-family house.

“Enabling small scale attached housing — it’s lower cost to build,” Flaherty stated. “You share the cost of land over multiple units. The units themselves tend to be a little bit smaller. They consume less energy because of attached walls. They tend to have lower transportation costs, perhaps enabling households to have one fewer car because you’re closer to where you work or have access to transit.”

The lifestyle suggestion would merely be nonsensical if it weren’t so ageist and ableist (although it might be defensible superficially if most people in Bloomington actually worked downtown, which they don’t). But let’s just focus on the core fallacy here — the suggestion Bloomingtonians have heard ad nauseam since the start of the upzoning debate: That one of the two units in a newly built or converted duplex will inevitably be cheaper — either to rent or to buy (assuming duplex development represents ownership opportunity, which is hugely suspect) — than the detached single-family house next door. 

Embedded in that assertion is a ludicrous false dichotomy. In theory, each half of a newly-created duplex might be cheaper to rent than a newly-constructed single-family house. That is, the increasing land cost in an upzoned neighborhood plus the soaring cost of construction or renovation might be offset by the fact that two tenants (or in the case of a six-bedroom duplex, up to six) are sharing the rent — by comparison with a newly constructed or renovated single-family house which can only be shared legally by three. 

But that’s not reality. The real comparison is between a new duplex and an old, unimproved house, which is what most people of modest means rent in the core neighborhoods. Yes, the value of the land under that house also has increased sharply — as a direct consequence of upzoning. But the landlord owning that older house has no construction costs to recover. So he or she has no need to jack up the rent for that reason. 

Of course, the rent for that older house will go up year-on-year, as rents will — probably more sharply because the house is next door to a new duplex where the landlord does have construction costs to recover and is marketing newly constructed apartments. Again, a direct consequence of upzoning.

Declining Density — This has been the city’s go-to response whenever core neighborhood residents suggest they already are bearing a disproportionate share of the burden of density, relative to the larger-lot areas of the city and the suburbs. “Our neighborhoods have been decreasing in density steadily over time over the last number of decades,” Flaherty said during the Noon Edition discussion, suggesting thereby that these areas could stand to make room for more people (and cars and HVAC units).

Well, yes. Population growth has been declining throughout the developed world and families are smaller. In neighborhoods like the Near West Side and Maple Heights, it wasn’t unusual not so long ago, when these were principally low-income neighborhoods, for a family of seven or eight to live together in a 1000-square-foot house. Here’s a thought: Maybe those weren’t the good old days.

Sustainability — Let’s just reflect for a minute on this: “Really robust, comprehensive evidence from the American Community Survey and others demonstrate and show that these [plex] housing forms support substantially more racially diverse and moderate income populations,” Flaherty said. “And the facts are also quite clear that there is a greater sustainability for this housing type. [But] if you reject that evidence of that research and what urban planners say about this, then you might have a different view about what the Comprehensive Plan says or does not because you don’t think that, you know, a duplex is a good housing type to help us meet those established goals.”

In other words, if you disagree with the academics who buy into YIMBY thinking about the connection between upzoning and racial justice, environmental sustainability and housing affordability, 

  • You are categorically rejecting the relevant science, and
  • You oppose plex housing. Period.

The second point can easily be dismissed as a strawman, but what about this issue of who owns the truth about the efficacy of upzoning? Flaherty addressed this in fielding a question relayed from Russ Skiba, a leader of the advocacy group Go Farther Together, which has opposed the upzoning. Skiba has repeatedly questioned Flaherty’s assertions that the preponderance of data-supported evidence supports the pro-densification position, citing volumes of peer-reviewed studies that compare favorably with the YIMBY bibliography Flaherty continually leans on, and persuasively questioning the motives of pro-YIMBY think tanks.

Flaherty — enabled by the WFIU platform to speak without fear of rebuttal — brushed Skiba’s emailed question aside and invited him to discover the error of his ways by reading a blog post called “The Housing Supply Debate: Evaluating the Evidence,” written by one Todd Litman. “I’m sure Mr. Skiba and others may have a good time digging into that,” Flaherty taunted.

Do it. Follow the link and skim the post, or at least the table in which Litman divides the parties to the upzoning debate into absurdly caricatured camps. He recognizes only “Housing Supply Advocates” (people who kneel before the gods of supply and demand in setting the course toward housing equity and affordability) as having sound, data-supported evidence. “Housing Supply Skeptics” are written off as “Marxist activists and a few academics,” basing their arguments on unfounded, anecdotal evidence. 

Seriously, take a minute to look this fatuous screed over. There’s no need to concern yourself with the bona fides of Todd Litman, but the citation will tell you a lot about the firmness of the rhetorical platform on which Councilman Matt Flaherty stands.

There was so much more…but you get the idea. You are correct, Mr. Zaltsberg: Attention now turns toward the annexation of the suburbs, but the argument over the impact of the city’s upzoning is far from over.

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