Housing supply

Cedar Rapids will diversify housing supply with secondary suites

Rigid single-family zoning policies deprive residents of more choices — it’s especially problematic for those who don’t want big homes, like the older Cedar Rapidians

AARP chart on types of secondary suites, courtesy of the City of Cedar Rapids

Cedar Rapids has an idea to bolster housing options and potentially start addressing other city priorities along the way, including equity and climate action.

The city council is considering an ordinance that would relax regulations on secondary suites, which are second homes on the same lot as an existing home. Sometimes known as granny flats, they can help fill an unmet need for smaller housing options in areas otherwise reserved for large single-family homes.

A surprising number of issues facing communities like Cedar Rapids can be traced to rigid single-family zoning restrictions – housing costs, carbon emissions, deficiencies in the transportation system, and policing disparities, to name a few- one.

Over the past century, local governments have adopted policies to segregate housing by type. These zoning rules have the effect of creating sprawling neighborhoods with excessive lot sizes and setbacks, geographically separated from apartments and other high-density housing types.

The status quo deprives residents of more choices. It’s especially problematic for people who don’t want or can’t afford a large suburban home, such as the elderly, people with disabilities, young professionals, and low-income workers. The system also encourages dependence on cars, drives up housing costs and segregates citizens based on their socio-economic status.

Secondary suites are permitted under the current municipal code but the standards are so restrictive that they are rarely built. As of 2019, only four such units have been developed at Cedar Rapids. The proposed amendment would allow secondary suites in all residential neighborhoods, open up the possibility of modular units, expand the size allowed and increase the number of units per lot from one to two.

Although the ordinance was filed by council members this week, it appears to be on the verge of finally being approved. Council member Dale Todd is concerned about adding too much density to “fragile” neighborhoods. This is something to keep in mind when city staff assess the impact of the change, but it shouldn’t derail the proposal.

Cedar Rapids’ plan to promote secondary suites is a modest update, not a sweeping reform of single-family housing policy as some U.S. cities are doing. It’s a smart and measured idea that we hope will spark more efforts to diversify the housing supply.

(319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com