Commentary

As cities, counties change zoning codes, let’s consider how ‘lovably nonconforming’ housing may help

Buildings that add to the fabric of our neighborhoods likely could not be built under today’s codes, writes guest columnist Patrick Spoutz

June 18, 2021 4:00 am
Bungalow court in the North End of Boise

The four homes at 1012 10th St. in Boise are a lovely example of a bungalow court and would be illegal to build in this neighborhood today. (Courtesy of Patrick Spoutz)

I have a special place in my heart for a type of buildings that might best be called, “Lovably Nonconforming.” 

These are buildings that wonderfully add to the fabric of our neighborhoods and likely could not be built under today’s zoning codes. 

When we talk about how to preserve neighborhood character and create amazing places to live, work and play, it is useful to consider not only what we want to avoid, but what we love and want to see more of.

Afford Boise, a Facebook group interested in approaches to provide more housing and make housing affordable for everyone, has an ongoing series exploring these “Lovably Nonconforming” buildings around the city. Members of the group take photos of buildings that catch their eye while out and about in the city, research the history of the site, and share the story along with any variances between the building and the current zoning code. 

One classic housing type is the bungalow court. These typically feature small detached homes around a central courtyard. The four homes at 1012 10th St. in Boise are a lovely example of this type and would be illegal to build in this neighborhood today. 

Adorable bungalow court developments like this one could add more affordable housing options to the city. These types of development clearly fit in with the existing neighborhood context and character.

However, it is not likely that these could be built today. 

This property, with four detached homes, appears to be non-conforming with the existing code in at least two ways: lack of on-site parking and density (built at a density of 16 units per acre vs. eight per acre allowed per regulation). As many zoning codes were rewritten (often in the 1960s, as Boise’s last zoning code was), parking requirements were generally increased and density limits were often decreased sometimes below the levels of the current built environment. 

A second example is the Wellman Building, at 500 West Franklin St., Boise, Idaho. This lovable and historic apartment building, built in 1931, is on the National Register for Historic Places for its Georgian revival style.This building is charming and unobtrusive. The two story building with a garden basement scales well with surrounding middle housing and single family homes. 

A similar project proposed today would not be allowed at this site, nor in most of the city. Current zoning would allow just 12 units and require 13 parking spots.

The Wellman Building in Boise
A second example of “lovably nonconforming” housing is the Wellman Building, at 500 W. Franklin St. in Boise. (Courtesy of Patrick Spoutz)

After reviewing a handful of Lovably Nonconforming developments, patterns quickly emerged; these buildings, while beloved, are “too dense,” have “too few setbacks,” and are “under-parked.” This trend of non-conforming uses defining the character of a city is not unique to Idaho; one study found that 40% of buildings in Manhatten, NYC, could not be today under the current zoning code. 

 

As cities and counties consider changes to their zoning code (as Boise currently is) to address the housing crisis, reviewing these constraints that block new development from matching the very best of our historical context, may be a great place to start. We should have development codes that allows, and encourages, lovely buildings like these to be built again. 

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Patrick Spoutz
Patrick Spoutz

Patrick Spoutz is a pharmacoeconomist and formulary manager with the Veterans Affairs Administration. He is passionate about housing issues and advocates for policies that will help people affordably live where they would like to live. He lives with his family in Boise. Spoutz is part of a group of Boise-based writers and housing advocates who collaborate and write regular columns appearing in the Idaho Capital Sun about issues related to affordability in Idaho and beyond.

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