This Thursday, the City Council Land Use and Transportation Committee will hold another voting session on amendments to the new zoning code. Among the topics to be voted on will be the process for how to perform multifamily conversions.
There are instances where it may be desirable for a single family home to be converted into a multifamily dwelling. For example, in Mt. Vernon many large homes that once housed the city’s wealthiest citizens have been converted into apartments. Many of the young people living in these apartments could not afford to live in a single family house. Not only can multifamily conversions allow for more affordable housing, they can also prevent vacants. In some neighborhoods the market may not be strong enough to support a single family home. Subdividing these homes into apartments allows for them to remain occupied.
Under the current code, multifamily conversions are allowed in R-7, R-8, R-9, and R-10 districts through the conditional use by ordinance process. Under this arrangement, each councilperson determines whether they think a multifamily conversion is in the best interests of their constituents. There are no set standards as to what makes a structure suitable for conversion. Subjecting multifamily conversions to the conditional by ordinance process adds a great deal of uncertainty for developers and discourages investment in our city.
The new code allows for multifamily conversions to occur as a matter of right in the R-7 and above districts, but with very strict standards. Among the requirements in the new code are that the existing dwelling be 1,500 square feet or more in gross floor area, that each converted unit meet certain minimum gross floor area requirements, and that there be at least one off street parking space for each unit. The idea behind this proposal is to create an objective process by setting clear standards for conversion.
The multifamily conversion proposal in the new code has been met with a great deal of resistance from the Council, with many members calling for the new code to retain their conditional by ordinance powers over multifamily conversions. In their argument for conditional by ordinance, City Council members state that they would like to have control over the amount of density in the communities they represent, and that zoning standards should not always apply citywide due to the diversity of the city.
Many of the concerns voiced by council members are covered in the proposed standards. For example, the code takes density concerns into account by both mandating minimum square footage standards for individual units and requiring parking. CPHA agrees with council members that Baltimore is a diverse city, especially when it comes to the built environment. However, if council members feel that multifamily conversions should be considered on a case by case basis, they should give the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals (BMZA) authority over these decisions. This would allow the concerns of communities to be taken into consideration, while still allowing decisions to be made in a timely manner and based on clear criteria.
CPHA feels that the standards laid out in the proposed code should form the basis for multifamily conversions. In particular, we strongly oppose allowing the multifamily conversion process to remain conditional by ordinance. As we’ve explained previously, conditional by ordinance is a process which lacks clear standards, and does not lead to transparent outcomes for developers or residents.
Baltimore deserves certainty when it comes to development. The standards laid out in the zoning code will allow for multifamily conversions to occur in a timely manner, while protecting our neighborhoods. CPHA urges the City Council to allow multifamily conversions without subjecting them to the conditional by ordinance process.
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