Bloomington Considers Zoning Changes for “Pandemic Housing”

Bloomington_City_Hall.JPGBloomington's City Council and Planning Commission are conducting fast-track hearings on proposed changes to zoning regulations that attempt to address homelessness under cover of "Pandemic response".  The Planning Commission hearing was Thursday, Nov. 5, and the City Council special meeting is Monday Nov. 9.  Both are being conducted as remote meetings, so only telephone testimony is possible.

The Nov. 5 Planning Commission meeting voted to carry-over this item to Nov. 19, requesting staff revise the proposed ordinance (i.e., not forward this for City Council approval). Unfortunately, we have recent experience of the City Council overriding a Commission’s decisions and then bypassing additional Hearings.  This may be the ONLY City Council hearing on the topic unless they agree to table / continue it.

The entry about “Temporary Pandemic Response Housing” on Bloomington’s website states:

"The Planning Commission and City Council will hold public hearings on November 5 and November 9, respectively, to consider proposed city code amendments to create a new use category for temporary housing for individuals or families on an interim basis to reduce the transmission of disease within the community during a pandemic. The proposed ordinance defines a new interim use called “temporary pandemic response housing” and establishes use standards, including requirements related to duration, licensing, security, management and operations, building and site requirements, and inspections. The amendments also modify definitions and add penalty language.”.

The city code amendments seem to offer a solution that is neither temporary nor interim.

The 4-page staff memo makes it clear that this is a starting point to addressing general affordable housing needs and homelessness issues, including those caused by recent civil unrest, (plain-speak “riots in Minneapolis and St Paul”), not just the current COVID-19 pandemic. 

There is no definition of “pandemic” in the documents.  HIV/AIDS was declared a pandemic in 1981 and is still considered such.

As proposed, this new “Pandemic Housing” category is restricted to the RM-50 Multiple Family Residential zoning districts[], which are currently located in a few places in Bloomington, mostly concentrated north of 84th St, on either side of Normandale Blvd.

However, at the Planning Commission Meeting, staff said likely NONE of the current RM50 properties are expected to become Temporary Pandemic Housing.  An existing hotel or other property (e.g., vacant apartment building) would need to be rezoned to apply for this. RM-50 is 50 units per acre density, 80,000 square feet of land (about 2 acres) so it’s not feasible for a single-family lot to rezone for this. Temporary structures or tiny homes would not meet the code requirements.

Rezoning takes at least 60 days, and maximum 120 days.  It would also likely include a comprehensive plan amendment that involves Metropolitan Council Review that could be done concurrently. There might be a need for a public hearing, depending on where the change is being requested.

The intent is to give the city some additional controls over where/when such housing is established.

What's described in the public notification as "temporary housing on an interim basis" actually proposes two-year approval durations. Two years seems to us neither temporary nor interim. And indeed, staff indicated that the intent was that these locations would then become permanent “affordable” housing.

When one Planning Commissioner asked what happens after the 2 years, the Staff answered that, ideally, the property would be redeveloped as more permanent RM50 housing – long-term, permanent housing, multi-family, that would expand the city’s affordable housing stock.  It could NOT return use as a hotel in an RM50 zone; it would have to apply for permission to rezone again as a hotel / office etc.

Commissioners expressed doubts that any developer would take on the Temporary Pandemic Housing permit process rather than go directly for RM50 – planning and construction changes for those types of developments often take 2 years.

Commissioners also felt the typical, appropriate, timelines for rezoning approvals were not responsive enough to address the unexpected timing / needs for a pandemic or other emergency situation.

Planning Commissioners voted to carry-over this item and asked staff to come back with a revised ordinance that could include an expansion or replacement of permissible zones / shortening the approval timelines / shortening the duration of the use (e.g. 6 months). The intent would be to not require RM50 rezoning that’s permanent after 2 years.

Another point of note is the reduced parking-spaces requirement, requiring only 1 parking spot for every 2 housing units/rooms. It seems to us that the hotels currently used as temporary housing have full parking lots.

Staff assume those in Temporary Pandemic Housing are less likely to have cars.  No supporting evidence was provided.