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Some Dallas city officials say it's time to rethink 1950s single-family zoning and land use rules

The Dallas skyline as seen from city hall Wednesday, Aug 16, 2023, in Dallas.
Yfat Yossifor
At least three council members, who asked for the discussion over minimum lot sizes to be added to a committee agenda, say the conversation lacked transparency.

Reducing minimum lot sizes and allowing three or four-unit developments in neighborhoods currently zoned for single-family residents is increasingly being discussed across the nation. Now that debate has come to Dallas.

Proponents of the idea say now is the time to start the conversation of how the city can meet increasing housing demands — and failing to think critically about the issue means sticking with “the status quo.”

But there has been harsh criticism and pushback to the idea. Those opposed to amending Dallas’ decades-old residential zoning rules say allowing multi-unit developments in residential areas — no matter how contained they are — may “destabilize” neighborhoods.

In late December, city staff presented a starting point to that conversation by laying out different potential options for addressing the housing need in the city.

Those options — not formal proposals as staff reiterated several times during the briefing — included reducing minimum lot sizes in single-family residential areas and creating new land uses for smaller dwellings.

The presentation was met with vocal opposition from the several council members who attended the Housing and Homelessness Solutions Committee meeting late last year. Some told staff the ideas in the presentation were “way off base” and “non-starters” for the constituents in their districts.

The special called meeting was scheduled a week before the Christmas holiday — a time the council is usually in recess, according to city officials. All but one of the five council members who asked for the briefing to be added to a committee agenda did not make the meeting. That timing, some suggested, made the process less transparent.

District 9 Council Member Paula Blackmon was one of the five to request the briefing. She says the conversation is just the beginning to fixing a more complex issue.

“This is the question of does our city become modern and grow in a responsible way or do we choose to just be in the 1950s era?” Blackmon told KERA. “That’s just a conversation that we need to have…but it’s got to be thoughtful and it needs to have everyone at the table having an open mind and willing to have that discussion.”

‘An opportunity for Dallas’

Along with Blackmon, District 1 Council Member Chad West, District 5 Council Member Jaime Resendez, District 11 Council Member Jaynie Schultz and District 7 Council Member Adam Bazaldua signed the memo requesting staff to look into the housing issue.

The memo asked for a briefing to start the conversation on how the city increases housing — and housing options.

“This is an opportunity for Dallas to start intentionally having the conversation on how we’re going to address housing from a zoning perspective moving forward,” Interim Director of Planning and Urban Design Andrea Gilles told KERA.

Staff says along with potentially reducing minimum lot sizes in residential areas of the city — the addition of two new land uses would essentially fill a gap in zoning and development options. Currently, the city has land use definitions for single-family homes and duplexes in residential areas. But the next step up is multi-family zoning.

“You can get anything out of that,” Assistant Director of Planning and Urban Design Andreea Udrea told KERA. “You can get a larger complex or you can get a smaller gentle density three-plex, four-plex.”

Udrea says by allowing for a three-unit or four-unit dwelling to be built in current single-family neighborhoods, the city could create “gentle density.”

“Because the code is written right now in a manner that is not necessarily very friendly to infill and redevelopment, we end up with these zoning changes basically being requests for multi-family,” Udrea said. “But in reality, what the intent of the development is probably…something that is very, very small scale and few units.”

And just like other development codes — the potential new land uses would require stringent design standards, according to city staff. Part of that, staff said, means trying to preserve the way a neighborhood looks and feels while still accommodating more housing options — not just single-family houses.

But the process for figuring out what might work in Dallas is just beginning.

‘Fear of change’

The late-December meeting yielded no more information about the housing subject other than a clear message from several council members in attendance: Maybe this is the wrong conversation all together.

District 12 Council Member Cara Mendelsohn said during the meeting that her constituents have already voiced concerns against the possible development changes.

“They don’t actually want to have multi-family, no matter what it looks like, in an established single-family neighborhood,” Mendelsohn said.

Mendelsohn also claimed that the initial idea lacks equity for people who “prefer a single-family” area and it could “increase the amount of renters we have and destabilize neighborhoods.”

Several council members also said allowing new land uses in residential areas of the city to be added to the code and become “by-right” was concerning. District 2 Council Member Jesse Moreno, who chairs the committee, said during the meeting “by-right” zoning rules were a “big red flag” and a “nonstarter” for him.

But staff say they never included a “by-right” scenario for the potential new land uses.

“The memo requested a conversation about a by-right four-plex, in our presentation we didn’t’ say that — we said allowed,” Udrea told KERA. “We actually said the opposite, we said…it needs to be very carefully regulated and designed to make sure that it works.”

Planning and Urban Design Interim Director Andrea Gilles says there's a difference between a certain land use being allowed in the code and how that use is applied.

“Does it get applied by somebody comes in asks property by property, request by request? Do we rezone certain areas?” Gilles told KERA. “Or yes, there is also what some cities are doing is just to say that you can now build up to x-number of units in these districts. So there's many different ways to apply it — which is different from being allowed.”

During the December briefing Moreno said he supports more density, but it must “be in the appropriate place.” He also questioned the need to have the conversation in the first place.

“This is going too fast, I appreciate the comments from staff that this is just a discussion, but I am not sure it is even a discussion that is supported broadly,” Moreno said.

Blackmon told KERA that to her, the opposition could be summed up as “fear of change.”

“It’s okay for things to evolve and they should evolve, because if they don’t that means you’re dying,” Blackmon told KERA. “And I don’t think anyone wants Dallas to die.”

‘Willing to have this conversation’

At least three of the five members who signed the memo say transparency around the subject is lacking.

West told KERA that there was little to no communication about when the issue would be discussed. According to the City Secretary’s office, the meeting was scheduled for the week before the Christmas holiday. And it was announced just four days before it was to be held.

Ultimately both West and Blackmon say by the time the meeting was set, they both were planning to head out for the holidays and decided to miss the meeting.

Bazaldua was the only member who signed the memo requesting the briefing at the late-December discussion.

“It frustrates me when anything that we do as a body gives the perception to the public that we lack transparency,” Bazaldua told KERA. “The way that this went down was very clear that conversations were being had outside of what was on record.”

The discussion was the first of what could be many around the subject. And any proposal the council decides on would have to go through the usual ordinance amendment process. That means community outreach and making it through at least two commissions before moving to committees and finally full council.

West says the main question centers on Dallas’ residents — and its workforce — being able to live in the city.

“They want to come here, they’re going to keeping coming here…and our workforce won’t be able to live in this city,” West said. “Do we want to be a city that has places for our workforce to live…and to hopefully buy — or do we not?”

Other members say to start increasing housing options — everyone needs to commit to being able to discuss the problem.

“If you’re not willing to have this conversation that means you are okay with the way things are now, the status quo, and let’s just call it a day,” Blackmon said.

Got a tip? Email Nathan Collins at You can follow Nathan on Twitter @nathannotforyou.

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Nathan Collins is the Dallas Accountability Reporter for KERA. Collins joined the station after receiving his master’s degree in Investigative Journalism from Arizona State University. Prior to becoming a journalist, he was a professional musician.