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Pioneering Zoning Reforms in Grand Rapids, MI

Illustration by Wynton Henderson

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Before Grand Rapids, MI started to pursue zoning reform in the early 2000s, its city plan was rife with inconsistent and complex land use practices that hampered development. To help inform its reform efforts in the years leading up to 2008, the city carried out an 18-month planning process including almost 250 community engagement meetings. During these meetings, residents and business owners generally expressed a desire to maintain the character of their neighborhoods while not substantially opposing greater density.

Reforms Implemented

While Minneapolis’ more recent zoning-reform plan has garnered far more national attention, Grand Rapids effectively eliminated single-family zoning nearly a decade before in 2008. The city approved a new zoning ordinance that split the city into “character districts,” allowing denser development than was permissible in the early 2000s so long as it was consistent with what had historically been allowed before more restrictive zoning practices were implemented over the course of the 20th century. All the character district types allowed duplexes or apartments either by-right or with special approval—and 97% of applications seeking special approval were approved.


The city streamlined the permitting process by allowing more housing by-right, with faster approvals, and by allowing multifamily housing development by-right in mixed-use commercial zones. The new ordinance also reduced parking minimums for both single-family and multifamily housing.

Reportedly, the new zoning ordinance received very little opposition and was embraced by the public—perhaps a credit to the city’s extensive community engagement effort. According to Suzanne Schulz, a former planning director for the city of Grand Rapids, efforts to maintain neighborhoods’ design elements quelled residents’ opposition to greater density. Residents came on board when they learned that the increased density would reflect what had been developed historically—so neighborhoods would not see any entirely new forms of development that appear out of place. As Schulz put it: “If we already have different housing types in a community, why would we want to prohibit it in the future?”

Early Evidence

Since the new zoning ordinance was implemented in 2008—when housing production began to plummet nationwide because of the financial crisis—it is difficult to measure the impact of the reform on housing production. In the years immediately following the measure, multifamily housing production was low in Grand Rapids as well as the rest of the state. However, over the last decade, multifamily housing supply in Grand Rapids has seen a robust increase, which may have been made possible by the 2008 zoning ordinance. Further research would be beneficial to help determine the direct effect of zoning reform on housing supply and affordability in Grand Rapids.


According to Schulz, the streamlined approval process enticed some developers—including Low Income Housing Tax Credit developers—and investors to build housing in Grand Rapids because it is easier to build there than elsewhere.

Increasing population has been a priority for the city of Grand Rapids, which set the goal of adding 12,000 downtown residents—an objective made more feasible by zoning that allows for denser development. While this ambitious target is far off, Grand Rapids did increase its downtown area population by 47% between 2010 and 2020 according to census data, up to 6,402 people, thanks largely to the development of new apartments.

Grand Rapids still has a significant need to build more affordable housing. According to one analysis, Grand Rapids has a housing shortage of about 7,961 rental units and 6,155 for-sale units, compared to a total population of just under 200,000. All affordable rentals that operate under either the LIHTC program or with a government subsidy are now fully occupied.

Recognizing the continued need to build affordable housing, Grand Rapids implemented further reforms in 2018, extending by-right approvals to townhouses near commercial areas and corner lot duplexes. In 2023, the city is considering another round of reforms, including proposals to:

  • Further reduce or eliminate all parking minimums
  • Allow single-room occupancy units (also known as microunits)
  • Allow a greater number of unrelated individuals to share a unit on land near universities
  • Streamline the review process for ADUs and eliminate owner-occupancy requirements

Read more zoning and land use case studies here.

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