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Minneapolis To Eliminate Single-Family Zoning

The move will increase housing density and end a housing policy with historic roots in racial discrimination

The Minneapolis City Council has voted to open all neighborhoods to multifamily dwellings. Proponents hope the change in policy will make housing more affordable to a more diverse population. (Photo: Tony Webster / CC / Flickr)

Minneapolis has become the first major city in the country to drop zoning regulations that allow only single-family homes, The New York Times reports.

In a vote earlier this month, the City Council approved new zoning rules that will allow multifamily units with as many as three dwelling units in every neighborhood in the city.

The changes, now under review by a regional policy-setting body, are expected to be put into place next year.

The change is part of the city’s revised comprehensive plan, called Minneapolis 2040, that lays out objectives in a variety of categories, including housing. The document notes that the city added more than 12,000 housing units and 37,000 people between 2010 and 2016, increasing demand for housing and pushing up housing costs and rents.

“As a result,” the plan says, “housing units that were once affordable no longer are, and less housing is available for low-income residents of Minneapolis.”

At the same time, median income for African-American and American Indian and Alaska natives has been sinking. The city has lost some 15,000 housing units considered affordable for those earning 50% of the area’s median income. Because of that, 49% of all households in Minneapolis devote more than 30% of household income to housing — what the plan calls “cost-burdened households.”

While one-third of white households are considered cost-burdened, more than 50% of black and Native American households meet that test. Forty-five percent of Hispanic households are cost-burdened.

Racial discrimination in housing was encouraged by loan underwriting guidelines from the federal government during the 1930s — guidelines that were intended to make loans for single-family homes less risky. This history has continued to shape housing opportunities for people of color, the plan says.

“To address these issues, the City of Minneapolis will expand opportunities to increase the housing supply in a way that meets changing needs and desires,” the plan notes. “This means allowing more housing options, especially in areas that currently lack housing choice and in areas with access to frequent and fast transit employment, and goods and services.”

Not everyone likes the new approach

As might be expected, the effort to increase housing density in neighborhoods that have until now been limited to single-family homes isn’t going down without a fight.

A group called Minneapolis for Everyone fought the changes on the grounds that it centralizes neighborhood planning in City Hall, and would degrade quality of life and the environment. The group also argued that Minneapolis 2040 “discriminates in housing and transportation against families with children, the disabled, the elderly and people with low incomes.”

The group made lawn signs available for people who opposed the plan. One of them said, “Don’t Bulldoze Our Neighborhoods.” Another said, “Developers Win! Neighborhoods Lose!”

Lisa McDonald, a former City Council member, worked with Minneapolis for Everyone and said many residents who live near public transit are worried that tall apartment buildings will spring up next to their homes, according to The Times.

“We’ve tried very hard to work with the city to say, ‘Let’s find a rational approach to this,’ ” she said. “And instead, what the city has basically done is say, ‘If you’re not for this plan, you’re a racist and an elitist.’ ”

Efforts are underway elsewhere

Other cities with a shortage of affordable housing also are weighing similar plans. In Portland, Oregon, a revised housing plan would allow more multifamily units in single-family neighborhoods, according to a report in The Oregonian.

The Residential Infill Project is intended to increase housing density and reduce the cost of housing. An early version of the plan was opposed by both housing activists and neighborhood groups. A new version would create 24,000 new homes over 20 years, and allow duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes on more residential lots, according to an analysis.

The plan also would cover most of the city rather than just “high-opportunity housing areas.”

City Council approval isn’t expected until 2019. A neighborhood association has asked a state court to overturn a section of the city’s comprehensive plan to block the project, the newspaper said.

The Times reported that Seattle is considering a plan to rezone 6% of its single-family neighborhoods to allow more housing. But an increase in affordable housing won’t automatically follow.

In an article published in The Seattle Times in May, Mike Rosenberg said that 69% of residential lots are occupied by single-family houses. Large swaths of the city are off-limits to apartments, condos, and town homes. And because single-family lots are mostly built out, only limited areas of the city are absorbing all of the city’s growth in population — 100,000 new residents in a decade.

The city is slowly allowing greater density in single-family zones, but that hasn’t done much to make housing more affordable because real estate prices are so high. On average, Rosenberg said, at least seven housing units must be built on one property before each one is cheaper than the older house it replaced.

“To have a real impact on affordability,” he wrote, “Seattle would need to build a lot more of these smaller homes in taller buildings – a complete overhaul to neighborhoods that existing homeowners (the majority of city voters) are likely to oppose.”

One Comment

  1. kevin_in_denver | | #1

    Believe it or not, the racial wealth gap is explained mostly by zoning practice. Cory Booker's interest in politics also stems from this.

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