Obama To Cities: Build Some Housing Already

On September 26th, the Obama administration released the Housing Development Toolkit, signalling to the country that they are on Team YIMBY (that’s “Yes In My BackYard”). The document outlines the barriers for housing growth that many cities, including Minneapolis and Saint Paul, have been experiencing in recent years. Local zoning laws, outdated land use regulations, and loud NIMBY (“Not In My BackYard”) voices have combined to create a housing shortage which threatens affordability and forces families to move further away from high-paying jobs.

Median Rents v. Median Income

One key takeaway noted in the document is that housing supply has simply not kept up with demand. According to US Census Data, population growth in Minneapolis was relatively stagnant between 2000 (pop: 382,618) and 2010 (pop: 382,578). Then, between 2010 and 2014, roughly 30,000 new residents were added to the city. All these residents need places to live, yet Minneapolis only issued enough permits to create 11,679 new units between 2010 and 2015. Minneapolis had many more residents competing for only a few more available units, and as a result, rents went up and vacancy rates declined.

Why were so few units built during this time? Well, building housing isn’t easy, especially in desirable parts of town where people want to live. People want to live where it’s safe, there’s good access to transit, and there are nearby amenities like lakes and parks. A place like Uptown is ideal for development (close to lakes, shopping, frequent bus lines, proximity to downtown), but much of that area is zoned to prevent development larger than a duplex, making it nearly impossible for any significant growth to occur there.

Neighbors and neighborhood groups in already-desirable areas often vocally oppose any nearby proposed developments. Recent examples in Minneapolis include an ugly multi-year fight over a proposed 29-unit apartment building in Linden Hills and a similar years-long battle over a 40-unit building at 24th and Colfax. Combined, these 69 housing units represent a tiny fraction of what we need to build, yet developers will hesitate to propose similar projects if anti-housing opposition drags out the process for years. Closer to downtown Minneapolis, a group of residents claim they’ve raised $54,000 so far to pay legal costs associated with a never-ending series of appeals designed to stop a 40-story residential tower (their goal is $60,000 more).

The Housing Development Toolkit mentions some ideas that Minneapolis has already started doing to keep housing costs low, such as reducing off-street parking requirements for new developments near transit corridors, and allowing accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to be built in certain circumstances.

Despite having begun to allow the construction of ADUs, zoning hurdles remain. In a recent example, a homeowner with an eye toward one day building an ADU was forced to endure the process of requesting an upzoning from the Planning Commission. His home–which was built as a duplex in 1922–had been downzoned to a district that allowed neither duplexes nor ADUs.

Real Construction Costs and House Prices Over Time

As the Obama administration’s document notes, there is much more work to do to ensure that quality housing is available for everyone, not just those who make enough money to afford it. More high-density zoning is needed in areas that are well-served by transit. Minneapolis zoning code as it stands is a convoluted mess (with examples like this and this being just the tip of the iceberg), and needs to be re-evaluated and streamlined in order to create enough housing for all its residents. Other tools, like inclusionary zoning and density bonuses, can also help ensure that affordable housing is built rather than strictly market-rate housing. We need both types if we are to grow equitably as a city.

With the release of this document, the Obama administration is highlighting a very serious problem that cities around the country are facing: we are in a housing shortage. The way to get out of that shortage is to build, not to let obstacles stand in the way between people and the quality housing everyone deserves.

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2 Responses to Obama To Cities: Build Some Housing Already

  1. Nathanael September 28, 2016 at 6:27 pm #

    Several steps could be taken at the federal level.

    (1) Make “single family” zoning illegal. It’s an invasion of privacy to count “families”. The city can legitimately regulate the number of people in a building, not the number of “families”.
    (2) Ban FAR limits, as they have no legitimate function ever.
    (3) Withhold all federal funding from any city whose vacancy rate is under 4% which has zoning with height restrictions, until they submit an updated zoning plan projected to bring vacancy to at least 4%.

    I don’t think we have the political power to do this yet, but we might soon.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller September 29, 2016 at 10:15 am #

      At the risk of getting to technical, what’s the enumerated federal power that allows the first two actions? Perhaps zoning and FAR limits have some effect on interstate commerce?