Minneapolis’ Zoning Code Continues to Make Housing Unaffordable

There’s an Ethiopian proverb that goes something like, “When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.” When it comes to housing, Minneapolitans may have it better than those in Seattle, San Francisco, D.C., and Brooklyn, but a larger and wider slice of Minneapolis is feeling the pinch of fast-rising rents. For some, this even means displacement or possibly even homelessness. This is unacceptable. And it doesn’t have to be this way, because we could eliminate artificial caps on housing supply in Minneapolis, thereby reducing equilibrium rents and making housing more affordable for more people. If every dwelling unit is like a little barely-visible spider web, it may seem like a unit here or two units there won’t make a big difference. But, on the whole, the economics are sound: Rising supply necessarily lowers rents.

No, I’m not going to claim that upzoning is the panacea to housing affordability. But our current zoning code is working against natural housing supply, and that’s working against housing affordability. It seems like such an easy, obvious win to get rid of the barriers to new housing stock in our city.

3219 Portland Ave. Conspicuously missing: An "Every Dwelling Counts, Every Dwelling Matters" yard sign.

3219 Portland Ave. Conspicuously missing: An “Every Dwelling Counts, Every Dwelling Matters” yard sign.

To understand how our zoning code is restrictive to the point of being harmful to housing affordability, let’s look at a real life example. The owner of 3219 Portland Avenue, a duplex, applied for two items which would have allowed them to add a new one bedroom apartment in their existing unfinished attic – a project that would have added a dwelling unit in our city without even expanding the footprint of an existing house. They needed a rezoning from R2B to R3 to be able to rent out three units on this property, and they needed a variance because this lot is 280 square feet smaller than the minimum lot size (Yes, minimum lot size is a thing! Despite also having maximum floor area ratios, setback requirements, and all the rest!).

City staff, dutifully doing their job to administer a zoning code however flawed it may be, recommended denial of these two requests. And the City Planning Commission dutifully agreed with staff findings and denied both items. As such, we have one less spider web in the city to help reduce the sting of rent increases in a city with surging housing demand.

But before these hopes died, I penned the following letter to the City Planning Commission in hopes they would stand up for a brighter housing future in Minneapolis, even if it meant a little friction with our flawed zoning code.

Here is my letter:

I was interested by the 3219 Portland item on the upcoming CPC agenda. I have no connection to the property or block in question, other than it’s on my bike commute, but I thought it’s an interesting case study in providing increased housing stock through incremental intensification.

First of all, I completely understand why staff was bound to recommend denial of the two variances due to interpretation of the existing comprehensive plan. It’s the right technical decision, based on existing code and constraints.

That said, I would highly recommend the CPC to approve the two variances. Because our current comprehensive plan – and how it affects land use on parcels such as this – is an obstruction to the stated goals we have adopted as a city.

It is my personal belief that we need to upzone the entire city and move towards governing form and impacts rather than land use and intensity. In that vein, these two variances should be slam dunk because they are literally allowing a more intense land use inside an existing structure, footprint, and lot size. Especially at 32nd and Portland, so close to Chicago, Lake, Nicollet, and the Greenway, it is so unfortunate that we have a sea of R2B zoning, where we can’t even allow people to make the best use out of existing structures to house a growing population. This entire neighborhood should be zoned R3 or higher, or better yet some sort of transect-based design. But alas, I do not write the comprehensive plan.

Based on the submitted plans, it looks like this house has approximately 3500 square feet above ground on 2.5 floors. What an act of hubris it was in 1963 to decide that these grand old houses shouldn’t be adaptable into modern living arrangements for family units that are much smaller than a century ago. When this house was built in 1910, it may have been for a family of 10 with domestic help living onsite. Now, most households in our city are 1 or 2 people. It’s ridiculous that three people in three separate units is a prohibited use of this existing large structure based on our comprehensive plan.

The best way to preserve a building is to continue using it (and that may look different than how it was initially used). An outdated duplex that becomes too expensive to maintain could become blighted and problematic for a block. But with rent from an additional unit, there’s more likelihood that future owners of this building will be able to not only maintain but improve upon the quality of the structure.

But, most importantly, we need to increase housing stock in Minneapolis. Mayor Hodges talks about increasing the city’s population to 500,000, returning Minneapolis to its earlier peak. In order to do that, we need to allow (and encourage!) more dwelling units in our city. This fits in with the “hub of economic activity and innovation” Allowing this property to house more people within its existing shell brings more people into the neighborhood – more customers for local businesses, more eyes on the street for safety, more people that can live closer rather than further to their workplace, and so on. This helps us meet our “living well” and “great places” goals.

As living in Minneapolis becomes much more popular, we’ve seen rents rise much faster than incomes, and it’s people living on the margins who have been pinched the most as housing affordability has declined. Adding housing units is a large part of the affordability solution over the long haul, an effective relief valve for price increases. This helps us achieve “One Minneapolis,” where our neighborhoods are welcoming of all people, not just those who can afford high rents. Finally, it seems counter to “a city that works” to deny a particular land use based on nitpicks like minimum lot size or R2B+ADU vs R3.

We need every new housing unit we can get in Minneapolis, especially new units – such as this proposal – with little to no negative impacts on adjacent property values or quality of life. This should be a slam dunk, but instead our comprehensive plan is pulling us towards a dark past rather than a better future. Again, I see that as an indictment of our comprehensive plan, not the staff recommendations. That said, I do urge the CPC to reconsider and approve these variances.


Some extra links:

For a primer to zoning code mechanisms, check out Peter Bajurny’s recent explainer.

For another example of the harms of our existing zoning code only a few blocks away, check out my earlier article on 3748 Park Ave.

To fully enter the Streets.MN Zoning Wormhole, visit John Edwards’ “A History of Downzoning.”

Matt Steele

About Matt Steele

Matt's passion is fostering resiliency in local transportation and land use decisions. He's at @matthewsteele.