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.”

24 thoughts on “Minneapolis’ Zoning Code Continues to Make Housing Unaffordable

  1. Anton SchiefferAnton Schieffer

    Nice piece. I agree that it’s frustrating that the city and CPC aren’t being very forward-thinking regarding the plan for growth in this city. If the city of Minneapolis is to grow, we absolutely need small infill projects like this. Without easing our zoning restrictions, we will move closer to unaffordable cities like SF and Seattle, which have had more people move to them without a plan to build enough housing.

    If our plan is to grow the city, we need to look at how we can accomplish that in an equitable way via zoning.

    1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

      The city has missed opportunities to be forward thinking in other ways too. The afterthought regarding the pedestrian district that let the Walgreens build an auto-centric store in the heart of the Hennepin Ave walkable district is another example.

      Is there a way to get a third party to audit each of these little zoning-planning-regulations that inhibit the goal of getting more affordable-walkable neighborhoods? Daylight them so we can get advocates to raise voices over these technocratic rules.

  2. cobo Rodreges

    What about parking…? I don’t know the neighborhood but another unit might just add another car parked on a packed street.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele Post author

      I wasn’t aware that current residents were more entitled to on-street parking than future residents, or anyone else for that matter.

      1. Bob

        Not that I disagree with the overall sentiment, but this response is ridiculous. In the sense that you’re using the words, current residents are always more “entitled” to lots of things than “future residents,” especially in the context of rezoning.

        They have access to a neighborhood that they chose to move into, as the way it is when they made that decision. Zoning helps preserve that neighborhood’s status. I know that you’re arguing that neighborhoods need to change to accommodate Minneapolis’s growth–and I get that, and it has to happen somehow–but preserving the “entitlement” of current residents is, at its core, one of the main functions of zoning. No one wants to move into a single-family home neighborhood, and, within a couple years, find that multiple apartment buildings are being built next door, find that a neighbor’s land has been rezoned commercial or industrial (although I know this is a “downzone” in the way you’re using these terms), or whatever.

        1. Daniel Phillips

          This only true if you believe that any given neighborhood belongs only to its current residents. I, however, don’t. The neighborhood belongs to the city as a whole. The city must do what is in the best interest of the city and that includes any future residents. The exists to provide a “safe & happy” life* for all her residents not preserve to narrow interests of one neighborhood over the rest.

          *I don’t really like that phrase but couldn’t think of anything better

          1. Bob

            So devaluing homeowners’ land doesn’t just hurt those homeowners. Lack of predictability of when land will be rezoned makes land under the control of such rezoners less valuable and less interesting to own for the higher-income populations that the city would love to tax for its amenities.

            In any case, my point wasn’t that the neighborhood “belongs” to one population over another, just that the entire concept of zoning is inherently one that conserves the property of an area. In that sense, it grants or entitles the population within that area certain things. Rezoning strips them of those “entitlements.” In the sense that a population in a city deserves to get what they’ve paid for (rather than being unsure when their land will be collaterally devalued by government action), current owners are entitled by the zoning restrictions the city has made.

            1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

              “In the sense that a population in a city deserves to get what they’ve paid for (rather than being unsure when their land will be collaterally devalued by government action), current owners are entitled by the zoning restrictions the city has made.”

              A lot of the fear of rezoning near always points at superstition of “devaluing”. Evidence is sparse, in fact the fear is mostly, it seems, a matter of faith. There are some changes to zoning that could conceivably change valuation to nearby property, but slight changes to allowed density of use is almost never one. The superstition that rezoning to change allowed density to be marginally increased nearly only serves not the preservation of purchased property, but instead serves the faster-than-inflation increase in the property value … and makes housing unaffordable.

              Zoning needs to evolve from locking all residential property in amber for all time.

              1. Bob

                Regardless of your views on whether the spirit of zoning should change, you can’t feasibly argue that rezoning doesn’t result in property devaluation. Just do any Google search for zoning and takings clause to see litigation ( and court decisions) to the contrary.

                You especially can’t make the “lack of evidence” argument while providing none of your own.

                1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

                  This blog had a post on it a few months ago with citations to the studies that researched it.

                  1. Bob

                    Except that the suits result in the government paying money… meaning it was a taking of value…

                    1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

                      Yeah, this or that court case shows judges or juries, now and then by the rules of courts, are convinced it is so. Just like I said, it might happen. This or that random court case is not proof it is such a certainty it deserves crony government protection universally. As the academic research in Alex’s post shows it hardly ever happens. More usually it increases property value.

                2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

                  Yes, we can argue that rezoning doesn’t result in property valuation, as least when we’re talking about zoning to add density, as the evidence we have points to the opposite effect.

        2. Rosa

          What this post shows by showing how much of an existing neighborhood would be illegal to build new is that the zoning isn’t preserving anything. It’s changing it.

          We lose buildings and uses all the time. Without the newer zoning, we’d gain similar buildings or similar uses in different buildings. So the nature of the zoning is to force change.

          When we have an existing neighborhood with a lot of multifamilies, housing over businesses and houses with a small and a large house on the same lot, but the zoning code doesn’t allow for rebuilding similarly-sized or similarly-dense structures if one is lost to fire or condemnation, what happens is what you see in South Minneapolis – empty spaces that used to be homes or businesses or both. Lots that are difficult to rebuild on, so they go unused.

        3. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          I’m sure you mean this as an argument in favor of zoning, but it really doesn’t sound like one.

          I’m really not sure what’s so scary about new apartment building either.

    2. Rosa

      It might, but it might not – that’s a very bikeable and busabl spot. When I lived 2 blocks from there, in an (illegal) converted attic, I didn’t own a car. People at lower rent price points are less likely to.

      And more to the point, there’s currently nothing stopping the people in that duplex from owning any number of cars. The limit is how long one car can be parked in one place without being moved. Some legally occupied duplexes on my block, in the same neighborhood, have five or six cars – two adults in each unit and some number of teen or college aged kids will have that number easily.

  3. Daniel Phillips

    I am more and more beginning to think that minimum lot sizes are the worst thing working against affordable housing.

    1. Monte Castleman

      Anything that increases raw land prices multiplies itself since you need to build a structure that’s at least three times the value of the land, generally a bit more. That includes supply restricting growth boundaries, whether mountains or an arbitrary line on a map, or restrictions as to how much land you need to use as in minimum lot sizes zoning.

  4. GlowBoy

    Agree with everything here. Most of the city needs to be upzoned. Every major street should allow multiple use and at least low rise apartments along its entire length. Every street within a block of a major one should allow rowhouses and duplexes. And there’s really no reason to object to a mid-rise building in any commercial district.

    Also, I’m not sure what Minneapolis is doing about tiny houses, ADUs (aka granny flats, Mother-in-Laws, etc.), but we should definitely be encouraging more of those too.

    1. Rosa

      the newish ADU ordinance from the beginning of last year is pretty good but the process is still difficult, judging by a friend’s experience in Phillips.


    I think Minneapolis is trying to push low income people away from downtown and surrounding areas out to the burbs. Minneapolis wants to have a glamorous downtown with young professionals frequenting the high priced restaraunts and night clubs. It makes the city look cool and trendy. I dont agree with it, but that is seems to be happening. In a few years downtown realestate will be pricy like San Francisco.

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