I love living in Minnesota, the Twin Cities, and mostly Minneapolis. The core of our state offers so many opportunities to so many different kinds of people. But for too long, urban progressives – the type of people who vote overwhelmingly for liberal candidates and causes election after election – have waged a mostly winning battle against land use reforms that match our values. We need to reverse course.
I’ve previously written about how mismatches in scale aren’t so bad, how your property values probably won’t take a nose-dive if we up-zone, and how many homes would actually need to be replaced in Minneapolis to accommodate 100,000 new residents (it’s not that many). I flirted with progressive arguments for why density shouldn’t be limited to high-traffic corridors. But none of these made the direct progressive case for why liberals should actively support changing our zoning code to allow more of everything everywhere.
Many writers have explored aspects of a liberal or progressive case for loosening development regulations, but I’d like to lay out all the arguments in one place and do so through the lens of Minneapolis, the urban center of our state.
I want to make clear upfront that up-zoning is not the primary way we should be addressing society’s challenges. Sometimes upzoning will have negative side-effects that should be addressed. But I hope to convince you that, on the whole, upzoning is unambiguously a policy to support if you really care about progressive outcomes.
What do I mean by up-zoning?
Before I go any further, I’d like to give a brief, general definition of what I mean when I say “Up-zone Minneapolis:”
- More styles of housing allowed without complicated and lengthy design review and approvals process, in more places in the city. This means allowing existing structures to be subdivided into duplexes, triplexes, or single-room occupancy housing, but also allowing townhomes and apartment buildings to be built in more places than enabled by current policies. This includes “market-rate” and “affordable” development.
- Fewer design requirements that limit the size, shape, and cost of new buildings or how they’re used inside. Examples include further reducing parking minimums, easing minimum setback requirements, and reducing minimum lot size per unit requirements.
- Allow more retail (shops, restaurants, etc) in more places, including on smaller/side streets mixed in with residential.
- Allow for more (or larger) office or light-industrial nodes in the city.
- I don’t just mean Minneapolis; these points apply to St Paul and, to a slightly lesser extent, the built-up parts of the Twin Cities region.
There are many ways to achieve these goals through policy, so I won’t get into those details. But I want to be clear that up-zoning isn’t just about allowing more apartments – it’s about easing or eliminating rules that restrict housing, shopping, and jobs.
More People & Jobs In A City With Progressive Policies
Minneapolis is a progressive city in a fairly progressive county in an overall left-leaning state. Despite legislative efforts to reduce its capacity to do so, Minneapolis (and Saint Paul) will likely continue to lead (by either coming first or being flat-out better) the region and state when it comes to enacting progressive policies. Here are just a few examples of those policies and services:
- Paid sick time
- Sanctuary city protections for immigrants
- Our independent park system, fully funded with a focus on racial and economic justice
- A Complete Streets Policy that puts the needs of the most vulnerable street users first
- A Climate Action Plan with a focus on environmental justice
- Potential future policies like inclusionary zoning, rent restrictions, landlord regulations, housing safety nets, city-wide minimum wage, and fair scheduling, all aimed at protecting and improving the lives of those most in need.
Up-zoning increases the number of people, businesses, and jobs that can participate in this wonderful city, and we need to recognize it as a progressive goal because those policies we champion will benefit more people. By-right development and a quick and easy permitting process can be pitched as a worthy tradeoff for workers’ rights and other regulations that exceed what more conservative localities are willing to provide.
An overwhelming body of support from credible experts on this point: putting more people and jobs in already built-up cities is a good thing. Even when it replaces existing (potentially historic) structures and is made from materials brought to Minneapolis on the slow boat from China.
The details definitely matter! Building placement, design, and public infrastructure (parks, transit, stormwater management, etc) all make a big difference. There are people out there with recommendations on the finer points. But at the end of the day, people in a new apartment building or townhouse in Minneapolis will walk and bike more, be more likely to ride the bus, travel shorter distances when they do drive, need far fewer concrete-intensive new roads, need less road salt, and consume less household electricity and natural gas than the alternative: letting that demand for housing be met in the newest greenfield tract development in Carver, MN.
I’m going to reiterate that up-zoning is not the silver bullet that will solve housing affordability problems across the income spectrum. Contrary to what a small group of very libertarian “market urbanists” believe, we really do need a wide range of housing policies, programs, subsidies, public construction and ownership, and many other policies to not only build new housing, but retain existing affordable units and mitigate (or prevent) the awful impacts the market creates when more development is allowed.
But again, at a basic level, there is strong evidence that looser regulatory regimes allow the market to keep prices better in check. They allow greater flexibility in maximizing desirable (and expensive) urban land, providing a better variety of housing styles and price points. There’s evidence that boom and bust cycles–which can be harsh on those not immediately benefitting from new supply–are less severe with less restrictive zoning. But don’t take my word for it! Our former (liberal) US President released a housing toolkit to help cities increase affordability, which included ideas like:
- Establishing by-right development
- Streamlining or shortening permitting processes and timelines
- Eliminating off-street parking requirements
- Allowing accessory dwelling units
- Establishing density bonuses
- Enacting high-density and multifamily zoning
And why does up-zoning specifically Minneapolis help the most? Central cities with good transit access, bike infrastructure, and shorter distances between homes, shopping, and jobs allow residents to spend less on transportation as a percent of household income. Policies that keep housing prices low while saving hundreds, potentially thousands, a year on transportation is a compound win. Minneapolis progressives should jump at the opportunity to let new construction keep existing prices in check and allow new residents to access our local amenities that contribute to a lower aggregate cost of living.
Some people make a surface level progressive argument against more people, more housing, more jobs, by pointing out that very wealthy people – developers, mostly – will make money as a result. We need to stop acting as though the presence of profit isn’t a key part of the economic ladder progressives strive to share with everyone. Our neighborhoods were built with profit-making single family home kits and apartments. Our beloved local businesses we support are motivated, at least in part, by profit. As I’m typing this, I’m realizing nearly everything in my home was manufactured and sold for profit.
Housing as an industry is full of people looking to make a buck: realtors who sell historic homes, homeowners who view their house as an “investment,” the contractors who fix up their old electric and plumbing, and management companies that upgrade apartments to charge a higher rent. As progressives, we have better ways of redistributing that profit and protecting tenants than simply blocking new housing.
The reality is that developers can and do play a small but vital role in our local economy, particularly the smaller, local ones. In a time when middle class, blue collar jobs can be hard to come by in a core city like Minneapolis, progressives should welcome a booming construction business owing to housing development.
Housing and Accessibility
We’ve got a lot of baby boomers retiring soon who might someday need a different living situation than their current one. The same goes for Gen X-ers and Millennials. Minneapolis provides a much better environment for healthy and independent aging than other places in the region. Compare this proposed elder and memory care facility in Prospect Park to this senior housing facility in Farmington or this one in Lakeville. Which one does a better job of allowing residents with disabilities to independently shop for groceries, socialize outside the facility, and enjoy other activities we’d all like to continue pursuing as we get older?
This isn’t just limited to the elderly. According to Census data, only 40% of the over 38 million people in this country with a “severe disability” are 65 or older. 20 million Americans have a severe difficulty walking or using stairs, with another 3 million in wheelchairs. According to 2015 ACS data, over 5% of Minneapolis residents live with an ambulatory disability and another 2% live with a vision impairment.
The vast majority of Minneapolis’ housing was constructed well before the Fair Housing Act and subsequent Fair Housing Accessibility Requirements. Even then, these accessibility guidelines only cover multi-family buildings. We need to refresh our housing stock to accommodate these people. Up-zoning more residential land to multi-family is a way to do it, and Minneapolis is the best place to put it.
Expanded Tax Base = More Local Money for Progressive Programs
Many things the city spends its tax levy on don’t rise in cost at the same rate as population. This might sound counterintuitive, but a new 200 unit apartment building downtown doesn’t typically require a new street, new storm sewers, or a new park. The same can be said for much of the development going on around town. Sure, there are brownfield development sites like the Malcolm Yards or Basset Creek Valley that really do need new streets, sidewalks, etc.
But most don’t. As a result, every new dollar in property tax revenue generated by these buildings comes with less than a dollar in new municipal costs. That gap allows us to either 1) lower average taxes for everyone else and/or 2) spend that money (or part of it) on new or existing progressive programs – services a city like Minneapolis is willing to provide, but other areas would resist, like:
- Funding supportive housing
- Building and operating transit with local dollars
- Expanding the Affordable Housing Trust Fund
- Buying at-risk Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing
- Expanding local housing, food, and other safety net programs
- Workforce development programs
I want to be clear, there is a difference between a city growing its tax base purely by attracting more expensive homes instead of lower-cost homes and growing its tax base by attracting more net residents relative to its infrastructure costs. The former seeks to grow its levy by focusing on attracting higher-income residents (who have more income to spend on property taxes) at the expense of low-income residents, and that’s wrong. We can grow the city’s tax base in an equitable way that keeps and attracts people of all incomes while paying for more social programs as a result.
Stop-Gap Against Commercial Gentrification
One of the major problems with new development in “transitioning neighborhoods” is that the new (often wealthier) residents’ shopping and dining demands can push existing retailers (often smaller and locally-owned) out in favor of higher-end establishments. This leaves existing residents without the services they depend on – grocers, daycares, shops, and cheap restaurants. So while they may still be able to afford their home, they can no longer afford their neighborhood.
While there’s a 21 year old study that says Minneapolis has far more commercial nodes than we need, I’m not sure that’s the case anymore. I’ve certainly heard enough anecdotes of businesses being pushed out by rising rents. There are many paths to mitigate commercial gentrification; one that we don’t talk about enough is to simply allow more commercial uses as-of-right in more parts of our neighborhoods, in both new and existing buildings.
Side streets offer places for new local businesses to open, or existing ones to move if forced. Converting an old house to a restaurant or salon or commercial daycare could be much cheaper than waiting for space to open up in an existing commercial building, and it’s something we used to allow all the time. This not only provides a stop-gap against losing locally-owned businesses from critical neighborhoods, but it adds destinations that get more people out on the sidewalks in our neighborhoods.
Up-Zoning Minneapolis Means More People at the Center of the Region
This one may seem obvious, but it’s still important. Owing mostly to its centrality, Minneapolis provides residents with the best access to jobs, as measured by number of jobs accessible within a given travel time.
This holds true for people driving, walking, taking a bike, or riding transit. Given the region’s transit plans, a resident in Minneapolis will be even more likely to have good transit-job access in the future, a point driven home by this UMN study.
Even in a suburban context, a net new resident in Hopkins or South St Paul will still have better job access than someone in a slightly larger home in Elko or Andover.
Up-Zoning Minneapolis Means More Job Access Within Minneapolis
Here’s a point made by Chicago’s Daniel Kay Hertz when discussing choice and neo-liberalism as it applies to cities:
The construction of the I-88 employment corridor in DuPage County, for example, represented an expansion of the choice set of people able to drive, in the sense that it allowed people to move farther from the city, and therefore consume more land (i.e. have bigger homes and yards), while still commuting to a Chicago region job. But it meaningfully restricted the choice set of people who did not drive, who found that a rapidly declining share of the region’s employment was accessible without a car. The construction of I-88 itself—and just as importantly, the vast network of wide, high-speed arterial streets through DuPage and suburban Cook County—created options that led to sorting that put many Chicagoans at a severe disadvantage.
It seems likely that this sort of dynamic, in which a policy that opens up a new choice leads to sorting that makes some people worse off, is particularly relevant in situations with lots of dense networks and resource-sharing that depends on those networks.
You could write that about basically any metropolitan region in America. Heck, many European regions too. While we are indeed building a few fixed-guideway transit lines to a good number of suburban job clusters, it’ll never be enough to make up for the job sprawl of the past half century that killed opportunity for many core-city residents without access to a car. Many of those job clusters are office parks didn’t need the large ground-level layouts of modern warehouses or manufacturing buildings. Take a drive down I-494 and check out all the office towers and hotels that could have worked just fine in many parts of Minneapolis if we’d just allowed it.
For the most part, our city has focused major commercial development downtown, and I’m not suggesting we stop that. But there are many companies who can’t necessarily afford the commercial lease in a downtown tower, even Class B or C. I’m not going to claim we’ll see an explosion of new office or light industrial centers across the city, but places like Uptown, Old St. Anthony, and nodes along existing (and planned) light rail lines could likely handle the job growth. Places like the Abbott Northwestern campus show you can have nearly 10,000 jobs, most of them paying solidly middle-class wages, clustered on local streets in a dense part of town and things work out pretty well. Thor Construction is building a new headquarters on Penn and Plymouth Avenues – a place only directly served by an in-development aBRT line and local bus route. We could zone for way more of these uses across the city.
Social Progressivism and Racial Justice
You’ve probably seen these signs plopped down across the city. They’re great! My family has one (that’s our house!). Unfortunately, we’d probably find disappointingly few liberal homeowners believe the sign’s message applies if it means accepting neighbors who are:
- Living in a 4 story apartment building with no dedicated off-street parking, clogging the on-street parking of nearby single family homes
- Targetrons renting “luxury” $1,800/month 1 bedroom apartments along the Midtown Greenway
- A family who just wants to build a detached single family home that looks a bit bigger than its neighbors.
- People requiring affordable housing in a tower
If we want to welcome immigrants to our country and allow them to take advantage of the economic opportunities we take for granted, we need to make space for them. Yes, even if it’s the lot next door! (because even if it’s not next door to you, it’s next door to someone else.)
If we want better education outcomes for kids in lower-income families, we need racial and economic integration. We’re not going to get that without significant up-zoning – whether it’s units built through some Inclusionary Zoning policy, publicly-funded housing, or subdividing existing structures, it won’t happen without the zoning to allow for more. While new supply may not meet everyone’s needs today, in the long run it does. Take a stroll through the well-heeled parts of Minneapolis and what few lower-income families exist are in those 50 year old apartment buildings everyone hates (the “naturally occurring affordable housing” that policymakers today talk about preserving, but that we largely zoned out of existence).
As progressives, we need to come to grips with the huge racist legacy of land use planning in this country, and specifically in Minneapolis. We need to admit that using seemingly neutral terms like traffic, parking, increased crime, increases to police costs, impacts to school district performance, neighborhood character, and any other concern tied to new development all have a history of racial bias. That zoning certain areas of our city for single family homes was just one tool in the box to exclude people who weren’t able or allowed to purchase those homes.
If you think Minneapolis’ current zoning code isn’t explicitly about race anymore, I agree. But the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that it doesn’t matter if discrimination or segregation was the intent of a given policy or program; what matters is if the discriminatory impact exists anyway. While we progressives are supporting structural changes to police departments, hiring practices, and other systems where non-racist people still make decisions or implement policies that discriminate, we should be just as eager to reform land use policies that create the same kinds of discriminatory outcomes.
Progressive Philosophies of Paying Our Fair Share and Being In This Together
Here’s a paper summarizing many of the ways people fear new buildings will impact their lives–traffic, parking, changes to neighborhood character, strain on local services, obstructing views and shading property, impacting property values–things you’ll frequently hear if you tune your laptop to City Hall’s Channel 14 on a regular basis.
I have argued extensively that these impacts aren’t as bad as many make them out to be. But, let’s assume up-zoning really does impact neighboring property values and make incumbent residents’ lives a little worse. Where’s the progressive call to pay our fair share in the same way we believe in a progressive income tax system? Homeowners in Minneapolis (and in general) tend to be whiter, wealthier, more financially secure than the average resident – why are their needs put above the benefits to both the community at large and new residents, particularly ones who will be living in smaller, more energy efficient rental units?
We should have the mentality that we’re all in this thing–we normally call it society–together. Our value system includes core principles like giving everyone a fair shot and everyone playing by the same rules. That our responsibility requires a “commitment to putting the public interest above the interests of a few.” Progressives think it’s worth it to tax ourselves to provide universal education to kids through age 18, or to build and operate transit, or raise our grocery prices by a nickel charge on plastic bags.
None of this is to say that current residents’ fears are ungrounded, or that they’re bad people. Despite choosing to live in one of the more urban neighborhoods in the Twin Cities with a row of apartments across my alley, I’ve stated many times that I’d probably be a little upset if someone proposed a 6-story apartment building to the south of my single-family lot.
I would actually lose sunlight access. There would likely be people that could see my kids playing in the backyard. There would more than likely be fewer parking spaces available on my street. It might be hard to quantify a direct benefit to me or my family as a result of that new building.
But those impacts are still worth it. For all the reasons I listed above. Picking and choosing where (and in what) neighborhoods we allow, and how many, new people to join our community doesn’t give everyone the same shot, and it doesn’t let renters and condo-dwellers play by the same rules as detached homeowners. Basing these policies mostly on the desire of certain neighbors to maintain whatever amenities they currently enjoy doesn’t really fit in with a progressive world-view.
Over the last nearly 100 years, zoning has become more and more restrictive, and it almost never gets more permissive. We’ve historically moved the goalposts in the wrong direction. For every great policy change like allowing Accessory Dwelling Units or reducing parking minimums, we get a Small Area Plan that asks for less total development than was previously allowed and broad, sweeping downzones across wide areas of the city.
We have an opportunity with the Minneapolis Comprehensive Plan update (as do all cities across the metro!) to re-think how we’ve zoned our city. Maybe you’ve read this piece and have some interesting ideas on how we can zone for new neighbors and businesses. Some of you might like the idea of making four-plexes legal everywhere. Others might want more townhomes and four-story apartments on small lots. Maybe you’re more like me and think six-plus story buildings can fit in harmoniously with single family homes as they do all over the world. There are many ways to create a more progressive and welcoming zoning code; there’s no one right answer. But if we want to call ourselves Progressives, the direction of zoning reform needs to be “up.”
(Also, would you like some help fixing that door on your garage?)
I’d like to say that since that photo is almost 3 years old that I’ve taken care of it, but if I used a newer pic it looks mostly the same. It’s on my list for the spring!
I couldn’t agree more. While many people support increased density for any of the numerous reasons you cited, I personally support more up-zoning because housing is a human right. We can easily build enough housing in Minneapolis to support a growing population, but we can’t do it with zoning laws that were written while the city was shrinking over 50 years ago.
Minneapolis has also had a ridiculously low vacancy rate for almost 10 years now, which indicates that our growing population is fighting over the same limited housing supply. Such a tight market means that existing landlords can easily raise rents, because residents don’t have the option to move elsewhere. We need up-zoning because we need more housing choice. Landlords are making money hand over fist (to the point of refusing to take vouchers until the council stepped in last month), and more housing ensures that there is some real competition in the housing market.
I think there’s the potential for a huge problem with the push to raise the minimum wage coupled with our low vacancy rates. If we don’t build more housing, a lot of that wage increase could be eaten up by everybody bidding up the same apartments that they’re trying to live in right now.
Which is especially unfortunate because raising the minimum wage would be the most impactful and immediate way to help alleviate rising housing costs. It’s really surprising Minneapolis doesn’t have a Renters’ Committee to study things like this.
Which leads me to another question: do any Minneapolis elected officials rent? If not, when was the last time they did? I assume they’re aware that the current housing shortage is causing higher rents, but does it impact any of them directly?
I honestly believe our city council & mayor want to make Minneapolis very similar to San Francisco. They want it to be very exspensive so that they generate high taxes. They want to move the “poor” away from the city. Its sad.
Is the Renters’ Committee something that exists in other cities? Is it a body of the city council or something like that?
Seattle and Vancouver have them, but they’re pretty new:
I’m skeptical that a renters’ committee would be effective, but I’d support one to find out.
I think this is not quite correct. At the minimum wage level, even were it nearly doubled to $15, that extra money would likely go toward easing other pressing and immediate financial needs like, say, paying bills on time or having a few nicer things around the house. Not ‘upsizing’ to a new neighborhood or apartment.
I’m not saying people are upsizing, I’m saying that the same apartments will raise their rents because tenants now have more ability to pay. Because the core of the issue is not enough units, then giving people more money to bid on the same supply of units is just going to raise prices. On the margins this could be “good” in that some units at the bottom of the market will have more money to make repairs, but more likely landlords are going to eat up that increased payment and give nothing in return for it.
Other things will probably not change dramatically in price because they’re not supply constrained (example, we have enough food at the grocery store for everyone, or at the very least we can easily increase food production so that the grocery store still has enough). But housing is supply constrained. If you change everybody’s ability to pay without changing the supply you’re just going to get price increases.
I think this is a compelling argument, and I obviously see both sides have merit. I will say, the narrative that landlords eat up gains in income due to minimum wage increases has not been extensively studied as far as I know, and economists are split (and probably agree the net effect would still be positive anyway).
However, I’ll also slightly disagree that people making more money won’t have an effect on people ‘upsizing’. Many of the pressures low-income people face, including the combination of housing+transportation could be eased by making a change to housing and/or transportation. They may already own a car but it is constantly breaking down. They may now be able to afford a slightly newer apartment with lower utility bills. Or they may choose to live in a different neighborhood that costs more but is in a “better” school district – washing out their monetary gains in the process but offering non-monetary benefits. Many immigrants or second generation residents are leaving Minneapolis for larger homes with bigger yards in the suburbs as they make more money.
I’m not saying this is true for everyone, but for some, it’s a potential outcome.
Constraint of supply is not abstract, though. Which is why whether new development is “luxury” or not is concretely important. Even if we will allow, simply for the sake of argument, that 50 years down the road what is now new apartments will become “naturally occurring affordable housing”, immediately what will aid affordability is housing aimed at lower incomes.
So yes we need to raise wages, but we also need to make sure that new development is at the very least mixed in its levels of access. Not new housing as such, hoping in market mechanisms for price, but new housing specifically for the non-owning classes.
Great piece! This article has the same value as a meta-analysis. Sometimes we just need someone to step back and pull all the different threads of an issue together in one place so people can see where things stand. Thanks for doing this.
This is great, thank you for putting all these arguments into the same article. I’m always shocked and saddened when friends and neighbors whose values I generally share turn out to be anti-density when it comes to near neighbors.
I could not agree more! Great thoughtful and fact based commentary. Keep preaching!
I’ll sign up for your church services everyday. We need much higher densities! Much less parking or parking prohibited. Bascially create an environment where parking is extremely inconveneint especially in high demand areas. Create an environment where walking combined with transit is the preferred choice and not just an alternate choice. The byproduct of that environment will be higher property values, more community interaction, healthier living and much smaller carbon footprint. Sign me up!
I especially appreciated your mention of the racism embedded in the housing policy and the zoning code. This is the “big kahuna” of Northern urban politics, and at some point, people who say they care about equity need to start diving into how their local street’s zoning might be affecting that issue.
OK, but also the “big kahuna” of this article is the racial dynamics of the proposed upzoning. How would the $1800/month 1-bedroom apartments we’re supposed to “welcome” into our neighborhoods affect the local demographics? What kind of policing would such developments bring? How would those demographic and policing changes that this type of proposed “integration” implies affect local POC communities’ political power and long-term stability in that neighborhood? And how might the same people who appropriated zoning to exclude and oppress non-white people, appropriate upzoning (as proposed here) to exclude and oppress non-white people?
I mean yeah if allowing bigger and more buildings in more places doesn’t solve world hunger and climate change and income inequality and racism in one fell swoop let’s definitely not do it.
By itself, zoning for more housing obviously doesn’t address many of those issues, and it can potentially exacerbate them if done poorly. We differ in that I think breaking down the barriers that were put up, in many cases, specifically to exclude demographic and minority communities, is a good step to ensuring that those voices exist across different neighborhoods and have more political power as a result. You might not believe the market used to serve a wider range of incomes in a wider range of neighborhoods with a wider variety of housing styles (and not just against polluted freeways), but it did happen.
And I think a piece like this specifically calls out the need for more housing (of all kinds, in all places, and even a significant amount of it funded by the public) as a means of taking advantage of the good things a city like Minneapolis is doing that others aren’t. Minimum wage increases, leading the region in police practices/hiring/training, I could go on (and did in the post). And that it would be unwise to do something like this without significant policy changes around renters’ rights or any number of other housing policies out there.
It’s also hard to square someone who is waiting for the Revolution to solve all those problems ignore how the very people involved in said Revolution can use those same power structures to continue to oppress people. Specifically around land use, public housing, even transportation – very “Progressive” policies and programs – at local, state, and federal levels – in the past have been wielded with neglect (or often intentional harm) towards those communities. And they continue to do so today. It’s hard to imagine an uprising that doesn’t still have a lot of supporters who feel they’re still entitled to an unshaded grassy yard and free parking on the street out front. Or still game the system and segregate schools.
At its core, the Progressive case here is that the first step to dismantling some of the power structures you and I both agree are in place is to stop caring about the crummy reasons we oppose housing (the crummiest of all is opposing it because low-income people might immediately or eventually move in). That caring about maintaining or improving per-unit property values is antithetical to maintaining or improving citywide housing affordability, so it’s okay if we do things that have other benefits.
I’m not even categorically against upzoning, I’m just skeptical of calling for it in such a way that boils down to “Let’s Upzone – But With Caveats – And This Time Let’s Actually Take Those Caveats Kind Of Seriously!” There is much to like in your analysis, but it still articulates what basically already has been the status quo approach to housing policy in Minneapolis, i.e. deregulate first, and then try and adopt progressive measures to mitigate the fallout from deregulation, after the fact. At best, that’s a passive, partial solution; at worst, that’s just neoliberalism. It’s great to write about “dismantling power structures,” but considering that your proposal functions more or less within existing institutions, I don’t see anything here that would actually change power structures. In fact, these tired, crypto-right-wing proposals for “integration” as a means to improve “economic outcomes” for marginalized communities would almost certainly result in *less* political power and autonomy for communities of color.
Tweaking zoning does not amount to meaningful structural reform. I’m not suggesting we “wait around for the revolution”, but there’s a whole host of other policies and political angles people who truly care about housing equity might center their advocacy on that would indeed have revolutionary implications. What if we started with something like, “minorities have the right to remain in their existing urban-accessible neighborhoods and communities, and to grow and thrive there, being neither faced with displacement pressure nor required to integrate into the white majority”? This would require new institutions, radical property and land use reforms, massive public investment, etc., which together would amount to a revolutionary break from the current regime.
Yes, this might even require upzoning too! But that ought be the caveat, guided by a truly proactive, progressive social agenda – not the other way around.
You are free to write a piece about what your vision of housing reform looks like, rather than continuously shitposting everybody with your fake vanity names.
What’s the intent of this comment, Peter? Although you’re sort of suggesting “P.W.S.T.C.A.E.” write an article, it feels like you’re mainly saying they don’t have the right to respectfully critique articles when they haven’t laid out a comprehensive vision themselves.
If you think the ideas are wrong, make that argument — don’t disparage the commenter.
Wyatt posts here under various snarky pseudonyms, as well as the forums, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single positive suggestion for a policy change, rather endless explanation as to why idea X won’t work or is bad.
Your critique of “make that argument” could very well apply to Wyatt as well, who has in fact never made any kind of argument, just snarkily dismissed others arguments.
So If Wyatt is so right about everything, and so many of us are wrong about everything, I’d like to see him write a piece laying out his vision, rather than endlessly shitposting other people’s ideas.
I would love to see a post on the topic of, say, “The Case For Widespread Social Housing in Minnesota.” Followed up by, “The Obstacles In The Way of Widespread Social Housing In Minneapolis and St. Paul.”
I’m sure it’s more than winning hearts and minds. There are examples of cities and towns all over Europe that have them by the thousands and hundreds.
It feels like a bit of a double standard that when my comments fall short of a fully-envisioned utopia, I’m accused of “not making any kind of argument.” Above, I’ve offered a concise critique of the article, and outlined the basis for a policy discourse different from the one this article is a culmination of. This whole website is allowed to function as a discourse, unfolding bit by bit over time– so why aren’t its critics?
It’s also a bit convenient for you that your particular political angle is passive by nature, while mine is proactive. It’s easy to “make an argument” when your argument is rooted in laissez-faire ideology, passively endorsing the development agenda of the business community (OK, but sometimes with caveats!), and leaving it to them to handle the details– but then demanding that I provide those details up front.
The lesson from the Fight for 15 is that real progressive change comes about through social movements, not from top-down policy tweaks by a technocratic elite working hand-in-glove with profit-driven capitalists. Social progress means organizing to build long-term, evolving dialogues between institutions and the general public. So, instead of liberal/neoliberal reactive policy wonkery, real progressives and socialists work to set in motion a vast process toward proactive democratization of the housing regime, led by workers and historically oppressed communities. That’s fundamentally different from what’s proposed in this article, so I can only begin my critique from the fundamentals up.
It feels like a bit of a double standard that when my comments fall short of a fully-envisioned utopia, I’m accused of “not making any kind of argument.” Above, I’ve offered a concise critique of the article, and outlined the basis for a policy discourse different from the one this article is a culmination of. The concept of this website, presumably, is for it to function as a discourse, unfolding bit by bit over time– so why can’t its dissenting voices?
It’s also a bit easier for you to “make an argument” when your “argument” is rooted in laissez-faire ideology, reactively endorsing the development preferences of the business community (OK, but sometimes with caveats!), and leaving it to them to handle the details– but then demanding that I provide those details up front.
But the lesson of the Fight for 15 (and of Marxism generally) is that real progressive change comes about through social movements, not from top-down policy tweaks by a technocratic elite working hand-in-glove with unaccountable private interests. Social progress means organizing to build long-term, evolving dialogues between institutions and the general public. So, instead of liberal/neoliberal reactive policy wonkery, real progressives and socialists work to set in motion a vast process of proactive democratization of the housing regime, led by workers, renters and historically oppressed communities. That’s fundamentally different from what’s proposed in this article, so I can only begin my critique from the fundamentals up: Build more social housing. Weaken the political power of the private sector. Organize from there.
What’s an example of deregulation in Minneapolis’ housing policy? Seems to me the status quo has been more along the lines of keeping existing regulation mostly from the 60’s, occasionally adding more, and frequently granting variances to developments on a case by case basis.
You’re right, I worded that part poorly! I meant the status quo set of proposals from the urbanist crowd, e.g. the “market urbanists” Alex claims to be distinct from–not so much the status quo in actual-existing city planning itself. That set of proposals largely fits in with the broader trend in governance, away from a proactive role for public entities, toward letting the private sector set the agenda.
That said, I wouldn’t consider the current hodgepodge of zoning and ordinances, largely the product of organized homeowners and land speculators, to really be an example of proactive public intervention, either. Both downzoning and upzoning are driven by competing factions within the landowning class. Such is the reality of bourgeois governance.
Moving back here from Portland in 2003, one of my ongoing impressions has been that people here are obsessed with parking, and given the inadequacy of public transit and the sprawled nature of the metro area, I kind of understand.
There are things I don’t do because getting there on transit is awkward and time-consuming, yet parking is a pain. I really tried to go car-free or even car-lite here in Minneapolis, but the buses don’t run often enough or to the right places.
Affordable housing and rational (not haphazard) transit policies go hand in hand. The Greenway
and the light rail routes shouldn’t be entirely devoted to those thin-walled apartments with tiny rooms that start at $1500 for a 1-bedroom. (Oh, but they have granite countertops and gyms and party rooms with 60″ home theaters and wet bars!)
Homeowners may object to having commercial nodes near their homes, but in fact, houses and apartments near the traditional commercial areas, like Linden Hills or 48th and Chicago or Uptown are considered quite desirable places to live, and the housing prices reflect that.
Racism is definitely a part of the urban equation. When people in the suburbs and outer parts of the city are afraid to go downtown because of “all the gangbangers and welfare mothers hanging around,” or when i hear African-Americans described as if they were Dutch elm disease (“They’re taking over X neighborhood and starting to spread into Y neighborhood”), we have a problem. But it’s not considered polite to mention it.
This. All of this.
Even small zoning changes would make many more neighborhoods desirable so we don’t have everyone and their mother flocking to the very few walk able neighborhoods that currently exist, driving prices up for everyone.
I also tried to go car free, and it just didn’t work. If you want to t upzone neighborhoods for more density on each block, you need to rethink parking. Well you can’t rethink parking without improving transit first. Good transit= less of a parking problem.
This article makes an excellent case for why growth and increased density in Minneapolis is beneficial. But what I didn’t get is why broad upzoning is the right way to achieve that growth.
Why is it bad to focus development in areas with the infrastructure and form that make that density more feasible and more politically palatable?
I think the thrust of this post was focused why “more than we’re zoned for now, in Minneapolis” is good, since I sorta covered that in many of my earlier, supporting posts. The main one being this one, in which we had a spirited discussion in the comment section.
To recap though. Development where it’s “politically palatable” is exactly the problem. It’s politically palatable to appease people – who disproportionately live in single family homes, are white, are wealthier, etc – to focus new housing in the places they deem less desirable. On busy streets that are more polluted, louder, and more dangerous (an hour spent standing or walking along them is more likely to be hit than an hour walking along a “side” street).
I disagree that an apartment building’s form is *more* suitable to these corridors – the vast majority of multi-family housing does not have ground-floor commercial. And even the ones that do still place the second+ story of a zero-lot-line building within 15 feet of the traffic (a single family home with a 15-30 foot setback is actually more removed from the negative aspects of busy streets). And while I agree that some people might enjoy the benefit of being mere steps from the transit route, I don’t think it’s our place to assume that’s a preference/tradeoff everyone looking for multi-family housing wants to make (and plenty of people walk hundreds of meters to the bus).
I don’t think the density is any more “feasible” on the corridors, which are oftentimes more difficult to redevelop thanks to land prices (owing to commercial zoning/viability), existing and often complicated leases (with expensive buyouts), and the fact that land along corridors represents a single-digit fraction of total land in the city – limiting the total share of redevelopable parcels that become available per year.
In short, I’ll take the tradeoff that a person living in an apartment 960 feet from the nearest bus stop is 5? 10? percent less likely to take said bus if it means we build 2? 3? times more housing in places that are quieter and less polluted as a result.
This was a great collecting of many reasons, all of which seem applicable to nearly every North American metro.
Alex, great piece and thank you for the analysis. I especially appreciate your mention of inclusionary zoning policies. While upzoning makes a ton of sense for Minneapolis and the region, I would suggest that it should only be done AFTER we implement an inclusionary zoning policy for the entire city. This would allow us to mutually take on the displacement, racial equity, density, and affordable housing challenges all at once. If we upzone before considering inclusionary housing, the opportunity with either be lost or incredibly difficult thereafter. The inclusionary zoning policy could include in-lieu provisions that would also provide funding for an affordable housing fund. We (Minneapolis residents, some current electeds, and some past electeds) GAVE AWAY THE FARM when we essentially upzoned ALL of downtown Minneapolis without any sort of inclusionary zoning policy or linkage fees (fees tied to construction of buildings over xx,xxx sf that could fund affordable housing). Yes, it was great for density and building out the core of the city, but we could have added thousands of affordable units downtown and across the city with this tremendous opportunity provided by the unprecedented downtown construction over the past 15 years. Such a missed opportunity shrugged off by leadership(s), especially those downtown at a detriment to those most impacted.
Setting aside whether inclusionary zoning is actually effective (links below indicate that it generally isn’t, and certainly wouldn’t produce thousands of affordable units) I disagree that up zoning is “giving away the farm” in any way. Housing affordability is something we’re all responsible for, and it doesn’t make sense to target developers with a mandate or fees for doing something we should want them to do anyway.
And additionally that unless inclusionary zoning is fully paid for by the city it makes no sense to tax people living in high density, energy-efficient apartment buildings. Raise taxes on SFH and dedicate it to an affordable housing fund.
This is a good piece, which, sadly is applicable to a great many American cities and metropolitan areas. Upzoning is necessary to deal with cities’ housing problems, but it is not sufficient. Still, without upzoning, it’s hard to see how a decent amount of housing gets built.
I’m glad that you, as Gertrude Stein put it, “accepted the universe” that we live in a capitalist housing market (with small exceptions). People complain about “expensive condos,” but I doubt they’d take a below market price when selling their house, to make it more affordable. The progressive thing to do is not to ignore the reality of housing markets, but to seek policies and changes that make it better for poor people and disadvantaged people.
From a resident’s point of view the best place to live in an urban neighborhood is typically a block or two off a commercial/transit corridor. You can access the stores and transit, but live in a quieter spot. That’s as much true for apartment dwellers as house dwellers. Yet much American zoning only allows apartments on the corridors. Zoning often used to talk about apartments (which have more residents) as “buffers” between single family houses and undesirable uses like freeways. The “buffer” language is pretty much gone, but the buffer land use and zoning often remains.
Can public transit survive more users?
The budget is precarious (and threatened?) as it is, A large increase in users would require a large increase in funding to help people get around. Think the GOP is anti transit now?, just wait…
It would be a problem if there were suddenly more users on the outskirts of the transit network. But it would be less expensive to add extra service to areas that have greater density than to, say, build and operate a Park-and-Ride in a second ring suburb.
Let’s end exclusionary zoning that keeps people out but let’s be sure to allow and in some cases require the green infrastructure (ecoroofs, green walls, tree preservation and planting, etc) that will keep denser walkable neighborhoods healthy and livable for all. In the process we’ll win over skeptics for which beauty and access to nature is the quid pro quo for increased density.
Thank you for the thought and insight that went into this piece. There are many of us in the City working on finding solutions to the housing challenges faced by most Minneapolitans. You have highlighted many of them here. We are looking to fund funding sources that will create and sustain an Affordable Housing Trust Fund that will be dedicated to housing and will be used only for housing! The current funding streams are not sustainable and if the Federal Gov’t (and State) reduce or quit funding we as a City will have virtually no new housing to support our growing community.