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.”