Fourplexes Everywhere? Bold Reform Proposed in Minneapolis

Word has leaked of a very preliminary plan to legalize fourplexes in virtually every neighborhood in Minneapolis. It’s one part of a larger draft comprehensive plan that hasn’t yet been made public. If implemented, it would be the boldest land-use reform in the country, reversing a decades-long trend of restrictions that have contributed to higher housing costs and racial/economic segregation. Here are some reasons I think we should embrace this plan to legalize fourplexes in Minneapolis.

We are experiencing a regional housing shortage. Vacancy rates have hovered around 2% for years. This inflates rents higher than they’d otherwise be. Scarcity is bad for the people who can least afford it. We need more housing.

Vacancy rates go down and rents go up.

Vacancy rates go down and rents go up. image source


Now, assuming you agree with me that we urgently need more places for people to live, maybe I can convince you that…

Fourplexes (and triplexes/duplexes) are the most economical and accessible way to create new housing. This applies both to tenants and the small homebuilders who could construct (or convert) them. That’s because these small apartment buildings are more like houses. Small multi-family houses are cheaper per unit to build than your typical multi-lot, 6-story apartment complex or a downtown luxury tower. While it’s important to note that new construction is almost always more expensive than equivalent existing housing, allowing more fourplexes would create a supply of homes that are more accessible than most of the new homes being built today.

People say they hate “big.” Big apartment buildings. Big developers. Big landlords. Big profits. A 40-story condo tower was proposed in Downtown West just last week, and the developer bragged they would be the most expensive homes in Minneapolis. We need to grapple with the fact that our current zoning code has a preference for big developers, big buildings, and big single-family homes–to the exclusion of less expensive mid-scale housing. If you want to open up the housing market to the little guy, then we need to allow the kind of housing that can be produced by a small builder and owned/occupied by a small landlord. That’s a fourplex!

We must end exclusionary zoning that creates nearly all-white enclaves of luxury single-family homes. To borrow a phrase from a friend, maybe “mansion districts” in Minneapolis are a bad thing. It’s time to admit our zoning code plays a role in segregating our city and limiting opportunity and access to our most desirable neighborhoods. The reason Lowry Hill East is more affordable and less segregated than Lowry Hill is tied up with a legacy of redlining and restrictive zoning. Zoning reform doesn’t solve this problem by itself, but we can’t deny the role our zoning code plays in perpetuating it.

If you’re against the idea of legalizing fourplexes, you prefer a zoning code that encourages exclusive neighborhoods and favors the most expensive (luxury!) forms of development. And you can’t pretend otherwise the next time you rail against another big, unaffordable, “out of scale” apartment project.

Fourplexes could be public/subsidized housing. Overly restrictive zoning makes no distinction between public and private; it’s a legal barrier to housing of all kinds. Affordable housing funds are limited–you can stretch that money a whole lot further on a fourplex.

Fourplexes are unobtrusive, even in places where zoning doesn’t allow them anymore! I’ve noticed that people who already live in neighborhoods full of fourplexes show up at city hall all the time to testify about protecting their “single-family neighborhood.” People live among fourplexes, unaware they’re living among them, to the point they would fight to their last breath to protect their wonderful neighborhood from becoming what it already is–a neighborhood with fourplexes. This is a good post from Scott Shaffer showing how we’ve used extremely restrictive zoning to make existing neighborhoods illegal.

Household sizes are shrinking. The typical household in Minneapolis contains 2.3 people. This is one whole entire person smaller than the average US household size in 1960 (3.33). We don’t need as many bedrooms as we used to. As people age and their families evolve, people often want to continue living in the neighborhood they love; but this isn’t possible in exclusively single-family neighborhoods. Let’s adjust to the cold, hard facts of demographics by providing homes for people who don’t need or can’t afford a three-plus bedroom house.

Saying a particular thing is “allowed” to exist is not the same thing as saying it’s mandatory. Allowing fourplexes does not mean every single-family home must become a fourplex. (And to debunk a concern that was reported on the local internet forum e-democracy, legalizing fourplexes does not mean homeowners will be required to become renters.) The vast majority of people will continue to live in homes that are not fourplexes even in neighborhoods where fourplexes become legal.

If you’re worried about what happens to starter homes: homebuyers are already tearing down smaller single-family homes to replace them with much bigger, more expensive single-family homes. To the degree you believe “starter homes” are still a thing in South Minneapolis, we’re not protecting them. Home values are increasing due to scarcity, and the only thing we can guarantee by maintaining the status quo is that our single-family real estate will be occupied, year after year, by ever-richer families in ever larger single-family homes.

And before you say “Fourplexes alone can’t save us!” remember this is just one small part of a comprehensive plan charting the next 20 years in Minneapolis on topics ranging from equity, sustainability, livability, growth and more (complete draft will be made public on March 22). Fourplexes aren’t magic, but this reform is a necessary break from a status quo that restricts housing choice and uses the zoning code to promote the most expensive forms of luxury housing. And like so many things in politics: the only way an idea this good has any chance is with your overwhelming and extremely vocal support.

34 thoughts on “Fourplexes Everywhere? Bold Reform Proposed in Minneapolis

  1. j. h.

    Clearly this is a shoot for the stairs and get to the moon policy. After freaking everyone out over fourplexes, zoning duplexes everywhere will seem like a sensible alternative that everyone can agree with.

  2. Aaron Berger

    Does anybody know what the proposed massing rules would be for fourplexes? I am 100% for upzoning the entire city. I always bring up that when my wife and I started home shopping we wanted to share a duplex with my sister’s family. It was extraordinarily difficult to find a duplex with two units in good condition for a reasonable price and not on a busy street. So I’m all for the reforms. But are massing limits for fourplexes different than those for single family homes?

  3. EricW

    I’m generally in favor of the 4-plex plan. (If someone wants to buy the house across the street from mine and build a 4-plex — great!) However, I think 4-plexes are a bigger threat to single-family homes than are bigger single-family homes. Maybe I’m wrong, but I doubt people are snapping up homes in great condition to tear down and rebuild. They’re going to be looking for cheap, poor houses in good locations. But the profit motive of 4-plexes could push into tearing down more desirable homes. That said, it would obviously take decades of building for 4-plexes to make a noticeable dent in the Twin Cities single-family home stock.

  4. RW

    Every discussion I’ve read on streets and elsewhere about re-zoning seems to imply that all these new multi unit complexes will be rentals. The main advocates, even on all seem to be landlords. Opening up neighborhoods to 4-plexes certainly will be a huge benefit for all the nearly retired baby boomer corporate stiffs hoping to transition into land-lording in their retirement.

    1. Snyder

      Is that bad? If so, why?

      Also, worth noting is that the Windom Park resident quoted in the Star Tribune story, who happens to be my neighbor across the alley, owns and rents out half of her duplex. So I wonder if there are other landlords out there who are opposed to this and if it’s because they’re afraid of increased competition?

    2. Daniel Hartigkingledion

      Lets say that you own a house in Minneapolis, and want to upgrade the property to a duplex to make some rental money. Can you do that? Probably not.

      A middle class family, especially if they are older with their kids moved out, may have $200,000 to upgrade the house, but there is no way they can afford the legal representation to handle the zoning and reviews and everything.

      With this change, the barrier to upgrading your own property goes way down. It may be true that all the 4-plexes will be built by professional developers. But plenty of individual homeowners can build duplexes too.

    3. Rosa

      I’m the owner of a SFH and would LOVE to go back to renting, but right now apartments are more expensive than our house.

      I’d also like everyone I know to be able to afford to stay in the city, which means having more density.

      Oh and I walk around Powderhorn and see LOTS of empty lots. I’d love to see them filled up. But it seems like building the size houses that fit there with current setback rules must not make enough profit. I’m not sure if just upzoning would fix that but it doesn’t seem like it would hurt.

  5. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    If people are serious about objecting to fourplexes because there may be a potential to reduce the supply of “starter affordable single family houses”, maybe we need to add a cap to how much greedy windfall home sellers are allowed to get when they sell their house during this housing shortage?

    Decades of housing policy that incentivized all houses be used as instruments of wealth accumulation instead of wealth stability helped put us in this shortage of low priced houses for the current generation. Maybe we don’t need rent control but we need house sale caps.

    1. Monte Castleman

      I’d say that it’s that since we’re not building small single family detached houses anymore and the population of the metro is increasing, that there’s a lot more people that want one than there are houses so the price is going skyrocket. That you make out like a bandit if you bought one years ago is the result, not the cause.

      Not everyone actually wants their house value to go up; there’s incessant whining on the Bloomington Facebook pages about how much assessed value and property taxes are jumping up from people that have lived in their house in the city for decades and have no interest in ever selling their house.

    2. Daniel Hartigkingledion

      Sure, lets jeopardize the political future of upzoning just enact some punitive measures against some people who might get rich. Why not just increase their property tax assessment?

      1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

        Heh, yeah, it’d suck the political chances right out of it. There’s too much institutional momentum behind home loan shenanigans to change it.

        Thing with assessing property taxes carried onto the next owner, putting a home windfall cap limits it to only the seller.

  6. Daniel Hartigkingledion

    This is a great development, but lets point out that this is really a three-plex everywhere reform. Four unit apartments are ‘covered multifamily dwellings’ under the American Disability Act, while three unit apartments are not. No one is going to build a four-plex that might get them sued to death in 10 years when they can build a three-plex instead. Local zoning offices are notoriously bad at ADA compliance…you can go ahead thinking you have a just-fine building until someone takes you to federal court and you are suddenly out six figures in legal fees, fines, and amelioration.

    In any case, this is a very good policy that should be implemented anyways. At the very least, duplexes everywhere.

      1. Daniel Hartigkingledion

        Theoretically, it is easy to accomplish. But, for example, that twitter linked fourplex picture in the original post doesn’t have a ramp for the front walk or front door. Whether it has the required paths of travel and bathroom spacing inside is also questionable.

        I’m just saying it is still a barrier to entry that a three-plex won’t have to meet.

        1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

          I think the general discussion is more semantics at this point.

          3-plex everywhere, 4-plex when we are willing to meet ADA specs.

  7. SSP

    I think I read somewhere that there are 80,000 single family homes in Minneapolis, not sure how many are zoned single family. As a starter, we should eliminate any zoning more restrictive than the current R2 and allow multifamily that has similar massing to its neighbors everywhere in the City.

    4plexes everywhere sounds good, but I’m not sure it accomplishes what we want – nodes of greater density that could support a more dense transit system (in coverage/spacing and frequency). That would be best accomplished by encouraging 4plexes within a couple of blocks of retail nodes (including derelict streetcar era neighborhood nodes), not anywhere.

    If 4plexes are allowed anywhere, they will be built where lots are cheapest. This is likely to mean 4plexes scattered in neighborhoods where there is no transit to speak of, because this is where the cheapest lots (which often includes the cost of teardown) exist. Better to target areas for increased density near nodes, then to encourage 4plexes for car owners.

    1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

      “4plexes everywhere sounds good, but I’m not sure it accomplishes what we want – nodes of greater density that could support a more dense transit system (in coverage/spacing and frequency).”
      That is only one thing that is wanted.
      Another thing many of us want is abundant housing for everyone, of every class, everywhere they want to live. Fourplexes allowed in all neighborhoods does get us closer to that.

      1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

        As a slight rebuttal.

        Lots will be cheapest, but with a continuation of the parking requirements, nearby transit access will mean you don’t have to build parking to a city minimum. These construction savings will still be considered and will push development back towards transit corridors.

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      I’m not sure there’s anywhere within the city limits that has “no transit.”

      And, as Eric said, the problem we’re trying to address is more homes, first and foremost.

  8. Bjorn

    Will small-lot subdivisions be allowed? ie: Can a 100′ deep lot or so be turned into a row of 3-6 townhomes like Houston allows?

  9. Tom

    Looks like Minneapolis released their maps last week. Does anyone know when this plan would come into effect, if adopted?

    We live on what will be zoned as “Interior 3” right alongside a “Corridor 4” road, meaning we would have up to three story apartment buildings to either side of us and a four story commercial/residential buildings across the alley from us.

    Without getting into the merits of the overall plan, we would probably want to move (within our neighborhood) if it’s passed. Any thoughts or insights into the process would be most appreciated.

      1. Tom

        We’re not making any decisions overnight, but we just bought this house last summer with the intent of raising our kids in it and living in it for 30+ years. It’s hard to get excited about planting an Oak or finishing the basement or other long-term investments if there’s a very good chance that we’ll want to/need to move in 5-10 years. I’d rather cut my losses and start over somewhere else.

        So assuming it’s adopted by the city at the end of the year, do the zones automatically change or is there another step in the process?

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          Obviously I don’t know where your house is, but for much of the city, the answer to “will this plot hold a 3 story apartment in the next 30 years” will be “no.” Not all of the city, though.

          I’m not sure about the process. They’re taking feedback on the plan now, which I’d image will result in some changes and then will adopt the plan. After that I think there’s a re-zoning process that I’d guess will take some time too. The need to adopt ordinances to implement the new zoning, I think.

          1. Tom

            Thanks for the reply and clarification on the process.

            FWIW, we live on 43rd Ave S just south of East Lake Street. 42nd Ave S is slated to be zoned as “corridor 4.” I’m not sure our block is a good candidate for 3-story apartments, but I suppose anything is possible.

            I’d be curious what folks think of the planned “Corridor 4” and “Interior 3” designations. I’m obviously biased, but they seem to carve up neighborhoods with high-traffic streets (or make that existing problem even worse). I would also guess that, because they’re relatively more dense, they would attract a disproportionate share of low-income housing, defeating the purpose of zoning larger areas of Minneapolis for four-plexes. But I freely admit to not fully understanding these issues and that I may be engaging in motivated reasoning.

            1. Aaron Berger

              I am not thrilled that my neighborhood (Longfellow southeast of Minnehaha/Lake) is scheduled to be zoned Interior 2 along with everything else between 38th Street and Lake. I really *like* upzoning to two- to four-unit construction, but I do not like the idea of combining multiple lots to build larger apartment buildings. I guess as an incrementalist I don’t know why the city needs to make the jump from R1A to “sure, tear down 3 houses and put up a 15-unit building” all at once. The goal of increased density and affordable housing development can be achieved at a smaller scale, and I would love to see the city try to advance owner-occupied multifamily housing. I also know our neighborhood has many low-value single family homes that would be comparatively easier to buy and combine than higher property value neighborhoods.

              1. Aaron Berger

                There’s a good chance that my concern about combining parcels is overblown! Scott Shaffer has some really great examples of lovely looking townhomes being developed in Cedar Riverside. But it would be nice to see how the transition from R1A to fourplexes goes (I think it will be great!) first.

  10. Ed James

    Triplexes are already legal in R-1 neighborhoods. R-1 zoning allows one family and two unrelated persons to live together as roommates. If you want more privacy just install more baths and kitchens.

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