The Last Temptation of the YIMBY

When I heard that Minneapolis’s comprehensive plan would remove restrictions on building two- to four-unit homes in areas previously zoned R1 or R1A (including my neighborhood, Longfellow) I was thrilled. I consider the restrictions on these types of “missing middle” housing a nearly insurmountable threat to achieving Minneapolis’s population growth and sustainability goals. In addition, I have spent years touting the health benefits of active transportation, which is most feasible when living, working, and shopping areas are clustered together. What better way to provide economic support for local work and retail than to allow more people to live near it? I also wished to co-own a duplex in the not-too-distant past, but finding a just-right duplex for sale in Minneapolis was nearly impossible. At any given time there are around 15 single-family houses for sale for every duplex.

So why did finding out my neighborhood was listed as Interior 2, instead of Interior 1, feel like having the rug pulled out from under me?

First, some terminology. Adam Miller’s recent piece “Not So Tall After All” describes the Interior 1 designation:

New buildings in the Interior 1 district should be primarily small-scale residential structures on traditional size city lots with up to four dwelling units, including single-family, duplex, 3-unit, 4-unit, and accessory dwelling unit building types. Building heights should be 1 to 2.5 stories.

housing zoning

My neighborhood, between 38th Street South and Lake Street, is designated Interior 2:

New buildings in the Interior 2 district should be small-scale residential structures on traditional size city lots with up to four dwelling units, as well as multifamily buildings on a limited number of combined lots. Building heights should be 1 to 2.5 stories.

Interior 2 Zoning

The difference is that in Interior 2, multifamily buildings may be constructed on a “limited number of combined lots,” while that use is not permitted in Interior 1.

My feelings about this designation are surprising to me because I have argued against them innumerable other times. When I wanted a bike lane to be painted on 38th Street, I thought it was absurd that people would feel that parking on a side street violates their right to free parking wherever they want. When my NextDoor neighbors thought fourplexes would steal their sunshine I argued that existing single-family homes could do the same thing, that people who live in multifamily housing deserve to live on low-traffic streets as much as anybody, and that new multifamily housing could begin to address the city’s rock-bottom rental vacancy and rising prices.

Apartments are necessary for a dense city. We lived in a wonderful 10-unit apartment for 8 years until my son was 2 and some terrible neighbors helped us we realized we would be happier in a place where we didn’t feel the need to keep him quiet all the time.

A nice apartment building

But I can’t help feel like I wouldn’t want larger buildings on consolidated lots… in my backyard? That doesn’t sound like me, but reflecting on why I feel this way might help in the future when I am encouraging others to push beyond their comfort zone.

Fear is the mind-killer

I don’t want or need to justify my feelings, inasmuch as my head knows that excluding apartments from neighborhoods is wrong, but my heart wants to keep things closer to the way they are. But when I look at the picture of mixed larger apartment buildings and single-family houses I do not see my neighborhood. Perhaps that’s because the illustrations, while meant to be pleasing to the eye, overstate the expected pace of change (as John Edwards convincingly illustrates elsewhere). Indeed when I look at my own block, I can see few if any places where it would make sense to purchase two homes (at an up-front cost of at least $400,000) to build a larger apartment building.

 

This is an unlikely outcome

When presented with potential change, I suspect that people assume the maximum possible change will occur when the truth is closer to the minimum. That worst-case imagining can be disequilibrating. While I have warm and friendly relationships with other families on my block, in my eight years of apartment living I did not make friendships with neighbors outside my building, and not for want of trying. It is easy to imagine that your neighborhood full of families with kids who show up to National Night Out will somehow be disrupted by socially isolating, inward-directing apartment buildings, or that absentee landlords will leave our sidewalks un-shoveled in winter. Empirical evidence on the topic is limited, but there is reason to believe that features of the built environment that encourage neighborly interaction improve social trust and psychological well-being. I would want any changes to promote those ties.

From being on this side of things, I have learned that “you bought your house and shouldn’t consider anything beyond your property line in your valuations” (not a comment I have seen in any pieces published by streets.mn, but a sentiment that does pop up in comments elsewhere) is a profoundly unconvincing argument. Everyone who is engaged at streets.mn cares about the form of their neighborhood and wishes to improve it. In addition, homes are most people’s single largest asset and it makes sense to try to preserve the value of that asset.

Instead of arguing that people shouldn’t try to stop their neighborhoods from changing, I see writers here emphasizing what upzoning would add to a neighborhood. But often the arguments are about what future residents would gain from change, and not about the benefits to current residents – the ones who will weigh in on the plan. The landscape we know is comforting, and fear of change is a natural and authentic reaction. Taking the real concerns of opponents into consideration sharpens our rhetoric and makes us more effective advocates.

Where does this leave me with respect to Interior 2? I don’t have a pleasant wrap-up in which I changed my mind about everything. I would like to imagine that the city would ensure apartments built on consolidated lots would fit seamlessly into the neighborhood, but that is not in the proposal. I know that every concern I have about apartments on consolidated lots is a concern that somebody else has about fourplexes. Indeed, the best arguments for 2-4 unit housing are often made at the expense of larger multifamily projects. I am concerned that larger buildings are unlikely to be owner-occupied, sending neighborhood resources into investment funds. But at the same time I want to make sure that everybody who wants to live in my neighborhood has a place in it. I certainly wouldn’t want my concerns about consolidating lots to prevent the sensible rezoning I wholeheartedly support.

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13 Responses to The Last Temptation of the YIMBY

  1. Ben April 3, 2018 at 9:45 am #

    Having not dug into the 2040 plan as much as I should yet (and living near the author), have they added more low-density commercial to support higher residential density? That’s the real problem in improving south Minneapolis density is that the commercial zoning is just too far apart and too concentrated.

    • Aaron Berger April 3, 2018 at 10:10 am #

      At least in Longfellow, I do not see any additional commercial zoning. The zoning maps can be found here: https://minneapolis2040.com/topics/land-use-built-form/

      There are two overlapping zoning classifications. The first, land use, defines what can be done with a property. The second, built form, defines what kinds of buildings can be constructed on a property. In Longfellow, Lake Street’s built form will be zoned Corridor 6 and the remaining transit corridors (Minnehaha Ave, 38th Street, and 42nd Avenue) will be zoned Corridor 4. Those built form classifications define the form of construction that can occur there. However, the land use for most parcels except those along Lake Street is “urban neighborhood,” which is predominantly residential. The exceptions are existing commercial parcels which are zoned for “corridor mixed use” (on Minnehaha) or “neighborhood mixed use” (on 38th Street and on 42nd Avenue). Of course I do not know what amount of flexibility is going to be baked into the code to permit low-density commercial use if somebody wishes to open a business.

  2. Sean Hayford Oleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary April 3, 2018 at 11:06 am #

    Not from a “policy” perspective but just a “consumer”/homeowner perspective: I would rather be next to a moderately large apartment building (say 20-50 units) on a combined lot than owner-occupied rental fourplexes.

    Apartment buildings simply operate better at scale. Not only are land costs much less per unit, they are able to manage a lot of aspects better than small buildings:

    1. Interior (first floor or basement) parking, out of sight
    2. Interior trash storage — no dumpster or row of trash cans
    3. It is financially feasible to have some sort of professional maintenance of the building, snow removal, etc — not up to an individual owner to do themselves.

    That’s not to say small-scale development is a bad thing, but a well-managed moderately large apartment building can be a really good thing.

    • Janne April 3, 2018 at 2:12 pm #

      Sean, I agree that I’d like to be near a moderately large apartment building. (I’m currently next to one that has I think 15 units, and they have all the things you list, save parking).

      And, I think you’re unfairly painting owner-occupied rental fourplexes. Fourplexes are just like single-family ownership homes, with a variety of people with a variety of capacities for shoveling, with varied trash storage depending on the lot design, and varied parking needs.

      In the same way that an owner-occupied single family home might have all related cars stored in a garage, they might also always be parked on the street or even in the front yard. I’ve never seen a fourplex with a dumpster, and in Minneapolis they are served by city waste removal. Some neighborhoods have trash pick-up from the sidewalk, but mine has it through the alley. My trash and recycling bins are on the alley in a nook just like my single-family homeowner neighbors. And I don’t need to point out how there are single family homeowners tho fail to remove their snow; certainly the fourplexes and triplexes on my block do a consistently better job of it than the single family home blocks a bit further in my neighborhood.

      Let’s recognize that the capacity for taking care of your home isn’t a function of whether it’s a professionally managed apartment building, an owner occupied single family home, or an owner-occupied fourplex. It’s a function of whether the person responsible is, in fact, responsible.

    • Matt Steele
      Matt April 4, 2018 at 10:46 am #

      And I would much rather live on a street with two to three story walkups.

  3. Daniel Hartig
    kingledion April 4, 2018 at 8:07 pm #

    The fundamental problem with your sentiment is that what you want shouldn’t really factor into your neighbor’s choices. What if you don’t want your neighbors to be gay, or Mexican, or Muslim, or whatever?

    Ultimately, it is your neighbors property, just like it is your neighbors religion, sexual orientation, uterus, or what have you. Zoning for ‘neighborhood character’ is not any different from passing laws to control the ‘character’ of your fellow citizens.

    Obviously, this argument has limits, as all arguments do. There is a real public health value in keeping heavy industry away from residential neighborhoods. But there are similar arguments to be made for restricting the liberty of your fellow citizens in other ways, like regulating guns, for example.

    The point I’m trying to make is, in your tweet you say that you ‘balk at permitting multiple parcels to be combined to build larger apartment buildings.’ I say, that you should not be able to deny people the ability to build such buildings, just as you should not be able to deny people the ability to have sex with who they want.

    • Aaron Berger April 4, 2018 at 8:31 pm #

      There’s a glaring flaw in your analogy which is that built form is not an innate and immutable characteristic. The whole nature of a zoning law is that certain uses are permitted in some areas and aren’t permitted in others and there are going to be certain limits in certain areas. Any time you are *re*-zoning, some people are going to be uncomfortable with the newly permitted uses and some people are going to feel they don’t go far enough. Just before you posted this I was talking with a friend in my neighborhood who thinks that fourplex zoning will incentivize developers to tear down the affordable homes in our neighborhood and put his prized sunshine at risk. My response was what I wrote here – that there’s nothing stopping a person from tearing down his neighbor’s house and building a monster single family home that does the same thing. But if that happened there’s no doubt it would be a loss to him whether or not he “owned” that sunshine in the first place.

      • Daniel Hartig
        kingledion April 5, 2018 at 8:27 am #

        Built form is not innate or immutable, but it is expensive to change, and not often changed. You don’t often see houses on the same lot changing year after year.

        46.5% of the housing in Minneapolis is older than 1939. Meanwhile, only 2.2% of the people in Minneapolis are that old. I’m not sure _any_ people are still living in the same house they were in 80 years ago.

        People move in and out of neighborhoods, and some even change their religion or sexual orientation or other characteristics. I would argue that built form is as immutable as people, that is to say, not immutable at all.

        The comparison might be something of a stretch, but honestly look at the ‘victims’ of zoning in the past. The more rules there are, the better off are those who can afford lawyers. That is to say, rules benefit the rich at the expense of the poor. Zoning is just another impenetrable thicket of rules that people who have to work for a living don’t have time to confront, and people who do have the time and money can overcome. It is the same thicket of rules used to prevent certain groups from moving to certain areas where they are not wanted. I say reduce zoning rules to the bare minimum: to a few paragraphs and a map that anyone can read and understand.

        • Aaron Berger April 5, 2018 at 8:56 am #

          You’re right, I was thinking about race and gender which are protected classes that are considered immutable. Others such as religion are not immutable. But the main point I intended to make was that rezoning by its nature involves drawing lines and will result in some people feeling uncomfortable and some people feeling it doesn’t go far enough. There are more and less justifiable reasons for falling into either camp but one is not more virtuous than the other.

          • Aaron Berger April 5, 2018 at 8:58 am #

            … and as advocates for change (and I am one – I am strongly in favor of upzoning and affordable housing everywhere, including my own neighborhood) we have to meet people where they are since laws are the group’s way of governing itself.

    • Aaron Berger April 4, 2018 at 8:34 pm #

      I don’t think I have all the answers on this issue or else I wouldn’t have written the piece I did. But short of abolishing zoning laws the line has to be drawn somewhere, and saying the people who don’t want no limits on property use are basically no different than racists is just wrong.

    • Reed April 5, 2018 at 2:56 pm #

      “This argument has limits” – as in it makes no sense? What I want shouldn’t factor into my neighbor’s choices, so if they want to shoot guns at me that’s my problem?

      There’s a huge difference between regulating personal identity and regulating structures and behavior that impacts other people. The city regulates trash, lawn heights, how close you can build to your property line, even how much stuff you can have inside your garage. That’s the difference between civilization and anarchy. The citizens decide what they want from the citizenry.

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  1. Sunday Summary – April 8, 2018 | streets.mn - April 8, 2018

    […] The Last Temptation of the YIMBY is a very real-world, must-read post of the struggle between progressive intentions and one’s own neighborhood. Aaron Berger asks, “Does it make me a NIMBY if I support comprehensive plan upzoning to fourplexes, but balk at permitting multiple parcels to be combined to build larger apartment buildings?” The post goes on to think about the fear of change in a neighborhood and managing the gut-level reaction with more rational consideration. […]

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