A “Pro-Family” Comprehensive Plan

One of the common criticisms you hear about the Minneapolis 2040 draft comprehensive plan, if you go to enough public meetings, is that it’s anti-family. People say if you want to support families, you’ve got to restrict the vast majority of city land for single-family homes. This criticism doesn’t hold water unless the only kind of family you’re concerned about is a white family of significant means. It turns out a lot of current Minneapolis families live in something other than a single-family home.

Whittier has almost 2500 children with just over 200 single-family homes. Linden Hills has over 2200 single-family homes with just over 1500 children.

Comparing pro-family credentials of two very different Minneapolis neighborhoods.

If our definition of “pro-family” extends beyond the kinds of families who aren’t exclusively white and financially comfortable, we should be legalizing cheaper housing types — small-scale multi-family homes.

There’s only so much real estate to go around. Did you know the Met Council projected Minneapolis would hit 423,000 people by 2020 and we exceeded that total in 2017? We can’t all afford to live in a single-family home, or a large luxury apartment building downtown. The Minneapolis 2040 plan can be pro-family by greatly expanding the definition of which families matter in our zoning code. It doesn’t mean eliminating or outlawing single-family homes; it just means legalizing the kinds of homes families are already living in: multi-unit houses and small apartment buildings.

There’s another group of critics who take the other side of the “family” argument; they say Minneapolis has too many families already. For these folks, a plan that envisions so many new people is an environmental disaster. A surprising number of people appear to have the mistaken impression that the city’s draft comprehensive plan calls for tens of thousands of new humans to be conceived between now and 2040. To be clear, there’s nothing in the plan that incentivizes baby-making. In other words, if you like your birth control, you can keep it.

(I suppose there are those who would say implementing Chinese-style population control policies is more practical than allowing more people to live closer together, with less parking, and many fewer people driving.)

What these nominal environmentalists don’t acknowledge is that the additional people we’re planning to house in 2040 have largely already been born. The critics ignore the reality that forcing the people of 2040 to live in some as yet undeveloped, far-flung green pasture is bad for the environment. Forcing people to live far away from transit, jobs, and daily destinations fosters the car-dependency that is actually driving climate change.

In 2040, the cost of housing a family in Minneapolis will be painfully high if we don’t actively plan for enough homes of all kinds, across all neighborhoods. Planning for the future means recognizing some basic realities:

  • family sizes are shrinking, single-person households are growing, and many existing neighborhoods lack the housing diversity to serve an aging population;
  • families do actually live in apartments and fourplexes;
  • family means different things to different people, and my family may not match your traditional conception of a family;
  • immigrant families and anyone else seeking opportunity needs our city to be a welcoming place;
  • and, most crucially, humanity will continue to reproduce (pending partly on our ability to adapt to a sustainable future where people drive less by living closer to daily destinations).

I know we all want a comprehensive plan that’s pro-family. A realistic conversation that anticipates and plans for population growth is the responsible thing to do for all of our families, present and future. I hope more people take that approach when they comment on the plan.

42 thoughts on “A “Pro-Family” Comprehensive Plan

  1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    The notion that a family is best raised in a single family house with on site car storage, large front yard and back yard is an alternate way of saying families not raising kids in the single family house are damaging their children. Being within a walk to a park doesn’t compensate for the life long damage of density.
    Thus the moral panic over apartments, condos, and density.

  2. David MarkleDavid Markle

    What does the plan propose to do about the very long standing shortage of apartments with three or more bedrooms? (Especially affordable ones?)

      1. Carol Becker

        We take out homes that usually have three or four bedrooms and replace them with fourplexes that will have microunits, studios and one bedrooms. Hard to see even many fwo bedrooms crammed into a single family lot. So we lose family housing.

        1. Derek

          Most of the fourplexes I see for sale online 1 or 2 bedrooms, not microunits or studios. What makes you think the new construction would be different?

          I am sure there are plenty of people would rather live in a 1 or 2 bedroom in a quiet neighborhood fourplex than live in a tower downtown when they get priced out single family home neighborhoods.

    1. Morgan Bird

      What *should* it do in your opinion? As Matt says, building more housing seems like a good start. You might see more 3BR construction, but also an increase in the supply of even 1BR apartments ought to lead to fewer single people needing to share 3+BR units with roommates.

  3. Bruce BrunnerBruce Brunner

    What financial incentives do you think the city should offer to someone to put in 3 bedroom apartments? Otherwise people build whatever they think they can make money on. The city doesn’t build anything, only companies and individuals do so if you want to incentivize them to do something, you have to make it worthwhile for them.

    1. Rosa

      The government approves development plans or blocks them and a lot of the “pro family” commentary comes out at public comment meetings and city council meetings.

    2. David MarkleDavid Markle

      A glaring lost opportunity for more three bedroom apartments was the last (mostly infrastructure) heavily subsidized renewal of the approx.1300 unit Riverside Plaza complex. Considering the size of many families that live there in overcrowded conditions and the ongoing rent subsidization that prevails, the city and state should have required modification to accommodate more large families. Instead, authorities let a long favored landlord/developer merely do the minimum needed to continue reaping the benefit from that subsidized cash cow. The owner even got extra benefits from gaining questionable historic preservation status.

    3. Carol Becker

      Currently there is nothing in the plan that makes developers put in three or four bedroom units. They can make more money on smaller units so they do. Most new three and four bedroom units will be out of the reach of families with kids. Families with kids earn 10% less on average and have much higher expenses because of the kids. We will lose family housing with fourplexes.

  4. Bruce BrunnerBruce Brunner

    Very good article. I went to several comp plan discussions and it seemed like people who attending thought families only pertained to how they lived as a family.

  5. GlowBoy

    I think that’s a good point about larger apartments. Part of the reason my family and I live in a (modestly sized, 3-bedroom) SFH is simply because that’s the cheapest option. Especially here in Minneapolis, where SFHs are much cheaper than where we came from in Oregon, but apartments are nearly as expensive. In both places, 3-bedroom apartments are especially rare and expensive.

    Even without bringing lots of equity into a down payment, and even in the first year of ownership, payments on a SFH are often lower than most or less comparably sized apartment with the same number of bedrooms. At least in terms of monthly payment (ignoring maintenance costs, but also appreciation benefits) we would actually pay more to be in a 3-bedroom apartment than in our house.

    Should it be this way? Absolutely not. Partly this is because of the oversupply of SFHs (relative to apartments) due to zoning, partly because we don’t tax buildable land at higher rates than structures, as many economists and urbanists now recommend.

    1. Carol Becker

      I don’t know that we have an oversupply of single family homes. I don’t see vacant homes sitting around so I don’t think that is what you actually meant. But new construction of 3 or 4 bedroom apartments will be out of the reach of many families. That is why it is so important to preserve houses. The City could simply put a moratorium on demolishing single family homes but because of the influence of developers, it does not.

  6. Jonathan Foster

    We shouldn’t forget that families also include older adults, aging parents, etc who under current zoning need to stay in their houses longer than they would like to or have to move out of the neighborhood and sometimes far from their family to an apartment building in one of the few areas they are allowed to be built. A grandparent, living in a 4 plex a few blocks from their grandchildren is GREAT for families.

    1. Monte Castleman

      How common is it for them to want to move out of the family house into an apartment, as opposed to just wanting to stay their until they pass / simply can’t live independently anymore or else move to senior housing? I’m in my 40s so I’ve seen a fair amount of friends and relatives age, and I was under the impression the most common scenario was wanting to stay in the house, or else moving to dedicated senior housing (which because of additional services provided would be difficult to provide at the smaller scales we’re talking about). If you live in a house in the same neighborhood as the kids can’t they come over and mow the lawn and shove the sidewalk?

        1. Carol Becker

          The median home value in Minneapolis is $225,000 in 2018, the same as it was in 2003 before the housing bubble. There is no indication that Minneapolis is going to become “all million dollar homes.”

          1. Jonathan Foster

            Carol, your figure seems out dated by a least a few years. A more accurate figure is around $260kk.

          2. Lindsey WallaceLindsey Wallace

            Hi Carol – I’ve seen several of your comments here. I want to share that single family homes in Minneapolis are out of reach for most people. My partner and I make above the area median income and still struggled to find something in our price range. There is a historic housing shortage that is driving prices up. Houses that are listed for $220k end up selling for over $250k. One house we looked at was listed at $280k and ended up selling for $330k! And these were not big or fancy homes.

            I think there are a lot of people who would love to buy a house for $230k, but that’s just not a reality in today’s market. Or if it is, it requires a lot of capital to rehab the house because it is outdated and needs new mechanicals or a new roof.

            Being able to rent an apartment in a smaller scale building does not require a down payment or the capital costs that come along with home ownership. There’s no guarantee of affordability, but homeownership is not affordable for many people. No one would be forcing homeowners to move or sell if they don’t want to, but people who want a nice smaller scale apartment would have the option.

          3. Morgan Bird

            This is pretty much entirely false, Carol. Housing prices *peaked* in early 2005 and the bubble was already well under way in 2003. Home Price Index today is very nearly where it was at the peak: https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/MNXRSA

            According to Zillow home prices increased 9.5% in just the last year.

      1. mplsmatt

        I’m not sure how common the scenario is, but it is pretty much what my in-laws recently went through. They wanted to downsize and would have loved to stay in their neighborhood but they didn’t have many options for multi-family, smaller footprint homes. They found a place they liked in an area that works well for them, but they left St. Paul for the suburbs.

        Also, isn’t the population increase in Downtown Minneapolis partially driven by seniors looking to downsize? That’s been my understanding, anyway.

      2. Frank Phalen

        I think the “older” seniors, 75 & up, are going to be the last generation that says, “I want to stay in my house until the end.” Their children have seen the emotional difficulty they’ve had parting with a house full of physical posseions, and have started to de-clutter now. Likewise, they’ve also seen the harmful effects of “I’m going to stay here until the slide me in a body bag and take me out of here.”

        The fear of elderly parents using steep, narrow basement steps makes people not wish that on their own kids in the years to come.

        1. Carol Becker

          I was at a recent event with some of my neighbors (Cooper) and of the ten or so people there, there was a 35 year homeowner, a 25 year homeowner, a youngster at 13 years and one person whose family had owned their home for 65 years. I don’t think that a lot of homeowners are wanting to move once they have bought a house. I sort of laughed when someone wrote about how us “oldsters” should stop participating in the 2040 Comp Plan discussion because the City was going to be for young people. People like their homes and should be able to stay in them as long as they like. Which in many cases is a long time. I know I am expecting another 50 years in mine.

      3. Alf

        Our parents are not currently in town, but will likely want to move here at some point when they need more support, whether that’s in five years or thirty years. Having them in the neighborhood means the opportunity for us to give them the kinds of support ourselves that would be available in “independent senior living” and likely considerably beyond. Still, whenever they do come here, neither they nor we are going to want to take on an extra lawn to maintain, extra sidewalks to shovel, etc.

        I think that’s probably a relatively common scenario–aging parents who may want to give up the responsibilities of home maintenance and move within easy reach of kids, without necessarily needing dedicated senior housing.

      4. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        Having been on a Minneapolis neighborhood board for the past few years, I can say one of the top issues we hear about (right after crime and traffic) is our older neighbors aging out of their single family homes and worrying that they have to move to the suburbs to find housing that is high-accessibility and low-maintenance.

      5. Jonathan Foster

        The most common scenario might be living in your home until you die, but that doesn’t mean that is the best scenario for the home owner, the family, or the neighborhood. Everyone deserves housing options they can afford.

  7. Monte Castleman

    “If our definition of ‘pro-family’ extends beyond the kinds of families who aren’t exclusively white and financially comfortable, we should be legalizing cheaper housing types — small-scale multi-family homes.”

    Is the implication here that single family homes are bought exclusively by whites? If so someone should inform that minorities that bought the (much nicer than mine) house next door of that fact.

    Turning off the snark, I saw in another article that minority home ownership in the area is low. Would allowing a bunch of irreplaceable starter houses to be replaced with multi-family housing help or hurt that? Are there not enough starter houses so people that would prefer to live in them are forced to live in apartments, or not enough apartments so people that would prefer to live in them are forced to live in starter houses?

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      What’s the strategy for keeping “starter homes” as such? Because they’re rapidly being bid up to non-starter prices or being replaced with luxury large SFHs.

      Meanwhile, one of 2, 3, or 4 units in a single structure may be a lot more affordable.

      If there are any “starter homes” left in the city, they’re not long for it.

      1. Michael RodenMichael Roden

        Condos are the new starter home. My wife and I bought our 930sf condo in a walkable neighborhood and we have a dog and a 1.5 year old kid and a wonderful easy life. We have goals to move in to a larger home with a yard (hopefully a rowhouse), but for the time being, the next 3 years of so, this is perfect.

        1. Tim

          Condos and townhomes used to be considered more typical starter homes than SFHs. That was how it was for me and most people I knew buying their first homes in the early 2000’s. It was the housing crash that made SFHs more popular as starter homes, because that made them affordable to more people.

          1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

            I lived in DC when I bought my first condo. I guess there were row houses I could have looked at, but they were mostly out of my price range and more than I needed for just me.

    2. Carol Becker

      Why do you think “small scale multi-family homes’ are cheaper than existing homes? The price of new construction for the Minneapolis Affordable Housing Trust are $275,000 – $300,000 a unit for new construction for units big enough for families.

  8. SSP

    I don’t believe the City’s efforts to sell Glendale and eliminate “184 townhomes designed for families” (the City’s description http://mphaonline.org/housing/glendale-townhomes/) has been covered at streets.mn. According to much of what I read on streets.mn destroying this housing to make way for privately developed market rate housing would be a good thing as long as the new development has more than the existing184 units.

    Those darn NIMBY residents just don’t get it and would prefer to preserve their affordable development. Don’t they understand that the private market will solve all problems and increased development will magically provide them with new affordable housing options?

    Not sorry for the snark, I’m frustrated that so much focus here is on allowing fourplexes everywhere and very little on how to really address affordable housing (and the real crisis in available family housing) in the City. I am still waiting for someone to describe where wholesale changes to zoning and increased density actually resulted in more affordable housing.

    1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

      That is a very uncharitable restating of those who want abundant housing as being callous towards the most vulnerable.

      The housing market is complex and has many parts. There are many advocates for abundant housing and they all have different motives for wanting abundant housing. One of the reasons for wanting an abundant supply of housing is it takes some power away from property owners and landlords from exploiting the shortage in housing and raising rents or reaping an unearned windfall. It is harder to raise rents if a prospective tenant can easily say “screw your rent increase I’ll just go down the block to the building with many open units”.

      Forget the angle of fourplexes, duplexes, etc., how do you propose constructing enough new housing for low income residents if the zoning requires single family housing on so much of this city’s residential zoned land?

      Maybe you could write the post you want to see about Glendale!

    2. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      First, it would be great if you or someone else who is knowledgeable could write about the Glendale issue on Streets.MN. For those of us who don’t live in Prospect Park and aren’t in the public housing space, it’s hard to know what’s going on.

      But I’m not seeing how the draft Comprehensive Plan either directly impacts the Glendale public housing or indirectly puts this housing at risk. A public housing agency selling off or redeveloping public housing is a completely different type of policy issue from a city proposing a long-range plan to guide land use. If anything, the draft Comprehensive Plan would improve the ability of tenants to find affordable housing and would also improve the ability of agencies such as MPHA and non-profit affordable housing developers such as PPL or Aeon to expand affordable housing and build more units at lower costs.

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        Glendale is definitely an under-covered topic, here and elsewhere, so I’d like to echo Matt and Eric to encourage you (or anyone else knowledgeable) to write about it.

  9. Serafina ScheelSerafina

    Glendale is in my neighborhood, and consensus has been that displacing families for redevelopment is wrong. Even with a so-called right to return to the new development, the disruption in the lives of vulnerable families scattered to different communities is harmful. Residents and neighbors largely want to see the property repaired and maintained with infrastructure improvement. Financing is problematic. There’s a tension between wanting to use one of the few available ways of financing construction and maintenance of low-income housing and destroying low-income housing that’s been working.

    I don’t have a crystal ball, but I just don’t see wholescale teardown of single-family housing under the comp plan. I see more options for more different types of families.

    I’m in Münster right now where my family lived in 2016. It’s a small city in NW Germany, with a population of 300,000, about 20% of whom are university students. The inner city has a population density five times that of Minneapolis, but about half the city land is farmland. A five-minute bike ride from the city walls and I’m in fields of barley, wheat, strawberries, and asparagus. Most families live in apartments, largely within 5-story midrise buildings, very few highrises, but also some single-family homes. Apartment life with kids, and without, can be perfectly pleasant.

    1. Daniel Hartigkingledion

      One of the biggest drawbacks to apartment life with kids is the lack of outdoor space to let kids roam in. Biking to strawberry fields in Muster is great, but that ship sailed a long time ago in Minneapolis. An 30 min bikeride starting anywhere in Minneapolis city proper won’t get you to farmland in any direction, as far as I know.

      Since we can’t reclaim wide open spaces that have been covered by suburbs, the next best solution is to increase the availability of public land (preferably with trees and stuff). A good start, for one example, would be turning some of the remaining golf courses into private parks. Hiawatha is going under anyways due to water concerns; Theodore Wirth, Columbia, and Gross could also turn into public parks. That would help place a sizable green area within reach of many more of the city’s residents.

      1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

        “One of the biggest drawbacks to apartment life with kids is the lack of outdoor space to let kids roam in. Biking to strawberry fields in Muster is great, but that ship sailed a long time ago in Minneapolis. An 30 min bikeride starting anywhere in Minneapolis city proper won’t get you to farmland in any direction, as far as I know.”

        How is that different than single family homes? Are you discounting the parks as places kids can roam? Are back and front yards necessary for child rearing that kids without are harmed?

  10. SSP

    Someone asked for my suggestions, I’ve made some in other comments elsewhere on this site, but the first thing we need to do is correctly define the problems:

    1) We have a growing income gap that is going to increasingly force lower income and middle income families out of Minneapolis.

    2) We need to grow the number of housing units to meet the demand of increasing numbers of high income people who want to live here.

    These are different problems but the Mayor, planners, and many who post here claim addressing the second will solve the first. It will not, it will make the first problem worse.

    Tearing down the cheapest housing in Minneapolis to build more luxury units is not the solution. Almost ALL solutions that will get us more affordable housing will require more market interventions:

    How about:

    1) Strict code enforcement. Saving affordable housing is always cheaper than building it new.

    We need to stop the perverse system we have now that encourages and allows owners to disinvest knowing they can eventually tear-down and build more expensive housing. Perhaps when a demolition permit is requested an inspection should be conducted and a price put on deferred maintenance costs of the building and then requiring this amount to be paid into an affordable housing fund to build new affordable housing. This would capture the profit now realized by disinvesting (which imposes externalities on the City and neighbors).

    2) Forbid single-story commercial on transit corridors. The City Counsel President talks about the need for housing but on her watch the Girodano’s and Walgren’s buildings were built on Hennepin as single story suburban style buildings. How come the City didn’t insist both buildings include multistory housing above the first floor retail?

    3) Create a real transit plan that is muti-nodal and has regular frequent “elevator” like service. Then zone the areas adjacent to the nodes for 3-6 story development (with design and massing criteria to protect nearby smaller structures). Follow thorough on the plan to encourage investment on those sites.

    4. As part of #3, identify nodes not currently popular for developers and use strategic investment of City dollars to assemble parcels that would make development happen. That’s what the City did back in the 80’s with the Urban Village which created the model and demand for housing along the Greenway. Aren’t there locations SE or N that would work today?

    5. Allow R2B or triplex anywhere in the City so long as the construction is not out of scale with its neighbors.

    6. Encourage and allow cooperative approaches to adding housing: For instance, allow the properties on a block to propose conversion of their alley to Mews-like buildings like those found in Philadelphia or Europe. Designing and building these as a group would give better results from a design perspective and address the ADU cost issues that have prevented ADUs from being a meaningful part of the solution.

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