This is a photo taken of a portion of a historic-public-domain image document titled: "Perspectives of St. Paul, Minneapolis and Vicinity" Warehouse District/Hennepin Avenue station of the Hiawatha Line in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Arguments Against Minneapolis’s Draft Comprehensive Plan, Addressed (Part II)

This is the second in a series of posts addressing the arguments against Minneapolis’s Draft Comprehensive Plan; the first is here.

It Doesn’t Achieve “Affordability”

I’m not an economist, or an affordable housing expert. So I want to start with a link to this post by Atrios, who is (or, at least, has been) an economist.

[T]he “affordable housing” conversation is quite often directed at new construction, which is the weirdest place to focus on affordability. Building new construction is expensive and acquiring the land to build it on in high rent areas is also really expensive. It’s the most expensive way to think about providing “affordable housing.” Also, new construction has to face contemporary neighborhood concerns and contemporary land use regulations (without arguing these are good or bad they also make things more expensive!). Construction codes (safety, etc.) get ratcheted up regularly and while, again, this does not make them bad it makes new construction more expensive.

Without a municipal time machine, new housing built to satisfy contemporary tastes and standards is inevitably going to be relatively expensive. New construction generally isn’t a way to create affordable housing today.

A sapling

This tree won’t provide shade today so what even is the point??

To borrow an aphorism, the best time to build affordable housing was 50 (40, 30…) years ago; the second best time is now. (Anton said this, almost verbatim, in his post one year ago!) Only as it ages, and as tastes change and standards are further raised, does it become comparatively less expensive. On the other hand, if you never allow multifamily housing to be built in certain neighborhoods, it can’t be had for any price—the most unaffordable price of all.

I also think it’s important to acknowledge another point in Atrios’s post: affordability means different things to different people; even marginal cost reductions (or reduced upward pressure on prices) can make the difference between something being affordable or unaffordable to someone aspiring to own or rent in Minneapolis.

Gary Cunningham made a great comment in response to Part One that I recommend reading. It highlights something that I think is central to addressing complex housing policy dynamics: it’s unlikely any single policy change is sufficient to address the flaws in the market-based housing status quo. Housing accessibility and fairness, like many of our economic problems, need to be addressed holistically.

To be successful, we also need policies for increasing wages and income security for people of low and moderate incomes, subsidizing and/or otherwise materially supporting owner-occupied single- and multifamily housing in a way that proactively mitigates and reverses historic redlining, pursuing and implementing a diverse and diversely-located stock of public and subsidized housing generally, committing to better protecting tenants and tenants’ rights, reducing car-dependency and transportation costs, encouraging and incentivizing smaller living spaces, and a lot more. Or a combination of some of these things, together with other better ideas I haven’t listed.

It’s clear that allowing more multifamily housing to be built in more places, alone, does not guarantee affordability. But nor do I think that obvious examples of unaffordable density are proof that it can’t be (and hasn’t been) done right. (Allow me to plug the neighborhood of Corcoran as a place where it is being done relatively well. The neighborhood has a nice mix of multi- and single-family homes. The neighborhood organization prioritizes the concerns of renters, welcomes new development, and prioritizes people over parking.)

Increased density is the medium in which other policies can provide meaningful relief for the problems of the status quo that need to be addressed, while maximizing choice for the beneficiaries of those efforts. Allowing multifamily housing to be built throughout the city gets you maximum flexibility to implement, diversify, and improve these policies without concentrating them, and their beneficiaries, in a small number of neighborhoods or polluted corridors.

If you have policy ideas that Minneapolis should commit to that can advance the goal of affordability, please recommend them for the Comprehensive Plan! However, I wouldn’t read the absence of those suggestions as a failure to acknowledge them as necessary or worthwhile components of a comprehensive, effective solution. Here is the 2040 Comprehensive Plan’s policy section on housing accessibility. Arguably, this section is light on policies beyond land use that can advance affordable, accessible housing goals. Then again, the purpose of the plan is to satisfy a statutory framework and obligation to prepare a document primarily focused on land use. (see Minn. Stat. § 473.851 and .864, under the heading “Land Use Planning.”)

Housing prices in the Twin Cities increased at over twice the rate of inflation in the last year, and are expected to do so again in the coming year, a windfall to current landowners at the expense of aspiring Minneapolis residents. A housing unit deferred to tomorrow will be less affordable than one built today. Source: Zillow

Activists and interested citizens inevitably focus on different aspects of the affordability problem; it’s going to take all of us working together, improving the Comprehensive Plan where necessary, and continuing to work in our respective areas of interest after the plan is completed to bring about the best outcome.

Appeals to Æsthetics, Building Age, History, and Settled Expectations

There’s a grab bag of other arguments that are the sorts of things that are often raised as criticisms of specific development proposals, that appeal to a sense of style or æsthetics, sometimes assembled in a package referred to as “neighborhood character.” (see also Indiscriminate Bulldozing in Part One.) It’ll be ugly, or too modern(-looking), or too bland, or too tall, or too different, or too Just Not Appealing To Me.

Usually, with regard to a specific project, this is a game that can’t be won because it’s a concern raised by someone who doesn’t want the project to happen—there’s always something that can be criticized. As it pertains to the 2040 Comprehensive Plan, I guess the objection is that the Plan doesn’t sufficiently restrict the aesthetic qualities of future development. The Plan, in fact, does specifically provide guidance about the visual quality of new development and building height.

Setting aside that fretting over the æsthetics of future developments that aren’t even yet legal, much less being considered or proposed, is a speculative activity, I’m nonplussed by these arguments. One of the things I have valued about having a house in Minneapolis is not being subject to some meddling and micromanaging Homeowners’ Association rigidly imposing conformity and sameyness for miles in every direction.

New stuff often looks new-ish. This is in large part because you build stuff with new materials, using contemporary techniques, and for contemporary sensibilities—in fact, that’s generally the affordable way to build things. It costs more to make something out of materials or methods that make it look older. And the costs of maintaining a “historic” property are inevitably higher.

So once again, these arguments trend toward exclusion and anti-affordability. Claiming to be both pro-historic/æsthetic preservation and pro-affordability is a bit of a paradox, usually solved by either saying the affordable stuff belongs somewhere else, or by imposing an ad hoc unfunded affordability mandate as part of an effort to stop development.

The other thing to keep in mind is that change in predominately single-family neighborhoods is likely to be almost imperceptibly slow. Even opponents of legalizing multifamily housing seem to acknowledge that even over decades not much is actually going to change, and especially not if change isn’t incentivized. Ironically, eventually the new stuff will become old, then historic, and eventually someone will try to preserve it.

Resistance to Change, Disguised as Some Other Concern

I think part of the reality of this planning process is that people have ample notice: there is a need for change because more people want to live here. What a great problem to have!

For some, getting this notice is uncomfortable. Talking about the plan seems to be in part an exercise of moving some well-off landowners through the five stages of grief.

This is a photo taken of a portion of a historic-public-domain image document titled: "Perspectives of St. Paul, Minneapolis and Vicinity" Warehouse District/Hennepin Avenue station of the Hiawatha Line in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Suppose the Minneapolis residents of 1904, or 1804, had preserved their “historic” land uses.

It’s appealing to have a quasi-suburban enclave “minutes from downtown” preserved in amber—freezing not just the property they own in time, but other nearby properties that other people own and which, in the future, will be owned by still other people. All those people, now and in the future, would be prevented from using their properties to let more people call Minneapolis home and contribute to our city… just to keep the city stuck in the 1970s to please some fortunate current land owners. (And in 20 years they’ll complain that their property taxes are too high, conveniently forgetting all those potential fellow taxpayers they excluded.)

There are some important things to preserve about history, but we must balance land uses we keep with the change that we embrace. Keep truly iconic structures, and otherwise allow property owners to make room for a future where Minneapolis can surpass its past. Minneapolis doesn’t need to, and simply shouldn’t, preserve tens of thousands of acres as a pæan to a specific era of dubiously motivated mid-20th century residential land use choices. The middle of the 20th century was fine (for some), but were their land-use decisions really so good we should maintain most of the city to as a museum dedicated to them?

Nobody Actually Makes These Arguments, You’re Making Them Up

Believe me I do not have that kind of free time or any keen interest in responding to arguments that haven’t been made. I’m not an activist on this issue, I’m a Minneapolis property owner that sees a lot of speculative, fear-driven, self-serving, frankly reflexively conservative arguments about the future that need to be challenged. Thanks for reading; maybe I won’t feel compelled to write another!

Christa M

About Christa M

Attorney. I do law stuff, ride bikes, and paint murals. Member of Hourcar & Nice Ride, and customer of Freewheel Bike and The Hub Bike Co-op.