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.
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.”)
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.
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!
Great piece Chris. I like how you use information to support your arguments.
Thanks. Readers here rightly hold writers to a high standard.
In my laundry list of suggestions, I forgot one of my favorites: incentivizing and promoting (e.g., assistance financing) mixed-use development at all scales.
Some messaging that I’ve been working on refining:
It is impossible to preserve our in-demand neighborhoods as is. We can wholesale preserve our existing building stock, or we can try to preserve our existing housing affordability. We cannot do both, since those goals largely work against each other.
I’ve seen that framing used pretty compellingly by Bay Area YIMBY types in response to “community character” objections to growth: in short, community character is about the people in the community, not just the buildings. Your community is going to lose its character anyway if your own kids can’t ever afford to move back to the place they grew up.
Of course, this is only convincing if people accept the premise that a cause of rising housing costs is lack of supply, and there are many out there who reject that premise completely, in spite of all reason and evidence. They don’t perceive at all that the reason their neighborhood is unaffordable is that there are a lot of people who would like to live there, and that makes it possible for landlords and sellers to ask more. If you press them on the subject, the response is usually something-something-greedy-developers-something-something-luxury-construction.
I have yet to find a consistently effective way to broach the issue of the existence of supply and demand forces with these folks.
Supply and demand works fine in a closed system. Minneapolis is not a closed system. If increased supply reduces cost then demand will increase and costs will rise. A more effective way to make housing affordable is to make the area undesirable. On that grounds I think the upzoning will be successful.
I found a Pew report projecting almost 50% population growth in the U.S. from 2005 to 2050. Somehow I don’t think the Comp Plan is going to take that on.
no, it’s not addressing whatever figure you’re citing. it’s going off the met council’s projections for 2040 for our city.
if you believe upzoning would make it less desirable to live here, there’s some very nice duplexes they’re building on green fields in Willmar.
“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.”
Which isn’t what people are concerned about when they talk to “neighborhood character”. Forgive me if I’m mistaken, but on one hand you have a house in Minneapolis and on the other you are favoring proposals that take houses out of Minneapolis and replace them with various mixed use and mid-density … *in other neighborhoods*.
*Everyone* has a point where “neighborhood character” matters. Just think about what it’d take to get you to move out of your neighborhood and you’ve found it. Then work backwards to things that could bring about that situation. People aren’t wrong to be concerned about their lifestyle being changed without their consent.
Going to need a better definition then, because what you’re saying makes no sense. It literally makes no difference to me if a property down the street is a SFH, a multifamily,or mixed-use. My neighborhood has all of those, and if any of them change from one to another, I probably wouldn’t even notice. If 50% of them change (wouldn’t happen in my lifetime) I might notice, but how does it impact me?
I don’t get to “consent” to other people’s uses of their property, and I find it a bizarre premise.
Other people living near you impacting your lifestyle? Maybe a city isn’t for you.
Of course you get to consent to other people’s uses of their property. You do so primarily through your elected government. And that is what the Comp Plan debate is about – getting representation for our voices.
In some places the HOA says you must use beige siding and can’t park on the street. In Minneapolis you can’t start a toxic waste dump in your yard nor build a 90 story apartment building on your SFH lot. Every community comes up with standards, there’s nothing “bizarre” about that.
Your flippancy towards contrary opinions can often be turned around: Other people living near you impacting your lifestyle by limiting development options? Maybe Minneapolis isn’t the city for you.
It’s not impacting me, it’s impacting other people who want to live here, chiefly out of self-interest. I don’t think people who live in Minneapolis consider themselves to be greedy or selfish people, so I think it’s worth pointing out when they’re acting consistent with those vices so they might reflect and consider what attitudes might be more consistent with their self-perception as inclusive and caring people.
And I like to think I’m more right about the people who live in Minneapolis than you are.
Very well written article. You’re article reminds me of something another writer wrote- we plan for the future, not the past.
(And in 20 years they’ll complain that their property taxes are too high, conveniently forgetting all those potential fellow taxpayers they excluded.)
Isn’t this the same issue as the housing value increasing while maintaining affordability? The more people (taxpayers) that move here the more services are being needed to be paid for. Kind of like expecting the world economy to infinitely grow on a finite planet. I really wonder if these problems are solvable with current understandings and organization of society.
Thanks for your thoughts.
It’s a fair question. I don’t have hard numbers to support this, but I think this really comes down to economies of scale. It’s more efficient to serve people in cities than it is to serve them all spread out. So yes total costs increase as population increases, but the increased efficiency means they don’t go up as high as the alternative.
Whether or not we exceed the capacity of the planet to support us is a distinct problem that cities alone can’t solve, but the more efficiently we can provide that support to the people that are here, the better off everyone is.
Some evidence for your “economies of scale” argument? I suspect exactly the opposite is true and the larger/denser you get the more expensive it is to deliver services. No tables, but her is local data including per/capita spending by municipalities. Minneapolis and St. Paul are more expensive than any other communities in the state.
I wanted to add a link to the Housing topic of the Comprehensive Plan generally: https://minneapolis2040.com/topics/housing/
In my post I only linked to the section on housing accessibility, but when I went to provide further comments on the plan I realized that there are sections specifically addressing affordable housing production and preservation that contain even more discussion and action steps directed at those topics.