Minneapolis Should Get Rid of Minimum Lot Size Requirements

25th Avenue South in the Corcoran neighborhood feels like a typical Minneapolis residential street. Single-family homes sit next to duplexes under a lush tree canopy. It also happens to have great access to transit, running near the METRO Blue Line light rail and crossing numerous high-traffic bus routes.

Surprisingly, neighborhoods like this cannot be developed today, because Minneapolis regulation prohibits the creation of residential lots that are smaller than 5,000 or 6,000 square feet, and many of these homes are on 4,400 square foot lots. In the zoning regulations, this is called the minimum lot size, and it is one of the barriers to affordable housing currently written into the city zoning code.

In November 2020, the Minneapolis Planning Commission and City Council will vote on built form regulations to align the zoning code with the Minneapolis 2040 plan, and this includes the minimum lot size. To achieve the Minneapolis 2040 plan’s goals of increasing affordable housing options, I think that these groups should vote to get rid of minimum lot size requirements.

Minimum lot sizes limit the number of homes

3321 25th Avenue S is 4,400 square feet of empty land nestled between two small duplexes, each themselves on 4,400 square feet lots. Those duplexes are great examples of small, attractive and affordable housing options that are often hard to find in Minneapolis. While these buildings have been grandfathered in, under the current minimum lot size rules, it would be illegal to build these duplexes on new lots.

Vacant land where minimum lot size regulations prohibit new housing
Vacant land and adjacent duplexes sit on lots of 4,400 square feet, smaller than what is currently allowed in Minneapolis. Photo: Google Street View, 3321 25th Avenue S.

25th Avenue isn’t unique in this way. According to the Minneapolis Assessor’s parcel database, 236 residential lots in Corcoran (23%) are smaller than the minimum lot size[1], meaning that they could not be developed under the existing rules. With larger lots required, this would result in a neighborhood with fewer, and most likely larger and more expensive housing.  

With housing affordability a key priority of the Minneapolis 2040 plan, we should be asking city leaders: does it make any sense that our land use regulations discourage smaller, more affordable homes from being built on transit-rich land?

Proposed minimum lot sizes don’t even fit our existing neighborhoods

The Minneapolis Built Form Rezoning Study recently proposed minimum lot sizes of either 5,000 or 6,000 square feet for its Interior 1, Interior 2, and Interior 3 Built Form districts (the actual minimum lot size depends on entirely separate zoning district definitions). These Interior Built Form districts make up the vast majority of residential areas and units in the city.

According to the parcel database, over 14,000 existing residential lots are already smaller than the proposed minimum lot sizes, especially in Built Form areas Interior 2 and 3. The 14,000 buildings on these lots would not be allowed to be built under proposed regulations. This also means the proposed minimum lot sizes will likely result in an increase in average lot size over time, directly contradicting the Minneapolis 2040 plan’s stated goals of increasing housing affordability and housing options in the city.

Built Form DistrictNumber of residential lots [2]Number of residential lots smaller than minimum lot size [3]5th percentile of residential lot square footage
Interior 139,0245,297 (13.6%)4,760
Interior 231,5526,742 (21.4%)3,914
Interior 38,4892,237 (26.4%)2,957

If the city were to select minimum lot sizes that were merely in-line with existing neighborhood patterns, setting a lower-bound at the 5th percentile or lower would make much more sense than what is proposed. This would mean lowering minimum lot size to about 4,700 sqft in Interior 1, 3,900 sqft in Interior 2, and 3,000 sqft in Interior 3. 

Let’s be bold and get rid of minimum lot size requirements

Allowing smaller lot sizes would unlock more land for housing and encourage more diversity in home options in Minneapolis. And it wouldn’t result in ugly, out-of-place housing. The rest of the city zoning code still applies, and this regulates the use, height, land coverage, maximum floor area ratio (FAR) and setback of buildings. All of these together help sensibly control the development of a neighborhood.

What this shows is that minimum lot sizes are an unnecessary additional regulation, one that strictly limits the number of homes; especially smaller homes, and should be eliminated if the city cares about increasing affordable housing options.

The Minneapolis 2040 plan received praise for being a bold, progressive plan that would help increase housing affordability, reduce racial and economic disparities, and reduce our city’s contribution to climate change. We should live up to that vision by adopting bold, progressive changes to our built form regulations and get rid of unnecessary restrictions on lot size. 

[1] Count of vacant lots with Land Use category of “Urban Neighborhood,” which is for predominantly residential use
[2] Count of total lots with Land Use category of “Urban Neighborhood.”
[3] Using minimum lot size of 6,000 sqft for lots currently zoned for R1 and R2, and 5,000 sqft for all other lots with Land Use category “Urban Neighborhood”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the zoning code prohibited new construction on all non-conforming vacant lots. If a lot is non-conforming at the time of a new minimum lot size ordinance, it is typically given an exception to the restriction on new development.

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