Why are Building Height Limits in Minneapolis 2040 Delaying Affordable Housing in Whittier?

The City of Minneapolis’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan promised to change our city’s approach to housing. The plan’s central argument is that the city needs more homes, especially since Minneapolis doesn’t have sufficient affordable and supportive housing for our most vulnerable community members. Decades of racist and exclusionary zoning policies have made Minneapolis one of the most segregated cities in the United States. These same zoning policies allowed the richest and whitest wards of the city to avoid building their fair share of housing. This drove development into low-income neighborhoods. The mayor and a majority of the city council, along with many neighborhood organizations, and nonprofits all agree that Minneapolis needs more housing. The 2040 plan should have created an environment where desperately needed homes could be built. So why has the 2040 Plan’s cap on the numbers of stories in residential zones interfered with the construction of three dedicated affordable housing complexes in a neighborhood that strongly supported the proposals?  

Whittier is a thoroughly mixed-income neighborhood, in spite of its recent reputation for rampant market-rate development and gentrification. Almost half of residents are considered “rent-burdened”—meaning they spend over 30% of their income on rent—which is a good indicator there is not enough affordable housing located in the neighborhood. Earlier in the summer, unsheltered neighbors camped long-term in Washburn Fair Oaks Park and at the end of Nicollet Avenue until they were forcibly evicted by the police. Although there are already two shelters operating in Whittier, there is a clear need for more long-term and transitional housing for our unhoused neighbors.  

In light of the need for more affordable and transitional housing in Whittier, several organizations proposed developing affordable homes and transitional housing in the neighborhood earlier this year. They include a Simpson Housing project that will be a five-story building with two floors reserved for emergency shelter and two floors for permanent affordable housing. Nonprofit developer Common Bond and St. Stephen’s Human Services also proposed building affordable and supportive housing in the neighborhood.  These three proposals in Whittier aim to create over 120 new dedicated affordable homes and over 70 shelter beds, and are currently blocked. These buildings are surrounded by permitted construction sites for four or five story buildings, but the new affordable projects are limited to three stories due to the 2040 plan definition of Interior 3 that includes most of the Whittier, Philips, Dinkytown, and Wedge neighborhoods. Without an additional story, dozens of homes and shelter beds will not be built, and the subsidy for each person housed will be bigger. It’s possible this limit may cause one or both of the projects to fall though, and no one will be housed. The proposals were enthusiastically supported by residents, neighborhood organizations, and other community members, and are sorely needed so that vulnerable community members can enjoy the stability of a quality, affordable home. Those supporters were told that because of the cap of three stories in Minneapolis 2040, the plan would have to be amended before the affordable homes could be approved. 

Of these three proposed affordable housing developments, only Simpson Housing has managed to successfully amend Minneapolis 2040. This amendment has allowed the developers to build a five story building – one that would have been allowed prior to implementation of Minneapolis 2040. Now, height above three stories isn’t allowed, even for dedicated affordable housing. This is true in spite of the mayor’s and city council’s stance that these neighborhoods need more supportive and affordable housing. 

Fortunately, the Simpson Housing development was able to navigate the amendment process to get an amendment and build the affordable homes they planned. But the complex, months-long process raises concerns that other neighborhood organizations, like Common Bond and St. Stephens, won’t be able to build affordable and supportive housing projects that are currently in the pipeline, even though they comply with the former height limits in the neighborhood.  

A cap that limits new buildings to three stories in parts of Whittier delayed the production of 124 affordable homes and over 70 beds of emergency shelter, against the wishes of the neighborhood and affordable housing advocates. These limits are actually lower than they were in pre-2040 Plan zoning regulations. In one neighborhood, in one year, lower height limits have impacted three separate affordable housing projects. If left unchanged these rules will continue to block affordable housing projects all across the city of Minneapolis. We must fix these proposed rules before they are adopted. The affordable housing incentive in Interior 3 needs to allow an extra story on the condition of providing  affordable homes.

Please take two actions. First, comment on the proposed Built Form Rezoning Study. Second, contact the planning commissioners. Ask them to allow for an affordable housing Premium that allows the same affordable buildings as were allowed prior to the 2040 Plan. We must make sure the rules implementing Minneapolis 2040 live up to the promises of the plan: allowing more people to live near transit and amenities, and giving everyone access to an affordable home. If the final version of the 2040 Plan contains rules that block four and five story affordable homes, even in neighborhoods where they were previously legal to build, Minneapolis 2040 will fail.

Speed Rogers

About Speed Rogers

Speed Rogers is an anthropologist, medical student, and housing activist based in Minnesota. His research interests include how transportation and housing policy affect health outcomes. You can follow him on Twitter @jspeedrogers