Zoning Reform Takes a Positive First Step at the Legislature

This year, the Minnesota legislature is looking to address zoning and land use policy across the state, in hopes of improving housing affordability, housing equity and greener urban infill — among other things. 

In recent years, a few persistent legislators have repeatedly introduced bills to zone for more housing of different housing types throughout Minnesota, but have made little legislative progress. This year, however, momentum for state zoning and land use reform seems stronger than ever. 

On Tuesday, February 20, the Housing Finance and Policy Committee of the Minnesota House held a hearing for a proposed major zoning reform (disclaimer: I testified in support of this bill at the hearing, as a representative of Sustain Saint Paul). This bill proposes to change zoning and land use policies to allow for more types of housing.

At the hearing, a wide coalition of organizations testified in support of this bill, for a wide variety of reasons. A smaller, though still significant, number of testifiers expressed their opposition. The committee voted unanimously to move this bill forward in the legislative process. 

This hearing was an early step in a major statewide effort to implement zoning reforms, which have taken the country by storm — in large part led by local action in Minneapolis and St. Paul. While the road ahead for these policies remains long, the hearing demonstrates the consensus and energy that has developed around zoning reforms in Minnesota.

Key Details of the Bill

The bill (HF4009 in the House, SF3964 in the Senate), proposes quite a few changes to zoning codes throughout the state. 

One major focus of the bill is on “middle housing,” defined as homes from duplexes up to six-plexes, plus things like town-homes and courtyard apartments. Cities with 10,000 or more people have to allow at least six homes per lot within a half mile of a major transit stop, and four homes per lot elsewhere. Smaller cities would still allow two homes per lot — and all cities would allow accessory dwelling units. 

The bill also allows for larger apartment buildings in areas that currently allow for commercial uses, which could include a lot of new space for housing around the state.

Another focus is on processes for approving new housing. The bill would limit cities’ ability to totally block new housing through procedural routes. If a proposed building fits with a city’s comprehensive plan, it has to be approved. And cities need to set up an “administrative review process,” which would require cities to approve or deny a building permit application within 60 days and follow certain standards for making that decision. This rule would hopefully allow for more consistency in the process of approving new housing. 

A final aim of the bill fits more under the category of “guardrails” or limitations on zoning practices to reduce the costs of housing. For example, most cities could not allow minimum lot sizes of more than 2,500 square feet, enabling homes on smaller and more affordable plots of land. Minimum parking requirements would be limited in a few different ways. And cities could not mandate costly aesthetic elements on new housing.

Who Testified

At the end of the hearing, Rep. Mike Howard (DFL–Richfield) said that “in my time at the Legislature, I haven’t seen a coalition like this.” Below is a visual compilation of many of the organizations that support this bill, including Neighbors for More Neighbors in Minneapolis and Sustain Saint Paul, where I serve on the board.

Accordingly, testimonies touched on an array of themes.

Housing affordability:

The primary theme was housing affordability. By increasing the supply of housing and allowing for more affordable types of housing, these reforms would help put housing within reach for more people.

“What’s happening is that we are fighting project by project, 30 units at a time, to create more housing, when actually we have more than 100,000 new homes that we need,” Anne Mavity, executive director of the nonprofit Minnesota Housing Partnership and former city council member in St. Louis Park, said.

Nick Erickson, the senior director of housing policy at Housing First Minnesota, talked about the tangible affordability benefits of allowing more housing development: 

“We asked the American Enterprise Institute’s Housing Center to run some numbers on the proposal that we’re hearing today, and what they found is that new infill housing in the Twin Cities would be available at about $380,000-390,000 median price point,” Erickson said. “Today, it’s $550,000 to build a new single-family home here in the Twin Cities from a median price perspective.”

Housing options and inclusion:

Within the theme of housing affordability, a particular focus was on increasing housing options and flexibility. In many communities, the status quo around land use and zoning is quite rigid: only a select few kinds of homes are allowed, which must meet specific requirements around size, parking, aesthetics and so forth. 

For example, a written testimony from AARP described how more missing middle housing would benefit seniors, describing the dilemma of “older adults [who] are ‘house-rich’ but ‘cash-poor.’ Some would like to sell their home and buy something more affordable or accessible in their community, but in most cases, that type of housing does not exist.”

Kormasah Deward, a member of the labor union SEIU, shared a story of her own struggle to find affordable housing in Minnesota. After encountering problems with her employment and financial situation, Deward couldn’t find a home where she could make rent. She was forced to live with her five children in her car and motels. 

“I understand that a lot of people like a big house and a big yard. That’s my dream too,” said Deward. “But that should not have to be the only kind of housing when you’re struggling.”

Relatedly, some testifiers talked about the exclusive and inequitable impacts of today’s zoning codes. In many Minnesota neighborhoods where there is limited housing access, the effect is inequitable and exclusionary.

“So today, our restrictive growth policies that we’re seeing across the state and across the country are actually rooted in a deeply racist history with land use and exclusionary zoning policies that were established, enacted and enforced by our government to exclude Black, brown  and indigenous residents, primarily black Minnesotans, from communities,” Rep. Alicia “Liish” Kozlowski (DFL–Duluth), one of the lead authors of this bill, said. “Today, these policies continue to perpetuate segregated communities, and drive economic, education, health, employment inequities, and perpetuate the racial wealth gaps and homeownership [gaps].”


Another argument centered around environmental sustainability. 

Anna Nelson, a volunteer at Neighbors for More Neighbors, talked about how she and her family had always aspired to live in a neighborhood where they’d be less car-dependent, with more opportunities to walk, bike and use transit in their daily life. “However, we live in the Twin Cities, and we realized pretty quickly that type of walkable neighborhood is really hard to find. It’s also very sought after and very expensive.”

These quotes and summaries represent only a partial selection of the many testifiers who supported the bill. 

The opposition: local control

The primary argument in opposition to this bill centered around local control. Representatives from the League of Minnesota Cities, the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities and some local policymakers raised these arguments. 

Daniel Lightfoot, an intergovernmental relations manager at the League of Minnesota Cities, argued that the bill would limit cities’ abilities to plan for and accommodate higher density, and ultimately “lack[s] consideration generally for how cities utilize zoning and land use to ensure public safety, health, welfare and finance, and scale public infrastructure to support new housing density.”

What’s Next

I think we’re in the midst of a remarkable moment around zoning reform. A little over five years ago, Minneapolis made national headlines for being an early adopter of substantial zoning reforms to allow for more housing development. Today, Minneapolis zoning reforms are still making national headlines, but now it’s because they were a forerunner of “the hottest trend in U.S. cities.” Across the country, states from California to Vermont to Montana are making similar changes. 

This momentum seems to be matched locally: At the Minnesota Legislature, momentum for statewide land use reform is stronger than it’s ever been. This hearing showcased the broad coalition of organizations and interests in support. Rep. Mike Howard (DFL-Richfield), chair of the House Housing Finance and Policy Committee, told the Minnesota Reformer last month that “our top priority in housing this session is to legalize more housing choices for Minnesotans.” 

This committee hearing represented a first step for this bill. Now, it must also advance through the State and Local Government Committee in the house, and go through the corresponding two committees in the state Senate, before the broader legislative bodies can vote on it. In other words, while this first step was quite positive, there’s a lot of process left. 

It’s also only one of multiple bills in zoning and land use that have been proposed. One bill, titled the People Over Parking Act, proposes to end minimum parking requirements in Minnesota. Another bill proposes to rewrite the state building code so that buildings up to 75 feet can have only a single staircase, which would increase the feasibility of many infill housing developments. 

Each of these issues requires your support. Contact your legislators and urge them to advance zoning reform across Minnesota. 

About Zak Yudhishthu

Pronouns: He/him

Zak is a student at Macalester College studying economics and music. He's interested in all kinds of urban politics and policy, and is the student representative for the Macalester-Groveland Neighborhood Council. Tweet him @zyudhishthu or email him at zyudhishthu@yahoo[dot]com.