The Organizers Who Want Single-Family Zoning Abolished in Minneapolis

The landmark zoning change is expected to help address historic racial and economic segregation, and organizers say the credit for the change should be spread far and wide.

Minneapolis City Hall. (Photo by Tony Webster CC BY-NC 2.0)

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Speaking at a five-hour city planning commission hearing on the Minneapolis 2040 comprehensive plan, one witness described the proposal’s most headline-grabbing provision as, “A social experiment of epic proportions.”

The witness was referring to a change that would allow triplexes to be built in every area of the city, functionally bringing an end to single-family zoning citywide. The speaker wasn’t wrong, really. All land-use planning is a social experiment. But the proportions of the single-family experiment that took hold in cities like Minneapolis in the early part of the 20th century, leading to decades of racial and economic exclusion that carry through to this day, are arguably much more epic.

As Next City reported last year, some of the racial disparities in Minneapolis’s residential patterns can be traced to a history of racially restrictive deed covenants that proliferated at the beginning of the 20th century. After he was elected last fall, Mayor Jacob Frey convened a task force to look at investing in affordable housing across the city, with the explicit goal of unraveling the city’s legacy of segregation. When parts of the Minneapolis 2040 plan were leaked a few months after he took office — the plan had been in development prior to his election — Frey and City Council President Lisa Bender came out in favor of the provision that would allow more units in single-family areas. (The proposal, initially, would have allowed fourplexes.)

The idea of “ending” single-family zoning, which has been considered in cities like Seattle, was as controversial as everyone expected it to be. Opposition was stiff in many of the single-family neighborhoods that ring the city’s downtown core. By some informal measures, opposition was stiffest in the wealthiest neighborhoods in Minneapolis. But earlier this month, the city council voted 12-1 to approve the 2040 plan.

Credit for the accomplishment should be spread far and wide, advocates say. (Some very worthwhile reading on the “whole story” from a local advocate here.)

“There’s no one person that made it happen,” says Janne Flisrand, a contributor at Streets.MN and member of the group Neighbors for More Neighbors, which emerged in support of the upzoning aspects of the 2040 plan. “There’s no one organization that made it happen. We’ve got all these groups that share a set of values about what we want the future of Minneapolis to look like, and we all did our part to get this plan over the finish line.”

Like other cities in the region, Minneapolis is required to produce a comprehensive plan every ten years. The plan approved this month includes around a hundred policies supporting 14 goals, including eliminating disparities, providing more affordable housing, creating living-wage jobs, and investing in climate change resilience and a clean environment. The changes to single-family zoning will allow up to three units in homes previously restricted to one, without major changes to the permitted scale of buildings. The plan also includes other policies hailed by progressives, like eliminating minimum parking requirements, and also goals for improving tenant protections.

“[The plan] is very deliberate about its focus on renters’ rights, and recognizing that they’re a majority of the city now,” says Eric Hauge, executive director of the Minnesota tenant advocacy organization HOME Line.

Hauge says his group, which runs a tenant hotline, gets calls from between 12,000 and 15,000 renters across the state every year, with most callers having concerns about substandard housing conditions and repairs. The 3,000 or so renters who call from Minneapolis each year tend to have the same concerns. His group, which is part of a larger advocacy coalition called Make Homes Happen, lobbied for language in the 2040 plan that commits the city to supporting organizations that help tenants understand their rights.

Make Homes Happen sprung up around support for equitable development policies during the municipal elections in 2013, says Caitlin Magistad, who helped convene the coalition as a policy advisor for the Metropolitan Consortium of Community Developers. In the 2017 elections, Make Homes Happen was pushing candidates to support housing investments. Mayor Frey announced his intention in the spring to dedicate $50 million to affordable housing efforts, but the budget approved by the Minneapolis City Council earlier this month included a one-time infusion of $40 million. (Frey’s office did not respond to a request for an interview.)

“Our biggest push is, around the city, having a local dedicated ongoing funding source [for housing],” Magistad says. “The $40 million is really exciting. We’re happy to see that in the budget, but we also know that next year we’ll also need resources.”

Flisrand, who lives in a fourplex herself, wrote in a recent blogpost that the “secret sauce” for the Minneapolis 2040 plan was engagement — first at the level of planning staff talking with communities, and later at the political level. Advocacy around housing and zoning during the 2017 elections was critical, because, as Flisrand says, “advocates positioned the current mayor to be a proponent” of many of housing investments and many of the policies in the 2040 plan.

Some council members were initially skeptical about the fourplex proposal because they feared it would lead to the demolition of small “starter homes,” Flisrand says. But, she explains, many of them came to see over the course of the year that such homes were already threatened because developers want to replace them with larger, luxury single-family homes. The vocal support of a range of groups was critical in providing political cover for the city council to support the plan by the final 12-1 margin.

“We just have a long history here in Minneapolis of doing advocacy, and we’re a small enough community that we know each other,” Flisrand says. “There’s all these different pieces. It’s been teed up in many different ways.”

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Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.

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Tags: affordable housinginclusionary zoningminneapolis

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