In the videos below, City Council Members Lisa Bender and Jacob Frey make some compelling arguments for why we should ease occupancy restrictions for all people living in Minneapolis, and for why we shouldn’t limit housing opportunities to a select few who live in strictly defined “intentional communities.”
Over time, average family sizes get smaller, and old houses get emptier. But in Minneapolis’ lower-density zoning districts, no more than three unrelated people can live together as a household; in higher-density districts, the limit is five unrelated people. For people who want to live with three or more friends in a big old house, this is a problem. As a targeted fix, the City Council is on the verge of removing occupancy restrictions for a select group of residents who live in what are called “intentional communities.”
Intentional communities are “a form of housing co-operative where residents form a household organized around an idea.” In researching a proposal to legalize these communities, City staff found that Minneapolis “is fairly unique in that occupancy is regulated in both the Zoning Code and the Housing Maintenance Code.” No other city defines the special legal category of “intentional community,” and many peer cities don’t specify maximum occupancy in their zoning codes.
Minneapolis’ 1924 definition of a family was surprisingly liberal.
Though it’s an improvement on the status quo, the proposed ordinance legalizing intentional communities uses some odd criteria in order to limit the kind of household that qualifies. If it passes the full City Council in its current form, here are some of the hoops you’ll have to jump through if you want to legally live together with a handful of unrelated people in Minneapolis:
A requirement that households have “an adopted set of rules covering democratic governance, maintenance responsibilities, and other household issues.”
A provision against groups that are “transient or temporary in nature” requiring intentional communities to remain together for “a period in excess of one calendar year.”
A requirement that “members of the household share expenses for food, rent or ownership costs, utilities, and other household expenses.”
Additionally, the city would require multiple notarized statements from the property owner and a member of the intentional community, as well as submission of “legal documentation establishing the existence of the intentional community as a recognized and legal entity.”
The Chair of the Zoning & Planning Committee, Lisa Bender, expressed concerns about trying to “control, as a city, who gets to live together and who doesn’t.” Council Member Jacob Frey, the lone voice of dissent on the Community Development and Regulatory Services (CDRS) Committee, asked “Why does it make it a better household if people are sharing expenses for food?” Frey also spoke about the unlikelihood of enforcing these very personal aspects of people’s living situations: “If we’re not gonna get involved in these areas, and it sounds like we’re not, let’s not have them in the ordinance.”
As a thought experiment, you might wonder about the effort it would take to become a pretend intentional community. You’d find the right page on the city’s website; download the right set of pdfs; print those pdfs; but maybe you don’t have a printer, so you attach those pdfs to an email, and send it to the FedEx store; realize you need to figure out how an adult gets a thing notarized; spend a few hours on Wikipedia researching the world’s most respected parliamentary systems; appoint a Finance Minister to buy the groceries; then finally send your constitution to the city for approval.
This pain-in-the-ass level of effort is made more ridiculous by the fact that – aside from requiring you to submit the paperwork – these rules won’t be enforced. Nobody truly cares how you govern your household; in the same way we don’t care how the traditional married-with-kids family next door governs their household. Your chores, your bills, your business.
The city isn’t likely to monitor the intimate details of intentional communities. Despite rules mandating “democratic governance,” city inspectors won’t be entering homes like a bunch of hyperlocal Jimmy Carters ensuring free and fair elections. These unenforceable requirements aren’t about democracy; it’s about making sure the person who rents a room in the house next door is the Right Class of Neighbor: someone savvy and persistent enough to register her household with the city.
The only thing we’re really ensuring is the people who get access to this category of housing have the time and aptitude for paperwork. This ordinance leaves in place a barrier for many people who could benefit from sharing space with unrelated people in an unintentional community: people who aren’t comfortable navigating their local government bureaucracy; immigrants, new residents, and others without extensive pre-existing social support networks; lower income people who really, desperately, and without delay, need an affordable place to live.
I think Minneapolitans would strongly object to arbitrary barriers to voting. We recognize that voter ID laws have the impact of reducing the number of poor, minorities, and students who are able to cast votes. We naturally understand that the process of obtaining government ID is easier for some than for others. By this same logic, we shouldn’t accept arbitrary barriers to housing.
At a public meeting back in May, Council Member Cam Gordon, co-author of this ordinance, described how, many years ago, he lived with a bunch of roommates in a situation that was illegal. I assumed he told the story to illustrate the need for an ordinance to ease occupancy restrictions. You can’t deny Gordon’s good intentions, but the ordinance he’s proposing doesn’t legalize the situation he described; it simply sets out a path for clever people with time to game the system.
During the November 29th CDRS Committee hearing, Gordon mentioned that it’s taken him a long time to get to the point where he “doesn’t have the opposition of a single neighborhood association.” That he negotiated with his most privileged constituents (white, single-family homeowners), and they find this plan won’t cause them any discomfort, does not necessarily mean it is the right or equitable solution.
At a Zoning & Planning Committee meeting on December 1st, Council Member Lisa Goodman (the other co-author) addressed concerns about the ordinance by saying “we’ll know an intentional community as regulatory staff when we see it.” The City of Minneapolis shouldn’t be applying a “know it when we see it” standard for deciding which Minneapolis households are legal. For the largely white constituency this plan is designed to help, getting the benefit of the doubt from people in authority may come easy; but not everyone in our city enjoys that privilege.
At the CDRS Committee, Goodman cited “deterioration” caused by old-style “rooming houses” in the 7th Ward’s wealthy single-family neighborhoods as a reason not to have a less restrictive ordinance: “You’d have an outcry of people in R1 neighborhoods.” She went on to say that “people who already have problems with rental housing, potentially could have more problems, and we already have so many problems and not enough staff to deal with it, for example on the north side.”
Those very nice, very exclusive neighborhoods of Goodman’s Ward 7 could use some less expensive housing options. And it would be a shame if we capped the number of available housing units simply for a lack of housing inspectors; we can always budget for more housing inspectors. If the health and safety of tenants and neighbors is at stake, we should regulate landlords. But let’s stop using the zoning code to regulate how people form communities, and what constitutes a family. Minneapolis should go back to the 1924 legal definition of a family: “any number of individuals occupying a single housekeeping unit” that isn’t a boarding house or hotel.
We need to be blunt about this: Minneapolis is about to reform housing occupancy limits by legalizing largely white, hippie communes made up of people who are up to the task of paperwork and process. This ordinance will have the impact of opening up housing opportunities for some groups and not for others. When you consider that so many other cities don’t see the need to regulate the definition of family in this way, it’s a real shame that Minneapolis won’t go further.
The zoning scheme adopted in 1975 must have worked. It was gratifying to me and I’m sure many neighborhood residents, including former council member Meg Tuthill, that the recent study by city planner Brian Schaffer found that very little new development has occurred in the neighborhood since that rezoning was done forty years ago.
(note that while Mr. Thorvig appreciated the 1975 downzoning, he worries the 2016 proposal may go too far in creating non-conformities.)
Message from a historical city planner.
The kind of housing the city and activists stopped from being built decades ago–the 2½-story walk-up–is what is now referred to as naturally occurring affordable housing (built with private rather than public money). As a result of what we did way back then, we now have less affordable housing.
Today, there’s lots of local renter advocacy happening around the 1970ish 2½-story walk-up. Many such buildings are being sold and renovated with rents higher than current tenants can afford. This has led to local government allocating money to purchase these buildings in order to preserve some tiny portion of what’s become a dwindling supply of affordable units in the region. To the extent we devote public money to saving them, we value the benefits these buildings provide. But are we moving towards a zoning code that matches those values?
Look at these headlines and the very similar buildings pictured underneath:
After all these decades we’re still pursuing a policy (restrictive zoning) aimed at pleasing low-density property owners who would very much not like to have their beautiful, desirable neighborhood “destroyed” by dense multifamily housing; and on the other end we’re forced to mitigate the effect of that policy (painfully expensive housing) by spending a woefully inadequate pool of public housing money.
What are we doing?
It’s 2016 and we’re still downzoning.
If you’d like to weigh in on downzoning the Wedge, it’s item 5 on the agenda for the next meeting of the Minneapolis City Planning Commission, Tuesday, Nov. 1st, at 4:30 PM.
Alex Cecchini has written a nicely comprehensive post outlining all the reasons it’s a bad idea to force dense housing out of neighborhood interiors and onto the most noisy, polluted, dangerous streets in the city.
It’s a timely post because the Wedge neighborhood is about to be downzoned. As Alex writes, the last time the neighborhood was downzoned, in 1975, it was happening in parallel with an equally successful movement to force dangerous high-speed car traffic out of the neighborhood’s interior (a good thing). In other words, the city and neighborhood activists were making the neighborhood interior nicer/safer at the same time they were telling a certain kind of person in a certain kind of housing they have no business living there.
The Minneapolis City Council hired some economists from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs to produce this study on the impact of raising the local minimum wage. The study showed that raising the wage would not lead to economic apocalypse. The study did show that raising the wage to $15 would help a lot of people who need it–at the cost of an extra 50 cents to $1 for a $25 restaurant meal. Council Member Lisa Goodman was not happy with the results.
Goodman started her comments at yesterday’s hearing by accusing the University of Minnesota researchers of bias, asking whether if she were to “Google your names” she’d find evidence they’d written in support of the concept of raising the minimum wage. She made fun of their findings that a higher wage would alleviate the problem of food insecurity: “I don’t have to have an economics degree to figure that out.” She went off on a riff about expensive ice cream cones. She asked if the authors talked to business owners, as if to say a rigorous economic analysis needs plenty of anecdotes.
At a City Council meeting in 2015, Goodman called the idea of even studying the issue a waste of money because, in her estimation, an actual Minneapolis wage increase had no chance of ever passing with a majority (the City Council voted 10-3 in favor of paying for a study; Yang, Barb Johnson, and Goodman voted no). Her comments indicate she believes most of her colleagues are as impervious to evidence as she is:
If there were seven votes to create a minimum wage in Minneapolis only, we’d be doing it. So I’m just wondering why $175,000 for a study, what is that, like a political out? I’ll vote for a study but I wouldn’t really vote for the change itself?
Lisa Goodman just knows things. She doesn’t need studies or experts to help inform her opinions. Now that the minimum wage study is complete we get to see whether Goodman was correct in assuming her fellow Council Members operate the same way.
Lisa Goodman to economists: you’re all biased, and I could probably use google to prove it.
Your study is crap. Your economics degree is dumb. Here’s something I just made up about expensive ice cream cones.
Numbers are great, but where are your anecdotes? Have you talked to business owners?
Last year: opposes a study, on the grounds that evidence won’t influence the City Council majority.
This Friday, September 30 is the deadline to submit public comment on the downzoning proposed for Lowry Hill East–which I have written about a quite a bit. Here’s a chart showing how the proposal would push us further along towards a zoning code that doesn’t reflect our current built reality:
But the mall protest never really happened; crowds moved instead to the light rail and the airport, “creating a rolling wave of disruption on one of the busiest travel and shopping days of the year.” Cano tweeted a few pictures and words of support for BLM, causing her mentions to fill up with people–probably tweeting from home–more distressed by minor holiday travel delays than the death of Jamar Clark, an unarmed black man who was shot and killed by Minneapolis police a month earlier.
Around the same time, Cano was receiving messages to her official Council email address from local people upset by her presence at the protest. She tweeted screenshots and responses to those messages, explaining why she supports BLM.
In the immediate aftermath of Screenshot-ghazi, Council President Barb Johnson, after saying she would not comment, brought the TV news into her home–on Christmas Eve!–to comment. Johnson was obviously determined to pour gas on the fire, leading some to speculate that she really does not like Alondra Cano.
Four months later, City Pages published the article “Alondra Cano flunks City Council 101”. The story was based entirely on anonymous quotes from at least two other members of the City Council. They called her “lazy” and lacking “self-awareness.” One described their reaction to Cano’s behavior during a particular Council meeting: “I just wanted to shoot myself.” In the days after the story was published, all 12 members of the City Council not named Alondra Cano publicly denied being the source of the quotes in the article.
Trashing your co-workers by giving anonymous quotes to reporters is a pretty mean and cowardly thing to do. But City Pages let anonymous insults distract from a real, legitimate story: there is widespread frustration with Cano among her Council colleagues that goes beyond policy disagreement.
Here’s an example of what that looks like. In June, Cano sat through an excruciatingly long Zoning and Planning Committee meeting in order to speak about a particular agenda item. Prior to the meeting, the committee’s chairperson, Lisa Bender, informed Cano that the item she wished to address would be postponed to a later meeting. Even though Cano isn’t a member of the committee, and despite the fact that she knew the topic would be postponed, Cano sat through three-and-a-half hours of unrelated presentations and public comment. As the meeting was coming to an end, she expressed shocked outrage that she had sat there for hours, yet wouldn’t get to speak:
Immediately following that Z&P meeting, Cano took to Facebook to call Bender a racist. (editor’s note: Lisa Bender is not a racist.)
Now, in politics it is perfectly legitimate to put people on the spot, in the middle of a meeting, to see if you can force an issue–to use the element of surprise to your advantage. But if it becomes a routine tactic, your coworkers might become legitimately annoyed with you. You have to pick and choose the degree to which you try to bull your way through other people’s agendas. And despite the fact there’s a lot of racism in the world, of which Cano has received more than her share, it’s good to be judicious when calling people racists.
The Star Tribune characterized Cano’s email as a “warning” to her colleagues. City Pages called it a “threat.” Here’s the relevant section of Cano’s email to Johnson:
I disagree with the findings and have kept screenshots of the ways other Council Members including CM Frey, Bender, Glidden, Abdi and others have used city property for “political” purposes. If the Council votes to approve the Ethics findings I will speak out against the vote and circulate a press release to the media about the issue with the screenshots I’ve gathered since January of 2016.
Cano responded to the stories about her email on Facebook, saying: “When a person of color speaks up, it should not be misconstrued as a “threat” to society, it should be respected as their truth.” Whatever Cano’s intent, the reason people interpreted her email as a threat, is because she constructed it that way: if you vote against me, I’ll put out a press release with incriminating screenshots. This is not to say Cano can’t make an argument that she’s being singled out unfairly, or that she can’t produce evidence to support her defense. But if she was trying to make that argument, she obscured it by writing an email that looked like blackmail.
Alondra Cano really has been the target of vicious racist attacks because of her support for BLM. Separate from those vile attacks, Council President Barb Johnson and some of Cano’s other colleagues really have gone out of their way, to a sometimes comical degree, to trash her in the local media. But it’s also true that Cano picks too many unnecessary battles, irritating her colleagues in a way that transcends race and ideology. If Cano is being unfairly targeted for punishment–and that’s difficult to judge unless/until details become public–that dynamic goes a long way towards explaining why.
The city’s proposal has been described as interim protection that gets us through until the next update to the city’s Comprehensive Plan (the process for which is currently underway). But “interim” gives the impression that downzoning is temporary. This is technically true; all laws are potentially temporary. But in reality, we’re still stuck with a 1975 decision that left most of the Wedge (under)zoned for nothing greater than a duplex. Downzoning is easy. Upzoning is hard.
It might be right to say this particular rezoning plan is a relatively insignificant drop in the bucket–but it’s still the wrong bucket. Across the city, and over the years, these decisions add up. While we don’t know what the Comp Plan update holds, it would be short-sighted to think we won’t be living with today’s downzoning in 2055.
For parcels north of 28th Street (data compiled by Alex Cecchini).
Why the urgency?
Most of the neighborhood is currently zoned low-density. This means that between 24th and 28th Streets, almost nothing is at risk of intensifying under the existing zoning. The current proposal is focused largely in the north Wedge, where high-density zoning has produced just two new apartment buildings over the last 40-plus years: a 42-unit building (2320 Colfax Ave) and a 10-unit building on the way (2008 Bryant Ave). Again: two new buildings in 40 years.
These are not the scary, 84-foot mega-towers you might think; they’re the kind of incremental, four-story, reduced-parking, transit-accessible housing we should want more of, not less. And they don’t get built without high-density zoning (R5 or higher). If these sorts of buildings are the source of urgency for a rezoning, then it’d be good to hear an explicit argument for why they’re bad for the neighborhood.
(Fake Take™: downzoning should only be done in tandem with a policy that makes this a place nobody wants to live.)
Downzoning does not protect the neighborhood’s existing multifamily character
You may hear advocates say that downzoning protects the character of the neighborhood. But low-density zoning only protects low-density character. Lowry Hill East, despite a history of downzoning, has always been a high-density neighborhood with great local amenities and access to public transit (whether streetcar or bus).
My favorite neighborhood zoning story illustrates the dangers and limitations of downzoning as a tool of preservation. It involves a vacant house undergoing renovation. After being downzoned to two-family in 1975, it remained a legal, non-conforming triplex for 20 years. In 1995, the neighborhood association (LHENA) tried unsuccessfully to have the non-conforming use revoked–to make the triplex illegal.
Wedge newspaper, 1995
By my count, the current downzoning proposal creates at least 20 non-conforming properties where there are more units than zoning allows. This is in addition to countless existing non-conformities created by the 1975 downzoning. Non-conforming properties are vulnerable, and we shouldn’t be creating more. A long period of disuse puts a building’s legal status at risk. If a non-conforming apartment building is destroyed, by fire or other disaster, it can’t be rebuilt to its prior use (correction: state law allows reconstruction within 180 days).
Multi-unit housing is also vulnerable to single-family conversions. Eliminating existing housing has long been an explicit goal of the neighborhood association and other activists–people with a distaste for renters and a belief that duplexes and triplexes are an illegitimate use of a fine historic house. Much to their delight, we’ve seen many multi-unit houses converted to single-family uses over the last 40 years.
Lost housing (Wedge newspaper, June 1978)
So when we talk about preserving neighborhood character, keep in mind what downzoning can and can’t do: it can stop a new apartment building, but it won’t prevent your duplex from becoming a single-family house, and it won’t protect a low-end apartment from a high-end renovation. Downzoning doesn’t actually preserve what we have, and it can’t protect us from the future. But it can make our other housing problems worse. There will be a public meeting hosted by CPED and Council Member Lisa Bender from 6-7:30 pm at 1200 W 26th Street (Jefferson Community School).
A petition against the NuWay drug treatment center.
The executive director of the Whittier Alliance neighborhood organization believes “people in [addiction] recovery tend to bring about drug dealers.” This idea went completely unchallenged in a City Pages article about the NuWay Counseling Center which recently opened at 2118 Blaisdell Ave. It’s a sentiment that’s been repeated often over the years when the issue of “too many treatment centers” in Whittier comes up.
I’m sure this idea feels true to many people. Most people reading the article will nod and go on assuming that it is true. But is it actually true that drug treatment centers are crime magnets? I can find no evidence that this is true (I tried hard). Instead, there are two studies saying treatment centers do not cause an increase in crime:
There’s an important lesson here: when a man on the street, especially someone with a neighborhood organization, tells you why a thing is about to destroy the neighborhood, always do some extra journalism.
That’s a really interesting theory. That’s a closely held opinion of the Whittier Alliance, but there’s just no evidence. Center City is not a hotbed for drug dealers because Hazelden is out there. Anybody who knows anything about recovery knows that’s really not true.
Here’s another true thing that wasn’t mentioned, but deserves to be: people living in transitional housing while undergoing treatment for addiction are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The City of Minneapolis is legally barred from denying them equal access to housing. So even though Minneapolis has a spacing requirement intended to keep drug treatment centers geographically dispersed, federal law says that’s not okay. Because of this, most cities have done way with spacing requirements. Minneapolis has maintained the requirement, but doesn’t enforce it.
I understand the impulse to want to choose your neighbors. I hate noise and criminals and people who are terrible. Even though I’m personally very good at pre-judging who the terrible people are, most of society is very bad at it. We can’t choose our neighbors, and we shouldn’t be able to. We should protect our homes and neighborhoods with laws against crimes, not laws restricting where certain people live because they belong to a group we wrongly anticipate will destroy the neighborhood.