Zoning Reform and the Pace of Neighborhood Change

There’s a post on streets.mn debunking the idea that fourplexes mean four stories. The truth is that Minneapolis’ new draft comprehensive plan that proposes allowing up to four-family homes in currently single-family neighborhoods, would limit those homes to 2.5 stories (the “Interior 1” designation). Honestly, I am someone who thinks four stories is just fine in lots of places and the comprehensive plan isn’t radical enough — but if you’re bothered, the facts should be reassuring.

“Interior 1” in the draft Minneapolis Comp Plan

There’s another point to be made about the pace of change that modest zoning reform would bring to any given neighborhood. As with most things, I like to use the Wedge neighborhood as an example. For the last 40 years, the Wedge has had the most permissive residential zoning in Minneapolis (R6) across many interior blocks (along with a generous portion of two-family zoning). It’s the kind of zoning that, if you can assemble multiple lots, might conceivably lead to a five- or six-story building with a 100 or more apartments.

For people who hate the idea of more neighbors, R6 zoning is as scary as it gets. R6 zoning has been the rallying cry for the Wedge’s anti-housing activists to justify repeated downzoning (two successful, one failed) and historic districts.

What has this extremely permissive zoning created in reality? From about 1975 until 2018, it produced a 42-unit building (which, from the street, appears to be three stories — the fourth story is stepped back), a 10-unit building, and a fourplex. This is all that’s been built in the Wedge interior. When I say “interior,” that’s everything excluding Lyndale Avenue and the formerly industrial/Greenway area south of 28th Street.

Again, this is an area famous for the most permissive residential zoning in Minneapolis. That’s just three buildings and 56 units in 43 years.

On the other end of the spectrum from R6, the “fourplex zoning” (Interior 1) recommended in the Minneapolis draft comprehensive plan is about as  restrictive as it gets, short of leaving in place single-family zoning. Fourplex zoning would limit building heights to 2.5 stories, limit units, and limit lots to a “traditional size city lot.” Meaningful change happens inside the building, with up to four families now able to live there.

Small changes over an entire city can add up. But allowing two-, three-, and four-family homes in formerly single family neighborhoods will not radically transform individual neighborhoods overnight, or even over the course of 40 years. Just because something is allowed, doesn’t mean it becomes mandatory. But it does mean small changes would be possible, creating more housing choice across every neighborhood in the city.

You can comment on the Minneapolis 2040 draft Comprehensive Plan through July 22.

Fourplexes Everywhere? Bold Reform Proposed in Minneapolis

Word has leaked of a very preliminary plan to legalize fourplexes in virtually every neighborhood in Minneapolis. It’s one part of a larger draft comprehensive plan that hasn’t yet been made public. If implemented, it would be the boldest land-use reform in the country, reversing a decades-long trend of restrictions that have contributed to higher housing costs and racial/economic segregation. Here are some reasons I think we should embrace this plan to legalize fourplexes in Minneapolis.

We are experiencing a regional housing shortage. Vacancy rates have hovered around 2% for years. This inflates rents higher than they’d otherwise be. Scarcity is bad for the people who can least afford it. We need more housing.

Rents stabilize when vacancy rates go up.

2.1% vacancy leads the nation. That’s bad.

Now, assuming you agree with me that we urgently need more places for people to live, maybe I can convince you that…

Fourplexes (and triplexes/duplexes) are the most economical and accessible way to create new housing. This applies both to tenants and the small homebuilders who could construct (or convert) them. That’s because these small apartment buildings are more like houses. Small multi-family houses are cheaper per unit to build than your typical multi-lot, 6-story apartment complex or a downtown luxury tower. While it’s important to note that new construction is almost always more expensive than equivalent existing housing, allowing more fourplexes would create a supply of homes that are more accessible than most of the new homes being built today.

People say they hate “big.” Big apartment buildings. Big developers. Big landlords. Big profits. A 40-story condo tower was proposed in Downtown West just last week, and the developer bragged they would be the most expensive homes in Minneapolis. We need to grapple with the fact that our current zoning code has a preference for big developers, big buildings, and big single-family homes–to the exclusion of less expensive mid-scale housing. If you want to open up the housing market to the little guy, then we need to allow the kind of housing that can be produced by a small builder and owned/occupied by a small landlord. That’s a fourplex!

We must end exclusionary zoning that creates nearly all-white enclaves of luxury single-family homes. To borrow a phrase from a friend, maybe “mansion districts” in Minneapolis are a bad thing. It’s time to admit our zoning code plays a role in segregating our city and limiting opportunity and access to our most desirable neighborhoods. The reason Lowry Hill East is more affordable and less segregated than Lowry Hill is tied up with a legacy of redlining and restrictive zoning. Zoning reform doesn’t solve this problem by itself, but we can’t deny the role our zoning code plays in perpetuating it.

If you’re against the idea of legalizing fourplexes, you prefer a zoning code that encourages exclusive neighborhoods and favors the most expensive (luxury!) forms of development. And you can’t pretend otherwise the next time you rail against another big, unaffordable, “out of scale” apartment project.

Fourplexes could be public/subsidized housing. Overly restrictive zoning makes no distinction between public and private; it’s a legal barrier to housing of all kinds. Affordable housing funds are limited–you can stretch that money a whole lot further on a fourplex.

This is a required legal framework for allowing more types of public or subsidized housing even if it also benefits private actors.

The city/county could go buy houses and carve them into 2-4 units at much less $ per net new unit than building new large structures.

— Alex Cecchini (@alexcecchini) March 9, 2018

I like to think of them as an opportunity for income-building. A tri- or four-plex literally comes with income! The key is to get the people who need that boost into them.

— Janne K. Flisrand (@janneformpls) March 12, 2018

i lived in this cute fourplex off 3rd & lake street eight years ago! at the time it was a sober house for women. what a blight on the neighborhood, right? pic.twitter.com/8UuOl1Ofyh

— taylr (@taylr) March 10, 2018

City of Lakes community Land Trust is essentially trying to promote the idea of housing security through people with less mean buying a duplex or SFH with an ADU so they have an income stream along with their residence. Great Vision by a Non Profit

— MPLS-uptown (@uptownbpackb) March 12, 2018

Fourplexes are unobtrusive, even in places where zoning doesn’t allow them anymore! I’ve noticed that people who already live in neighborhoods full of fourplexes show up at city hall all the time to testify about protecting their “single-family neighborhood.” People live among fourplexes, unaware they’re living among them, to the point they would fight to their last breath to protect their wonderful neighborhood from becoming what it already is–a neighborhood with fourplexes. This is a good post from Scott Shaffer showing how we’ve used extremely restrictive zoning to make existing neighborhoods illegal.

Household sizes are shrinking. The typical household in Minneapolis contains 2.3 people. This is one whole entire person smaller than the average US household size in 1960 (3.33). We don’t need as many bedrooms as we used to. As people age and their families evolve, people often want to continue living in the neighborhood they love; but this isn’t possible in exclusively single-family neighborhoods. Let’s adjust to the cold, hard facts of demographics by providing homes for people who don’t need or can’t afford a three-plus bedroom house.

Saying a particular thing is “allowed” to exist is not the same thing as saying it’s mandatory. Allowing fourplexes does not mean every single-family home must become a fourplex. (And to debunk a concern that was reported on the local internet forum e-democracy, legalizing fourplexes does not mean homeowners will be required to become renters.) The vast majority of people will continue to live in homes that are not fourplexes even in neighborhoods where fourplexes become legal.

If you’re worried about what happens to starter homes: homebuyers are already tearing down smaller single-family homes to replace them with much bigger, more expensive single-family homes. To the degree you believe “starter homes” are still a thing in South Minneapolis, we’re not protecting them. Home values are increasing due to scarcity, and the only thing we can guarantee by maintaining the status quo is that our single-family real estate will be occupied, year after year, by ever-richer families in ever larger single-family homes.

And before you say “Fourplexes alone can’t save us!” remember this is just one small part of a comprehensive plan charting the next 20 years in Minneapolis on topics ranging from equity, sustainability, livability, growth and more (complete draft will be made public on March 22). Fourplexes aren’t magic, but this reform is a necessary break from a status quo that restricts housing choice and uses the zoning code to promote the most expensive forms of luxury housing. And like so many things in politics: the only way an idea this good has any chance is with your overwhelming and extremely vocal support.

Does Minneapolis need more cops?

Mayor Frey and Chief Arradondo want to hire 100 more cops to push Minneapolis to 1,000 officers. A recent Star Tribune article notes that Minneapolis “still lags behind other Midwest cities, including Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Kansas City, Mo.” The article quotes notoriously racist Minneapolis police union leader Bob Kroll saying Minneapolis should strive to match Milwaukee, a place with nearly 60% more cops per capita.

There are a few things about all these city-to-city comparisons that make me question the relevance of “cops per resident” as a statistic. Milwaukee and Kansas City have 40-45% more violent crime per capita than Minneapolis; either all that extra policing isn’t working or there are more significant factors contributing to/mitigating violent crime than how many cops you have. And as long as we’re comparing ourselves to large Midwestern cities, Minneapolis has slightly more cops per person than St. Paul, which is the Midwest city located just across the river (police staffing data as of 2016).

Pushing back against this call for more cops is Council Member Phillipe Cunningham who defeated City Council President Barb Johnson in 2017. Johnson was maybe the Minneapolis politician most associated with stoking crime fears to push for aggressive policing. Cunningham supports alternatives to more cops, and posed one example of a situation where more police isn’t the answer: “If we’re having a mental health crisis, are police the most equipped to handle a mental health crisis?”

Council President Lisa Bender responded to the Mayor’s call for more cops with a statement saying, “we need a balanced approach that includes significantly more funding for reform and violence prevention.”

Listening to the discussion about downtown crime and policing from the business community, you might get the sense this is about making white people comfortable in the presence of low income black and brown people. People say the transit hub and the public library are a magnet for the wrong crowd. A restaurant owner says, “Suburbanites and the 40-plus crowd are concerned about safety. Office workers are not comfortable. You are always on guard.”

Based on my own understanding of where a significant majority of the current City Council is on the police issue, I think the Phillipe Cunningham position is much closer to where we’ll end up than the old Barb Johnson “aggressive law enforcement” position. It seems unlikely we’re about to hire 100 more cops in Minneapolis. In response to this political reality, the law-and-order crowd will stoke fears with anecdotes and descriptions of gruesome security camera videos. Meanwhile, it’s hard to pin down statistics that say crime is spinning out of control.

As someone who feels safe in Minneapolis at all times, both from crime and the police, I don’t want to dismiss the concerns of people who want to be and feel safe when they move around the city. But it’s important we act in ways that consider the safety of everyone who lives here. Is hiring 100 more cops actually an effective way to make Minneapolis safer, when we know it would make many of our neighbors less safe?

MinnPost crime stats