Unaffordable by Design, and How to Change It

A duplex at 4257 Vincent Ave South was demolished recently. The land is zoned for single family, just like a lot of the Linden Hills neighborhood that surrounds it, so the duplex will be replaced with a single family home (I suspect this explains why nobody vigiled or tried to give the house a pedigree by researching a famous former resident). Many of the exclusive single-family neighborhoods that we know today, the kind dotted with small apartment buildings and grandfathered triplexes, have become that way because of some long-forgotten downzoning that made new multi-family housing illegal.

The house on Vincent Ave was grandfathered in as a legally non-conforming property, but now that the duplex is gone, it’s gone for good. Exclusionary single-family zoning means that conversions like this can only go in one direction, towards fewer units. If you think of housing like a game of musical chairs, wealthy Ward 13 just lost another chair. And our zoning code makes it really hard to build new chairs in the places where people most want to sit.

Stories of conversions from multi-unit to single-family homes were surprisingly common, and celebrated, when I documented the last 45 years of housing politics in the Wedge neighborhood. It’s not the story that usually comes to mind when people think of gentrification or displacement. It’s not the kind of big change people notice and complain about; it’s not six stories of apartments on a parking lot. It’s the slow, silent, unrelenting gentrification of a neighborhood — and we use the zoning code to encourage it.

Don’t let the apparent building boom in Minneapolis fool you — there has been a citywide, decades-long drift towards more restrictive zoning. Yes, we make room for big developers who build mega-buildings downtown. Yes, we build six-story buildings on certain major corridors, places lucky enough to survive the craze for downzoning over the last 45 years. This means we build the kind of housing (big buildings on pricey lots with dozens of units or more) that costs the most to build, and is therefore the most expensive to live in. This means we are largely a city that is off limits to affordable housing in our most desirable neighborhoods. This means many of our neighborhoods are unaffordable by design, and will remain so for decades into the future.

In the Wedge neighborhood (my neighborhood), this trend has meant multiple successful rounds of downzoning. At times when downzoning failed, activists pushed for historic districts (while openly admitting that historic districts were a backdoor attempt to accomplish the goals of exclusionary zoning). But it’s important to recognize this point: to the degree the Wedge has any racial or income diversity, it’s largely because of the people living in apartment buildings constructed between 1950 and 1975. These two-and-a-half story walkups were so despised by certain noisy neighbors that the city gave in to activists and made it illegal to build them.

The city downzoned large swaths of south Minneapolis in 1975. Today we celebrate those old apartment buildings as Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing; we allocate precious public dollars to preserve them. We hope that, in the face of a housing shortage, with rental vacancy rates hovering near two percent, we can keep these affordable apartments out of the hands of investors who would renovate and upscale them. It’s a reminder that Minneapolis has failed to reckon with the ways our zoning practices work against our affordable housing policies.

That’s not to say there haven’t been small moves to reverse the trend. City Council Member Lisa Bender has legalized accessory dwelling units (or backyard/garage apartments) and eased minimum parking requirements. She also fixed a quirk in the zoning code that had effectively outlawed two-family dwellings in areas zoned in a two-family category (tale of backdoor downzoning: over the previous decades, minimum lot-size requirements had been increased to the point that you couldn’t build a duplex on a typical lot zoned for duplexes). None of this stuff would have happened without Lisa Bender as a champion; Minneapolis has led the way on land-use reforms over the last few years because of one person (which is impressive, but also scary when you imagine a world without her).

The politics of appeasing single-family voters can be compelling. Though I believe Lisa Bender is one of the most exceptional and principled elected officials in the country, both downzoning and historic districts have still come to my backyard in Ward 10 over the last four years (albeit in more limited forms than desired by some). It’s not because these are great ideas, but because energetic people got noisy to demand it.

The noise extends beyond my own backyard. A group of residents in downtown Minneapolis (who, in fairness, would tell you, “we don’t live in downtown!”), organized under the name Neighbors for East Bank Livability, sued to stop a 40-story condo tower. The punchline is that many of them live in 20 to 30 story condo towers. A judge ordered the group to post a $100,000 bond to offset developer costs in the event NEBL loses their legal fight (they will definitely lose their legal fight and all of this money). This money is in addition to legal fees they will incur. They had a surprisingly easy time raising (and flushing) all that money.

A group of residents in St Paul is fighting for low density zoning under the name Livable St Paul. Their cause involves the former site of an automobile manufacturing facility. Like their “Livable” counterparts in Minneapolis, they are well-funded and highly motivated. They disagree with the St. Paul City Council’s recent decision to allow medium- and high-density zoning at the Ford Site, including 20 percent affordable housing. They have reportedly collected enough petition signatures to put the Ford Site rezoning on next year’s ballot in St. Paul.

And then there are the smaller scale skirmishes. A few of my favorite examples, in case you missed them:

This is where I insert all the reasons large scale upzoning is a thorougly researched common-sense approach to ameliorating so many of our problems. Of course, this needs to be in tandem with the less controversial idea of funding more affordable housing (less controversial until you get to deciding whether it should be located in a person’s backyard, or how we should pay for it).

A lot of the political energy propping up exclusionary zoning is less outrageous, less visible, and harder to ridicule than the stories above. Worse, the conventional notion that apartments are a threat to families, Livability, and the American way, is pretty widely shared among policymakers and mainstream opinion-havers. Just last month the Star Tribune knee-capped a city council candidate in low-density Ward 11 because she promoted the idea of triplexes without mandated off-street parking minimums!

Cases of outrageous NIMBYism are wacky (and fun, I admit), but by no means typical. As much as I’d like to report that needed zoning reforms are opposed exclusively by an army of fancy clowns, it’s just not the case. Many people are capable of writing reasonable-sounding anti-apartment emails to their city council member — emails that often do not imply renters are subhuman and sometimes do not compare city planners to Hitler. Chances are pretty good that when an elected official reads that low-key complaint about parking, they already agree with a lot of it. And even for more enlightened politicians, bad policy can feel essential to political survival when it’s backed up by a stream of highly charged resistance to even the smallest neighborhood change.

So it’s time to get noisy. Talk to your friends about zoning. Start the conversation with your city council member — let them know you exist and that you are engaged. The Minneapolis city council will adopt a new Comprehensive Plan in 2018. This is a key document that will guide future zoning reforms in Minneapolis. Ask your council member how they plan to lead in the fight against exclusionary zoning.

As reported by Nick Magrino, this neat-o tool lets you offer feedback on the Minneapolis Comprehensive Plan:

extremely neat-o: new comp plan feedback tool lets you identify specific areas where you’d like to expand housing and commercial choices, and opportunities to improve access for walking, biking, and transit @Mpls2040 https://t.co/fjMDActkyj pic.twitter.com/NHJvT3yQe8

— Nick Magrino (@nickmagrino) November 27, 2017