What Happened When Minneapolis Ended Single Family Zoning
This change, and subsequent similar moves—and failed attempts—in other cities, counties, and states, received a lot of attention. Some hailed it as a historic step to make housing more affordable and end residential segregation. Others decried it as the end of the American way.
Both sides may have overdone it a bit. Here’s what’s happened with the construction of duplexes and triplexes in parts of Minneapolis that were previously reserved for single-family homes since the new rules took effect.
Minneapolis had a population of 425,336 in mid-2021, according to Census Bureau estimates, and 199,143 dwellings in April 2020. By my count, the end of single-family zoning has so far allowed the clearance of at most 97 new units (the above table shows the number of buildings, not units), some of which have not yet been built. If things continue at this rate, the end of single-family zoning will have increased the city’s housing supply by just 1% by 2040.
Fortunately, there are other types of residential construction in Minneapolis, where more than twice as many new homes were built in the 2010s as in the 2000s (nationally it was 34% less) and, after a drop at the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021, permits have returned to their sustained rate of the end of the 2010s.
As the graph shows, almost all of these units are in buildings with five or more units. Spend some time in Minneapolis, as I did last week, and it’s obvious that most have well over five units – among buildings with more than five units allowed so far this year, the average size is 75 units. Apartment buildings have sprung up in commercial districts and transit corridors throughout the city, mostly of the three- to six-story, square, wood-frame type that have transformed nearly every American city over the past decade. Closer to downtown, where the city requires new buildings to be at least 10 stories tall, they are taller and not made of wood.
For a city that’s surrounded by suburbs and has little undeveloped land other than parks, Minneapolis has done quite well in adding housing. The 2,317 new housing units authorized in the city in the first half of the year were more than the Northern California trio of San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland combined, for example. That’s far fewer than the 11,996 new units in Austin, Texas, the 5,542 in Seattle or the 4,707 in Denver, but among Midwestern cities, Minneapolis comes in fourth, behind a much larger city (Chicago ) and two (Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Omaha, Nebraska) that still have a fair amount of undeveloped land within or near the city limits.
As previously reported, Minneapolis was building at a similar pace before Minneapolis 2040 began to take effect — and the most high-profile element of the plan, the end of single-family zoning, is only responsible for about 1% of new units permitted since January 2020. A Minneapolis Federal Reserve tracker that compares urban housing production to a “synthetic check” based on other major cities finds permits for multi-family buildings have actually underperformed control over the past year, but not by a statistically significant amount.
So the plan doesn’t revolutionize housing in Minneapolis, but that’s not really what it was supposed to do. “It’s a soft land use plan that took on enormous emotional significance primarily because the overall land use conversation in the country was so ossified,” wrote urban planner Alex Schieferdecker (who also was the first to note that Minneapolis is overtaking San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland in housing production this year) in an assessment published in June. “It is a forward-looking document at a time when these are remarkably rare and the crises we collectively face seem so immediate.”
It’s not just about eliminating single-family zoning. Parking minimums – requirements that developers provide a certain number of off-street parking spaces for each unit – were dropped in May 2021, and there are signs this is encouraging more buildings in the city. range of 10 to 50 units, which in the first year after the change had a median of only about a quarter of a parking space per unit, much lower than that of large buildings. Jason Wittenberg, planning manager with the city’s Community Planning and Economic Development Department, who provided me with the city data cited here, said one of the biggest changes is still happening. : codify the already considerable efforts of the city to encourage denser development. Apartment buildings over four stories outside of downtown that in the past required (and often received) negotiated height increases and zoning deviations will be explicitly permitted under the new zoning code. in transit and commercial corridors, “increasing the level of predictability around development,” Wittenberg said. “If you bring a project to the city that follows the adopted standards, we try to provide a high probability that you will walk away with a building permit.”
The lack of predictability in housing development in the United States is often the result of legal challenges to new construction, and the implementation of Minneapolis 2040 was briefly blocked this summer by a judge’s decision in a lawsuit brought by the Minneapolis chapter of the National Audubon Society and two local anti-development groups. The judge later put things back on track, but the litigation remains a shadow on the plan. Another cloud is the turmoil and increase in violent crime Minneapolis has seen since the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin, who likely played a role with the pandemic in the sharp drop in new late permits. 2020 and early 2021.
Additionally, while from a coastal perspective, Minneapolis is an oasis of housing affordability, with the median rent for a one-bedroom unit just $1,002 in July, according to Apartment List, and rents overall in 2.6% decline since March 2020, wide economic disparities, mostly along racial lines, mean many Minneapolis residents fear new developments will displace them. In nearby St. Paul, voters approved a rent control ordinance in November that applies to new construction as well as existing rentals, after which the number of new homes allowed fell to 342 in the first half of the year. this year, compared to 1,633 during the same period. period in 2021 – not a great result for housing affordability. Minneapolis residents also voted in favor of rent controls in November, but the ballot measure they approved simply gave the city council the power to pass controls, something it has yet to do. do. The council approved inclusive zoning requirements in conjunction with Minneapolis 2040 that require developers of large buildings to set aside certain units for low-income tenants or make interim payments or land donations to the city, an approach that, while increasing the number of apartments explicitly designated as affordable can reduce supply and increase the price of housing overall.
There’s a lot going on in Minneapolis, in other words, beyond the end of single-family zoning. Yet the abandonment of it is significant. Only in the United States is the detached single-family home “considered so incompatible with all other types of urbanization that it warrants a legally defined neighborhood, a neighborhood where all other major land uses and types are prohibited,” Sonia Hirt, a professor of architecture and landscape design at the University of Georgia, wrote in her 2014 book, “Zoned in the USA, “I understand the appeal of quiet, leafy residential neighborhoods , but it is clear from Europe and some older American cities that these can be perfectly compatible with and even enhanced by well-designed commercial and multi-family buildings.
Last Wednesday, I rode around Minneapolis on a succession of bikeshares (one of which is pictured in the photo at the top of the Bloomberg.com version of this column) to look at some of the new duplexes and triplexes. I needed a map and a spreadsheet of the city to find them, as I encountered tall building after tall building along major thoroughfares and the Midtown Greenway without even trying.
Small multi-family buildings are the so-called “missing middle”, once a major part of the nation’s housing mix and now only a tiny fraction of new construction. In the end, I only saw one new triplex, in a neighborhood that already had a lot of multi-family housing, albeit on a block that, before 2020, was maxing out duplexes. The several new duplexes I’ve found fit in pretty well with their single-family neighbors — more so than a few expensive new single-family homes I’ve come across. With street grids and alleys full of garages, the norm in residential Minneapolis, there didn’t seem to be any significant parking issues (although I’m sure there were complaints). In the Como neighborhood near the University of Minnesota, where duplexes were already allowed on some residential blocks before 2020, there are so many new ones being built that we can perhaps speak of a neighborhood in transition. Elsewhere, they’re sparse, giving a few extra people access to backyards and quiet, leafy, walkable neighborhoods in a city that, in summer at least, is among the most livable in the country. It’s a victory, even if it’s not a revolution.
More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
• Will housing prices simply flatten or collapse? :Jonathan Levin
• Fed damage to housing market may have lasted for years: Allison Schrager
• US must bribe landlords to adopt density: Eduardo Porter
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. Former editorial director of Harvard Business Review, he has written for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market”.
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