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How Minneapolis became the first to end single-family zoning

To help address a housing shortage, Minneapolis became the first large American city to end single-family zoning, the rules that restrict certain neighborhoods to single-family homes. Now, buildings with up to three units can be built on any residential lot. Leaders hope this, and other plans, will add new units, create density and remedy segregation. NewsHour Weekend's Megan Thompson reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Cities across the nation are facing housing crises and are searching for solutions. From Oregon to California to North Carolina, local governments are now considering changing decades-old zoning rules protecting single-family home districts that have always been considered sacred. But the first to actually do it was the City of Minneapolis. Megan Thompson has more.

  • Megan Thompson:

    John Edwards, a freelance graphic designer, lived in south Florida for most of his life. Then, about seven years ago, he decided he wanted a change.

  • John Edwards:

    Minneapolis has a strong economy, has high quality of life, and so I moved here.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Edwards moved into a Minneapolis neighborhood called The Wedge. It's a walkable area that allows him to live without the expense and environmental impacts of owning a car.

  • John Edwards:

    So we've got probably the best transit in Minneapolis. We have access to great bike infrastructure. There's a handful of grocery stores within walking distance, a hardware store. Everything you'd want to have in your neighborhood, we have it.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Turns out, a lot of other people are moving to Minneapolis, too, with its thriving economy, friendly people, and ample lakes and parks. The city's population's been rising faster than any point in the last 70 years, increasing by more than 12 percent to almost 430,000 between 2010 and 2018.

    But the number of new housing units hasn't kept pace. One report showed that among similarly-sized cities, the Minneapolis metro area has the third-largest housing production shortfall. As a result, Edwards says, he's seen rents and home prices spike.

  • John Edwards:

    People don't move because they know — you know, finding a new apartment, they'll be paying an extra $100 or whatever in rent and they can't afford it.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Jacob Frey is the mayor of Minneapolis.

  • Jacob Frey:

    The reality is, is that when you have demand that is sky high and you don't have the supply to accommodate, the prices continuously get jacked up.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Are you seeing affordable housing options disappear from this area?

  • Tabitha Montgomery:

    Absolutely, whether it be rental or from a home ownership, they are dwindling. And they're dwindling fast.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Tabitha Montgomery leads the neighborhood association in Powderhorn Park, a few miles away from the Wedge.

  • Tabitha Montgomery:

    So, Powderhorn Park neighborhood is amazing. It's extremely vibrant and eclectic. Over 50 percent of the community identify as persons of color.

  • Megan Thompson:

    The area is one of the most diverse parts of Minneapolis, where around 20 percent live below the poverty line. In a city with virtually no rent control, the housing shortage has meant that low income, longtime residents are being priced out of the neighborhood, says Montgomery.

  • Tabitha Montgomery:

    Your — housing options have become significantly impaired is what I would say. So, even home ownership is becoming challenging when people are facing cash bids, cash offers. And so, homes are being sold same-day. So, I think that we're certainly feeling the squeeze.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Last year, to address this lack of supply, city leaders came up with a bunch of ideas. One in particular raised eyebrows, because it would completely eliminate "single-family zoning" — the rules that say, on certain lots, only single-family homes can be built. No large city had entirely done away with single-family zoning before. The new rules would allow buildings with up to three units to be built on any residential lot in the city.

  • Edward Goetz:

    The single family home neighborhood has always been the sacred cow of zoning.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Edward Goetz is a professor and director of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota. He says while city zoning rules don't usually get a lot of attention, they have a big impact.

  • Edward Goetz:

    They determine what can be built where. They can determine how much of that can be built. They determine all the density, the setbacks, there are so many different dimensions that are covered by a zoning ordinance.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Cities began enacting single-family zoning in the early 1900's, leading to the creation of that classic American neighborhood: block after quiet block of single-family homes. But, Goetz says, the practice had an underside. In some cases, it ended up helping perpetuate segregation. Single-family homes tend to cost more, making these neighborhoods available only to those with money, who often were mostly white.

  • Edward Goetz:

    And you saw the emergence of a lot of different techniques for creating zoning requirements that effectively kept out low cost housing, and by extension then kept racial barriers in place as well.

  • Megan Thompson:

    In Minneapolis, which is about 60 percent white, almost three quarters of the city's residential property was zoned for single-family homes. Other neighborhoods with more affordable, multi-family housing, like areas around Powderhorn Park, came to have more people of color. Single-family zoning has had other consequences, too — and not just in Minneapolis. With fewer people allowed to live on each lot, cities sprawl as their population grows. And that usually means residents need cars to get around, leading to congestion and increased emissions.

  • Edward Goetz:

    I think there's just a growing understanding that perhaps the era of the single family home district is something that we can no longer afford in terms of the use of land. And I think that there has been a shift in urban planning thinking towards more densification, and for more intensification of land use.

  • Megan Thompson:

    So leaders in Minneapolis proposed the idea of eliminating single family zoning altogether to increase density, create more housing units, and help address racial segregation. In 2018, the proposed ban was included in a massive city planning document released every 10 years that requires a city council vote. The plan included one hundred policy proposals on everything from housing, to transportation, to the environment. It usually it gets little public attention. But thanks in large part to the zoning ban, this time was different.

  • Person 1:

    People are getting priced out of the city.

  • Person 2:

    I oppose the plan.

  • Person 3:

    We do need more housing, our population is growing incredibly.

  • Person 4:

    I feel strongly that much more study and public input are needed.

  • Megan Thompson:

    John Edwards became so interested in housing issues, he helped start a group called Neighbors for More Neighbors.

  • John Edwards:

    It's important in terms of climate change that we allow people who want to live this way without a car, to walk places, to take transit.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Neighbors for More Neighbors helped mobilize support for the plan, distributing lawn signs around the city, and getting people to show up at city planning hearings.

  • Person:

    I support the 2040 plan. We just need more housing diversity in general.

  • Megan Thompson:

    But opposition was strong, too.

  • Person 1:

    This community is angry, this community is divided.

  • Person 2:

    You shouldn't be tearing down our neighborhood! (applause)

  • Megan Thompson:

    Many of the opponents who attended city meetings were from neighborhoods zoned mostly for single-family homes.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Are you against density?

  • Lisa McDonald:

    No. Not at all. But I'm for density done well.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Lisa McDonald is a former member of the city council who also once ran the city's zoning committee. She co-founded the group Minneapolis for Everyone, which opposed the plan.

  • Lisa McDonald:

    And the problem is, you wanna put density where you get the biggest bang for your buck. So that's on transit lines, commercial corridors, where things are already built up, in order to take advantage of the infrastructure improvements you've already made on what's available. If you just throw three-plexes out anyplace and anyplace, you don't get the kind of density that really works.

  • Megan Thompson:

    McDonald worries single-family homes will be torn down, and design guidelines won't go far enough to protect a neighborhood's character.

  • Lisa McDonald:

    Particularly in terms of working with developers to say, "This is what you can build. This is what you have to do. And you have to meet these."

  • Megan Thompson:

    And McDonald points out that even if adding new triplexes around town does increase supply, it doesn't mean they'll be affordable.

  • Lisa McDonald:

    I think we could end up with all this density, all this market-rate housing and really no more affordability.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Many neighborhoods that need affordable units are already zoned for multi-family homes. Tabitha Montgomery questions how adding units in other parts of the city will help her community of Powderhorn Park.

  • Tabitha Montgomery:

    I think any step where a city is trying to think broadly about how do we get ourselves out of this mess, how do we move the needle, in terms of the units that we're currently not replacing, is a positive step. I just don't think that it's a silver bullet. It's not going to be the answer to all of our problems or all of the ills, historically, in terms of where people have been, quote, unquote, "Allowed to live," and/or right now, the pressures of supply and demand and not having enough housing stock to go around for all the people who wanna live in the city.

  • Megan Thompson:

    And Mayor Jacob Frey agrees the zoning change alone isn't a silver bullet.

  • Jacob Frey:

    Changing the zoning is not going to solve the whole thing, but it is one really important facet. You've gotta first change the zoning to quite simply allow for affordable housing in some of these neighborhoods.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Will this actually lead to more affordable housing, though? I mean, the market is so tight here. There is a concern that the units that are gonna get built are still gonna get built in the most desirable parts of the city and they're gonna be market rate units and they're still gonna be unaffordable for a lot of people.

  • Jacob Frey:

    The single family zoning issue is an important piece, but it's just one part of an overarching plan to attack the affordable housing crisis that we're dealing with here in Minneapolis and that many cities are seeing throughout the entire country.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Frey says, the city is doing a lot more than just changing zoning. This year's budget included $40 million for affordable housing — three times the city's previous largest investment. And the mayor's proposing another $31 million for next year. The city is also planning to implement something called "inclusionary zoning," requiring developers to include affordable units in large, new apartment buildings. And the mayor has plans to tackle homelessness and strengthen tenants' rights.

    As for the single-family zoning change, it was officially adopted by the Minneapolis City Council earlier this month and will go into effect on January 1st.

  • Jacob Frey:

    You're not gonna see massive change in the immediate future. But it will allow over time for the city to evolve, which, by the way, is exactly what cities do. They evolve.

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