Ten Thoughts on Minneapolis 2040

I’m no expert on the Minneapolis 2040 planning goals but I feel like I’ve been paying attention. I’ve read news stories, blog posts, NextDoor comments, attended community meetings and discussed this topic with friends and neighbors.

Here are a few observations based on those experiences:

1. The vast majority of people opposed to the upzoning proposals are far older and whiter than the city overall. The main issue they have is a proposal that would allow people to redevelop their single-family home into a duplex, triplex, or fourplex, as long as they stayed within the height and area restrictions currently in place for single-family development. If you’ve ever been to my house, you may or may not have noticed that the property next to mine of nearly identical size is a high/low duplex. That property would is illegal to build under current zoning. It turns out that older white people feel threatened by properties like that one.

2. If we maintain the status quo, people will still be able to remodel or tear down and redevelop single-family properties. They’ll continue to be restricted to building a single-family home, so – as we’ve seen in Linden Hills – we’ll see smaller and/or run down properties replaced with homes that maximize square footage on city lots. As a city, we’ll end up with more expensive housing stock but it won’t move the needle much on the number of city residents. Granted, there is a greater chance of a family of 4+ living in a 2,000 square foot home than a less than 1,000 square foot home so there could be some growth is residents.

3a. Affordability. Some eyeballing of projects in Longfellow and Linden Hills suggests to me that redeveloping a tear-down as a new single-family home more than doubles the property’s value. For example, a property selling for $200k or less in Longfellow will likely be worth $400K or more once redeveloped as a new, larger, home. In Linden Hills, the same math applies but with around a 50% bump for both of those figures. We do not keep neighborhoods affordable by doubling home prices one lot at a time.

3b. Affordability. If the same square footage is used to build a duplex, the property’s overall value may double but the cost to live on that property will remain near where it was before. This doubles the number of households who can afford to live on that property and in that neighborhood rather than pricing them both out.

4. Racial history. Like many cities, Minneapolis had racial covenants on many properties that made it illegal to sell your property to anyone who wasn’t white. Once that was outlawed, we switched to discriminating based on lending practices such as redlining that made it impossible for non-white people to receive government-backed financing on mortgages for properties in white neighborhoods. Once that was outlawed – and white people had spent a few generations building out neighborhoods in desirable parts of town – cities adopted zoning ordinances that banned multi-family housing. It’s the “We’re not racist. We just don’t want to live around people who don’t happen to be as wealthy as we’ve become.” system.

5. Liberals not walking the walk. I see many older white people who’re opposed to the Minneapolis 2040 plan who absolutely hate Trump, are positive that climate change is real, understand that college students are saddled with a ton more debt at graduation than previous generations, and would absolutely not consider themselves to be racist. Yet, when they have a chance to walk the walk by adopting a real-world change that could help address these issues they aren’t being proactive. They’re being vehemently reactive.

6. Population trends. I hear some people opposed to changing zoning saying that young people will regret the loss of single-family homes once they have families. What’s changed since people who’ve paid off their mortgage bought their houses?

– The average family size is declining (not rapidly, but it is)
– People are getting married later
– More people are divorced
– More people are living longer as empty nesters
– More people are living longer as widows or widowers
– More people are hamstrung with college loans
– The cost of having one infant in daycare is similar to a mortgage payment on a $250k home.

Many people like this would like to live in safe, quiet, neighborhoods, but don’t need – or can’t afford – a single-family home. These are people who’re being pushed out of neighborhoods by people opposing change (while, hypocritically, putting All Are Welcome Here signs in their yards).

I have heard from some older people who think it’s impossible to raise a child in Minneapolis without a backyard. As someone with young kids and basically no backyard, I’ve found that it’s not necessary to have a private park in a city that has so many public parks. We walk, bike, or drive to parks with different amenities, and enjoy interacting with neighbors and friends from schools. We do have some areas of town that are, sadly, underserved by parks. They also happen to be where old white people seem to be more interested in corralling renters.

Housing that allows people to save money, spend less time maintaining a yard, and on a block that’s safe for kids to bike around is a good thing.

7. Radical change? Think about this: If the most run-down home in Kenwood is torn down and replaced with a new fourplex (assuming the lot is large enough to accommodate that) what type of neighbors do you think would live there? The cost of housing in Kenwood would still be much higher than the city average so you’d end up living next to people who can afford something like $1,800 or more in monthly rent payments? Is that threatening to someone with a $4,000+ mortgage?

8. Less affluent neighborhoods. So far, most of what I’ve discussed has been from the perspective of Minneapolis’ more affluent neighborhoods from Kenwood to Longfellow, from the lakes, along the creek, to the river. What about other neighborhoods that haven’t had the same upward pricing pressure? At the other extreme would be neighborhoods with empty lots today. There are lots available in Minneapolis for under $25k in some neighborhoods. There are quite a few factors contributing to this. Quality of neighborhood schools, safety, expectations of home appreciation, and racism are some examples. But, another one is that it’s tough to justify building a single-family home on an empty lot if the home can’t sell or rent for what it costs to build. If people had the option to build something other than single-family homes on those lots, perhaps the market would find ways to develop some of them without subsidies? It would be great to see additional efforts being made to redevelop those lots – including public investments – and I definitely don’t believe that rezoning alone will solve all problems.

Granted, we would have more money to invest in neighborhoods in need of help if old white people were willing to accept a few more neighbors.

9. Affordable housing vs housing that’s affordable. I have seen some cases of people talking past each other regarding affordable housing. Here is HUD’s definition:

AFFORDABLE HOUSING: In general, housing for which the occupant(s) is/are paying no more than 30 percent of his or her income for gross housing costs, including utilities. Please note that some jurisdictions may define affordable housing based on other, locally determined criteria and that this definition is intended solely as an approximate guideline or general rule of thumb.

If a neighborhood is already unaffordable by that criteria, redeveloping a single-family home as a McMansion or duplex will likely not solve that problem. However, redeveloping the property into housing that’s cheaper than a McMansion (the only type of housing we’ll see replacing tear downs under current zoning) provides more affordable housing than a McMansion provides, and does so for more people.

10. What are the alternatives for zoned-out future residents? If we price out first-time homebuyers via exclusionary zoning they’ll still need a place to live. Some will “drive until they qualify” for a mortgage, leading to more carbon being spewed into the city as they commute in, more complaints about congestion, and more complaints about parking. These are self-inflicted wounds caused by self-described Liberals. They’re less concrete changes to see than having a new, nearly as wealthy, renter as a neighbor but they’re no less real. We can do better.

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