THE FULL STORY
Cities across the country are booming, but their growth is exacerbating an already critical lack of affordable housing for the middle class and poor alike. Since 2000, Minneapolis has lost roughly 15,000 housing units that were once considered affordable for those earning 50 percent of the area’s median income. These units now cost more to own or rent, making them out of reach for this demographic.
Like many U.S. cities, Minneapolis also has a history of segregation reinforced by federal, state, and local housing laws. Almost 60 percent of white residents own a home in the city, as compared to nearly 20 percent of black residents. This is one of the largest disparities in the nation and a big reason for a persistent racial wealth gap.
While efforts to address this issue in communities nationwide have varied in size and scope, no municipality has taken a more dramatic response to the housing gap than Minneapolis. The city’s embrace of urban density began in 2013, when voters elected seven young, progressive new city council candidates who ran on platforms of increasing housing density, tripling spending on affordable housing, and reducing residential segregation.
In December 2018, the Minneapolis City Council approved Minneapolis 2040, its long-term plan for development, which made Minneapolis the first major U.S. city to completely eliminate single-family zoning. The plan now allows up to three units to be built anywhere in the city. The hope is that this will boost housing inventory, in a way that also integrates more affordable townhouses and apartments into the same neighborhoods as more upscale single-family houses to help desegregate the city. Minneapolis also tripled its budget for affordable housing by funding $40 million in affordable housing programs, up from about $15 million.
The 2040 plan allows for larger developments around transit hubs and other select areas. To ensure the new rentals are affordable, the council adopted a temporary measure that requires certain new buildings to earmark at least a tenth of their units for residents making as much as 60 percent of the area median income.
To pass the potentially controversial proposal, the city council persuaded a broad coalition of racial-justice activists and nonprofit affordable-housing advocates to align with zoning-reform supporters behind a package of housing efforts that helped help both the middle class and the poor. In an extensive public engagement process, dozens of information sessions were held around the city, including on public transit to reach citizens who normally don’t attend public meetings. Overcoming disagreement and controversy, the city council was ultimately able to secure passage of the plan with a 12-1 vote.
“Sometimes I think it is worth taking on a fight over something that isn’t going to be a huge literal change, but is a big philosophical change,” says Lisa Bender, Minneapolis City Council President. “It opens up the possibility of having a totally different conversation than you’ve had in the past.”
The move was celebrated by local residents who see increased density as key to the city’s housing inequalities. It also attracted the attention of national onlookers, many of whom touted the change as step toward reversing some of the damage from historical exclusionary zoning policies. “Minneapolis, Tackling Housing Crisis and Inequity, Votes to End Single-Family Zoning,” a New York Times headline read, while a Reuters story noted: “In U.S. first, Minneapolis rethinks housing density to make homes cheaper.”