In Minneapolis, Comprehensive Plan 2040 Divides the City

MINNEAPOLIS — For 10 years, families in Colleen Kepler’s urban, tree-lined neighborhood gathered twice a month for a potluck where kids grew up together in each other’s backyards. “Families move in and stay, not just for a year or two, but a decade or two,” she says. “That connection never goes away.”

But she and other homeowners in her neighborhood are concerned their tight-knit community may be bulldozed away if Minneapolis 2040, the city’s 20-year comprehensive development plan two years in the making, is approved this week by the City Council.

Most residents agree the plan’s guiding goal of “equitable growth,” including affordable housing, living-wage jobs, access to transit and climate change resilience, is laudable. But it’s the untested nature of how the city plans to grow — through denser development, with triplexes allowed in neighborhoods currently restricted to single-family homes — that’s led to a firestorm, with more than 10,000 comments submitted to city government.

“No major U.S. city has even attempted to rezone all residential areas,” says Councilwoman Linea Palmisano, who represents Ward 13 in Southwest Minneapolis and is a critic of the plan.

Across the country, fast-growing cities are facing an escalating affordable housing crisis and homelessness problem. In the Twin Cities, the population has grown faster than the housing supply — 7.9 percent versus 5.4 percent since 2010 — costing renters an extra $155 per month, according to MetroStats.

READ: [These Are the 10 Most Affordable States]

That’s led pro-density groups like ” Yes in my backyard” to push for a land-use revolution, battling entrenched opponents in sacrosanct single-family neighborhoods to loosen restrictive zoning laws to let new multi-family housing in. Advocates are saying it’s time these politically powerful, higher-income neighborhoods do their part in helping alleviate some of the weight of the housing crisis by opening their borders to development.

On Dec. 7, Minneapolis, which has one of lowest rental vacancy rates in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is expected to do just that — making a zoning decision that may impact up to three-fourths of the residents in the city of more than 400,000. That’s left some concerned about how the neighborhoods they’ve lived in for decades will change.

City planners admit they have ambitious goals to shift the trajectory of the city with Minneapolis 2040. But the point of the triplexes isn’t to unleash bulldozers citywide. It’s to introduce a regulatory change that will gradually make the city shareable for all residents, regardless of age or ethnicity, and encourage more participation in local politics through proximity to government.

Currently, in U.S. cities with the largest number of black households, Minneapolis has the widest gap between white and black home ownership rates. It also has deep disparities in poverty and income.

“We have to start thinking differently about race, culture and wealth,” says Heather Worthington, director of long-range planning for Minneapolis and one of the authors of the plan. Opening up all areas of the city — along with their perks, like economic opportunities, social networks and well-funded parks — seemed like the right first step toward equity. “We don’t want zoning to be an impediment,” she says.

For over a century, it was.

Minneapolis’ most affluent areas became that way at the expense of people of color. “We think of discrimination in terms of civil rights, but housing has been a great contributor to the lack of equality today,” says Gregg Colburn, an assistant real estate professor at the University of Washington who has studied housing policy in Minneapolis.

Early 20th-century single-family homes built around the city’s serene lakes — where much of the firestorm is centered — often included language in their deeds that forbid occupancy by persons “other than of the Caucasian Race.” The neighborhoods that had the most racially restrictive covenants between 1910 through the 1940s are still some of the whitest and wealthiest parts of the city, according to the Mapping Prejudice Project, which documents the trend. With median list prices between $500,000 and $920,000 in these areas, today many people of color are locked out.

MORE: [The Fastest-Growing Cities in the U.S. Heartland]

Redlining, where the Federal Housing Administration refused to insure mortgages in and near African-American neighborhoods, cut off families of color from building wealth through homeownership.

That’s led to a “checkerboard of inequality, neighborhoods of haves and have nots,” with very different experiences in public schooling, affecting generational upward mobility, Colburn says. He notes that a study by three Harvard economists showed that poor children whose families used housing vouchers to relocate to neighborhoods with more opportunities dramatically increased their lifetime earnings. “Increasing the density of housing isn’t a choice, unless you want to perpetuate what’s been going on in this country for more than 100 years,” he says.

But anti-triplex residents aren’t buying the argument that more housing leads to affordable housing. They say what it does do is line developers’ pockets.

“Densification is a fad contrived by the real estate industry, a great experiment by the new urbanists that doesn’t have any evidence for any predictable outcomes,” says Tim Keane, a real estate attorney and former city planner. He says he objects to the plan’s radical premise of “blanket upzoning” — changing the zoning code to allow for more density citywide — without taking into account the “carrying capacity” of accompanying infrastructure like schools, parks and transit. He predicts the lowest-priced homes in both modest and highly desirable neighborhoods will be the first casualties of the plan as builders begin tearing down to bolster their earnings through investor-owned duplexes or triplexes.

Experts agree upzoning isn’t a panacea for housing inequality.

“The basic idea of promoting greater density to get greater affordability is an economic principle that is true in theory but in practice can get complicated,” says Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, a nonprofit that fights urban blight. “Sometimes increasing supply actually increases demand.”

But city planners say it’s only one part of their solution. City Council is expected to consider an inclusionary zoning ordinance, which will require a certain percentage of housing to be affordable, on Dec. 7 as well.

READ: [The 10 Wealthiest States in America]

Emotions only seem to be intensifying as word of the vote spreads, with more “Don’t bulldoze our neighborhoods” lawn signs sprouting up in front yards. Minneapolis for Everyone, a nonprofit that opposes Minneapolis 2040, reported to the Star Tribune that its website, email, and Twitter account were hacked. Meanwhile, a member of the activist group, Neighbors for More Neighbors, designed business cards that read, “Uh oh! Your homeowner privilege is showing.”

Councilwoman Palmisano proposed allowing for duplexes and then requiring one unit be occupied by the owner if an accessory dwelling unit was added to upsize to a triplex.

“There’s a lot of concern about absentee landlords, particularly those with large portfolios, who may convert single-family homes to duplexes or triplexes, and extract three times the money out of them,” she says, referring to a fate that’s already hit parts of North Minneapolis. Her amendment was struck down.

Earlier this week, an opposition coalition that includes the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis filed a lawsuit asking the court to stop the council from approving the plan without an environmental review as it, “is likely to cause the pollution, impairment, or destruction of the air, water, land or other natural resources located within the state.” The motion for a temporary restraining order will be heard Dec. 6.

The plan, if passed, won’t move from blueprint to policy until the Metropolitan Council, which ensures orderly development within the seven-county metropolitan area, ensures it corresponds to regional plans for transportation, regional parks and wastewater. That is expected to happen by April 30, 2019.

Meanwhile, Kepler’s spent every free moment fighting the plan, attending meetings, handing out fliers at festivals and farmers’ markets.

“We always call our local public school the roots of the community,” she says, saying that the plan does not account for a potential influx of students. She doesn’t want families to lose out on the connections they make there. “That’s something that can’t be fabricated, but is special and inherent to Minneapolis.”

For her, that’s worth fighting for.

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