Minneapolis may have just become the most radically pro-housing, anti-climate-change city in the nation. The Midwest metropolis recently voted to eliminate single-family zoning and instead allow duplexes and triplexes to be built on lots now reserved for one house.
Such an ambitious, large-scale overhaul of zoning rules is practically unheard of in U.S. cities, where single-family neighborhoods with their rows of houses set behind landscaped front yards have typically been off the table during discussions of citywide “Smart Growth” and affordable housing.
Minneapolis’ 2040 Comprehensive Plan is radical for other reasons too. The plan would do away with the requirement that new housing developments include parking, and it would allow taller, denser buildings next to transit stops.
Single-family neighborhoods can no longer be sacrosanct.
But city leaders recognized that they cannot meet their goals of creating more units of affordable housing, building communities that are less dependent on cars and reducing racial and economic disparities, without reconsidering single-family zoning, which makes up nearly 60% the city.
Continuing to preserve single-family neighborhoods as they were decades ago would have left vast swaths of the city unaffordable to many buyers, hostile to new approaches to transportation and, often, still segregated as a result of racially discriminatory housing practices dating back decades.
While rezoning single-family properties for denser development may seem extreme today, some of Minneapolis’ older neighborhoods — as in many cities — actually grew up with homes next to duplex, triplex and fourplex apartment buildings. This mix of housing was only later prohibited by strict single-family zoning, which was often adopted in the last century as a way to segregate neighborhoods without explicitly banning any racial or religious group.
If there is a silver lining to the affordable housing crisis that has swept cities across the country in recent years, it’s that political leaders are finally talking about dramatic changes to housing policy that could address these historical wrongs and lay the groundwork for more sustainable ways of growing.
Minneapolis certainly gets credit for taking a bold approach. (The regional planning agency still needs to sign off on the city’s plan; if it does, the new zoning rules would go into effect next year.) Seattle is considering rezoning 6% of its single-family neighborhoods. Portland has been mulling over a proposal to allow four-unit buildings in most single-family neighborhoods. And one Oregon lawmaker, frustrated with the slow pace of the regulation, is drafting a bill that would allow such buildings on single-family lots in any city in the state with more than 10,000 residents.
California has begun to whittle away at single-family zoning as well. Recently passed state laws allow a homeowner to build an accessory dwelling unit if there is enough space on the property — essentially allowing two units on lots zoned for one home.
State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) has been pushing for even more dramatic change. Last year he offered a hotly disputed bill to override local zoning and allow taller, denser housing around transit stations — even on single-family lots. That proposal didn’t make it past the first committee hearing, felled by concerns that it would promote gentrification and undermine local control of land use, along with opposition from single-family neighborhood protectionists. Undaunted, Wiener has introduced a new version this year (Senate Bill 50); it still faces a fight in Sacramento, but the opposition already appears to be softening.
In Los Angeles, the city’s first attempt to rezone land around light rail stations exempted all single-family neighborhoods from having to accept increased density. Only after lobbying by YIMBY — Yes in My Backyard — activists did the City Council approve a plan that rezoned exactly one single-family neighborhood to allow midsize apartments and town house developments. It was the most modest step forward possible, illustrating how challenging it can be to change the status quo, one neighborhood or one community plan at a time.
That’s why Minneapolis’ decision to eliminate single-family zoning is such a big deal. It’s not uncommon for cities governed by progressive Democrats to espouse lofty goals to create affordable housing, fight segregation and slash greenhouse gases. It is not at all common, however, for those elected officials to brave the political heat and enact policies designed to help reach those goals over the objections of established neighborhoods.
There may be debates over exactly how radical the changes to the status quo should be, but it’s clear that single-family neighborhoods can no longer be sacrosanct. Not if cities are serious about increasing the supply and affordability of housing. And not if we’re serious about building more walkable, bikeable, transit-friendly communities to reduce driving and slow climate change.