single-family zoning Minneapolis

Image by Daniel McCullough via Unsplash

When Linnea Goderstad left the suburbs of Minneapolis for college, she was looking for a new experience, but she got more than she bargained for. At home, she hadn’t really questioned the environment of sprawling single-family homes in which she grew up. But in New York, where residents are packed tighter than in any other city in the nation, she was surrounded by neighbors of a variety of races and incomes, she could get anywhere she needed by public transit, and she was only a short walk away from work, restaurants, and shops.

“I didn’t think that much about it when I was [growing up], but living in New York, I kind of saw the reality of what was possible when communities are more densely built,” she says. Goderstad’s desire for a more livable city was one of the reasons she joined the pro-density movement that catapulted Minneapolis to national prominence last year.

“So much of our group really did start online — we took Twitter memes and put them into action. In my mind, that was the first step in getting momentum and encouraging people to actually show up to meetings and take the opportunity to comment to the city planners and politicians,” she says. “That was the first step in showing up.”

In December, city leaders voted to abolish single-family zoning in favor of rules allowing up to three dwelling units per parcel in every neighborhood. Despite the nearly unanimous vote, the ‘not in my backyard’ (NIMBY) response was strong, and opponents organized behind several distinct to NIMBY-ism points. One local organization filed a lawsuit, citing environmental concerns, and another rallied other NIMBY-ers behind a shared worry that the neighborhood would change. But the vote was in, and single-family zoning was out. Soon after, the move drew national headlines and highlighted key urban issues.

Single family zoning laws have long been used as a tool to limit where people of color can live and, consequently, restrict their ability to build generational wealth. Before December’s city council vote, between 50 and 60 percent of Minneapolis was zoned for single family homes. That led to racial segregation and as a result, massive racial disparities in home ownership. About 78 percent of Minneapolis’s white families own their own homes, while less than 25 percent of African Americans do. And in Minneapolis and St. Paul, neighborhoods are more segregated today than they were in the 1970s and 1980s.

Goderstad’s citizen activism exemplifies the demographic, economic, and racial tensions playing out in many U.S. cities. In many places, younger residents are pushing for more housing construction and increased diversity while older, entrenched, and often white homeowners frequently resist new construction they fear will lower their home values and change their neighborhoods.

Minneapolis’ plan for growth

Between 2012 and 2017, the two fastest-growing U.S. cities, Seattle and Austin, grew by 14 and 12 percent, respectively, CityLab reported. In Minneapolis, the population grew by more than 46,800 people since 2010, an increase of 12.2 percent. While those gains can be positive for the economy, they only intensify the need for affordable housing.

By way of a new 20-year comprehensive plan, Minneapolis aims to address the issue head on. In 2018, the city council approved Minneapolis 2040, the 20-year comprehensive plan, which will do away with single-family zoning and allow duplexes and triplexes to be built anywhere in the city. The vision of Minneapolis outlined in the plan is centered around affordable housing, walk-ability, mass transit and racial and economic equity. The inclusion of citywide up-zoning, which will serve as the first step toward that new vision of Minneapolis, was due in part to local advocacy.

But to understand where the city is headed, first we have to understand where it’s been.

A look back

In 1926, the economic prosperity of the Roaring Twenties was alive and well, and with that prosperity came young professionals looking to settle down.

For the white folks moving in, exclusion was written into home sales contracts in the form of racially restrictive covenants — most properties were only to be leased, sold or occupied by those “whose blood [was] entirely that of the Caucasian race.” Race-based zoning, another way to exclude, was quashed by the Supreme Court in 1917, but the intention of the policy was accomplished through single family zoning, which was ruled constitutional because it didn’t explicitly mention race even though it was intended to exclude.

Single family zoning mandates large lot sizes, height limitations, and that homes must be designed to accommodate only one family, among other things that made such homes unnecessarily expensive. In The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Richard Rothstein explains how single family zoning helped local officials maintain segregated neighborhoods.

African Americans often could not afford the sprawling lots on which single-family homes were built, and as a result of this and the fact that their access to credit to buy in other areas was blocked due to redlining, they were denied the generational wealth building that comes with owning property. This was a privilege that all levels of the U.S. government made sure was available to white families through a hodgepodge of policies and programs.

As the reach of the covenants and single family zoning was furthered, African Americans were concentrated into certain, relatively small areas in cities across the country that became targets for under-investment, highway projects, nuisances like power and water treatment plants, aggressive policing, and more. The negative impacts of these past injustices are still widely felt today even though many of the racist policies and practices have been eliminated.

That is except for single family zoning, which is still the standard across the country. Heather Worthington, the city’s director of long term planning, says it was the realization of how persistent the racial inequities are in Minneapolis that drove her and her team during the planning process.

So, on April 1, 2016, when the Minneapolis City Council called for the comprehensive plan to be updated, Worthington and her team got to work on a plan that the city’s website describes as “in service to the values of growth and vitality, equity and racial justice, health and resilience, livability and connectedness, economic competitiveness, and good government with a focus on guiding public and private investment in the built, natural, and economic environment.”

When neighbors step in

About a year later, Janne Flisrand realized the plan was an opportunity to advocate in favor of density and more affordable housing. She and John Edwards, a fellow pro-housing activist, co-founded Neighbors for More Neighbors in 2017 in an attempt to begin to address Minneapolis’s affordable housing crisis. The group specifically took on single-family zoning, calling it the “biggest roadblock… to providing access to jobs, schools, public transit or even quiet and clean air.”

“A large chunk of Minneapolis is zoned this way,” argues the organization in a blog post. “[A]dvocates of this have spent the past few decades working to keep more people out of their neighborhoods, causing displacement and gentrification, with an ideology that defines legally permissible housing as being between one building and one family.”

When the final draft of Minneapolis 2040 was submitted for consideration in December 2018, organizers from Neighbors for More Neighbors campaigned to inform current residents of the plan’s goals around affordable housing.

“A lot of it was accomplished using public channels,” Godersted says. Twitter was particularly instrumental in the organization’s growth. But email and in-person organizing played a role too.

“We had our own meetings to get new people involved and learn about our advocacy work,” she says. “We went to meetings and sent tons of emails, but you could also comment on the comp plan website. We would host comment parties where we’d go to the library with our laptops and talk about the policies and comment, saying, ‘I think this should be different,’ or, ‘I am excited to see this being discussed for our city.’”

The case for density

Single-family zoning has played a major role in segregating cities. But that’s just one of the issues N4MN is aiming to combat. Worthington says she and her team have worked for the last two years to write a plan that addresses the persistent racial disparities in the city as well as potential climate change impacts.

If urban growth patterns continue along their current trajectory, nearly 400 cities will sprawl into the habitats of endangered species by 2030, CityLab reported. And household carbon emissions in low-density areas are 25 percent higher than in neighborhoods with five times the density (four households vs. 20 households per acre), the Brookings Institute reported in 2008.

In Minneapolis, gentrification has contributed to the loss of over 15,000 naturally occurring affordable housing (NOAH) units. NOAH units are rentals that operate without subsidies while maintaining affordability for low- and moderate-income households.

Margaret Kaplan, president of the Housing Justice Center, says data shows that increased density is a prerequisite to affordability, and affordability is an important step in challenging the racial and economic inequities that exist in the city.

“In and of itself, density doesn’t create affordability, but it is a crucial step in ensuring that historically under resourced families and communities are able to access safe, stable places to live and ownership opportunities to create intergenerational wealth that has been a backbone of wealth in white communities,” Kaplan says.

Not all smiles

Goderstad says the work of the city and of Neighbors for More Neighbors didn’t come without complaint.

In May of 2018, opponents formed Minneapolis for Everyone. Its members argued that density would come at the expense of quality of life and the environment. And in December of 2018, days before the final vote on the plan, Smart Growth Minneapolis, an organization fighting for responsible city planning and a future resilient to climate change, filed a lawsuit arguing the zoning changes required environmental review. In Minnesota, comprehensive plans are explicitly exempted from environmental review, however.

Other local housing advocates are also not convinced that the plan will adequately address the city’s racial disparities.

“We immediately recognized that the voices that were being centered were… not the people who are most at risk of potential displacement. It’s by and large white folks saying we did these great things for folks of color, but that’s not what we think as folks of color,” says Owen Duckworth, director of organizing & policy with the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability. “We weren’t really at the table crafting solutions on housing inequality, gentrification pressures and wealth inequities that stem from how our housing market was built.”

In 2017, The Alliance came out in support of policies that mandate affordable housing production that focuses on inclusionary zoning, density, and targeted up-zoning. Duckworth says the plan has positive elements, like the inclusion of developments in communities that have historically been left out of plans for growth and positive change. But without additional policies supporting inclusionary zoning, he argues the plan leaves room for developers to take advantage of the zoning change.

Under single-family zoning, developers seeking a zoning change must request one from the city. Duckworth worries that doing away with single-family zoning will also do away with an important step in the process — one that can be used to ensure a development will benefit a community and its people.

“It could take away the means of the people in the communities to ensure that a new development benefits them and the neighborhood and preserves existing resources,” he says.

And what’s next for single-family zoning?

Godersted doesn’t view the plan as a silver bullet, but as a crucial step in the right direction.

“There is an opportunity there to reshape our neighborhood and offer new lifestyles for those who want them,” she says. “It’s a different kind of solution, and to people who are saying this won’t solve housing affordability or climate change, you’re right. This alone won’t, which is exactly why we need to do this and then move onto the 99 other things on the list.”


This post is part of our Fall 2019 editorial series on land use and housing policy challenges and solutions. Download our latest FREE ebook based on this series: “How Racism Shaped the Housing Crisis & What We Can Do About It.”

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Bailey Basham


Bailey Basham

Bailey Basham is a writer and editor in Tennessee who focuses on food, the environment, sustainability, arts and entertainment, and the people that hold communities together.