Minneapolis Eliminates Zoning for Single-Family Housing Across Entire City

An article in The Atlantic (2019-10-24) explored how housing advocates successfully convinced the Minneapolis City Council to end zoning for detached single-family dwellings across the entire city. On October 25, 2019, the Council voted to become the first major city in the United States to complete abolish single-family zoning requirements.

Single-family zoning has had a controversial past in the United States and was used by some jurisdictions as a way to continue racial or class discrimination after exclusionary zoning based on race with abolished by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1917. Prior to the Council’s action, duplexes and larger multi-family dwellings were banned from 70 percent of the City’s residential areas, despite having a population of 425,000. In contrast, only 36 percent of Washington, D.C.’s land is zoned exclusively for single-family homes, while New York City is only 15 percent.

The article described the incremental process that Minneapolis underwent and how advocates presented their proposal to win over both elected officials and residents:

Yet housing advocates had laid the groundwork for reform several years earlier. In 2014, the Minneapolis City Council voted to allow in-law apartments to be built in areas zoned for single-family homes. …

Next, Minneapolis elected new, younger leadership in 2017….Electing a mayor and city-council president who were in their 30s meant leadership understood that the single-family zoning made housing unaffordable for young people, that a policy with racist origins was unacceptable, and that the practice’s promotion of urban sprawl and climate change was intolerable.

Crucially, advocates made racial justice central to their message….By emphasizing the racial-justice angle on single-family zoning, progressives were able to include civil-rights groups and community groups in the coalition for reform in a way that has not always happened elsewhere.

The article also discussed how advocates allied with organized labor and broadened public participation in zoning discussions. Treating all residential areas equally was also an important factor in the reform plan’s success:
Minneapolis’s director of long-range planning, Heather Worthington, says taking reform citywide turned out to be a political advantage: “If we were going to pick and choose, the fight, I think, would have been even bloodier.” Ultimately, reformers in Minneapolis succeeded in reframing the discussion about zoning rules not as a neighborhood matter, but as something that affects the life of the entire community.

The article noted that the City’s zoning reform efforts made for some “unlikely political bedfellows” with President Donald Trump’s Housing and Urban Development secretary, Ben Carson, urging other large cities to follow the lead of Minneapolis.

Finally, the article did explore whether the same approach that was successful in Minneapolis could be successful elsewhere. Minneapolis is ranked as an extremely liberal city, has a large affordable housing problem, and for a city of its population, did have a significant amount of its residential neighborhoods limited to single-family housing. Not all of those factors exist in every other city.

Useful Links

Prior Conduit Street Coverage on Detached Single-Family Zoning