Minneapolis Is Using Zoning to Tackle Housing Affordability and Inequality

Mayor Jacob Frey is setting his sights on ending exclusive single-family zoning

Written by Daniel Harsha, Associate Director for Communications and Public Affairs

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey is the unlikely protagonist in one of the boldest policy gambits aimed at tackling the housing affordability crisis currently gripping many of America’s cities. Since being sworn into office in January 2018, the 37-year-old mayor of Minnesota’s largest city has helped shepherd through a radical rezoning of the city's 83 neighborhoods, which is intended to ease the creation of and access to affordable housing across the city.

Visiting campus this spring to kick off the Ash Center’s semiannual Project on Municipal Innovation convening, which brings together the chiefs of staff to the mayors of the nation’s largest cities at Harvard Kennedy School, Frey described how he and the Minneapolis city council embarked on a plan, called Minneapolis 2040, to fundamentally reshape the city’s zoning policies in order to protect and expand the city’s stock of affordable and workforce housing. “In Minneapolis we have 100-year history of very intentional segregation — a 100-year history of redlining and exclusive covenants that run with the land.”

While Minneapolis’s ambitious attempts to reform its zoning policies to encourage greater density set it apart from most other cities in the country today, the damage done from redlining and suburbanization is hardly unique, observed Frey: “The Eisenhower administration's American dream was that you had a white picket fence out in the suburbs. You had a corner office somewhere downtown. You had a 45-minute commute into work. You didn't necessarily get to know your neighbors or interact with one another. You didn't have a whole lot of diversity.”

For much of the 20th century, nearly two-thirds of Minneapolis was exclusively zoned for single-family homes. This zoning policy, coupled with more overtly restrictive and racist housing covenants that prohibited many racial and ethnic minorities from purchasing homes in certain areas of the city, had the intended effect of locking out less affluent and nonwhite homebuyers from much of the city's housing stock. Even with the passage of fair lending and housing laws, half-century-old zoning policies effectively kept working- and middle-class residents out of large portions of Minneapolis. “The end result is we are racially segregated, we are socioeconomically segregated, we are age-demographically segregated,” said Frey.

Mayor Jacob Frey
Mayor Frey spoke to the Ash Center’s Project on Municipal Innovation convening in March

To tackle the city’s housing deficit and attempt to reverse nearly a century of discriminatory housing policies, Frey and his colleagues on the city council launched a two-pronged approach to the city’s affordability crisis. First, they tripled the amount of funding to $40 million per year that the city spends on what Frey terms “deeply affordable housing” — housing for those making between 20 to 40 percent of area median income. Second, and more controversially, was addressing the supply of affordable housing for middle-income residents by encouraging greater density.

“Everybody's for affordable housing at the macro level until you start talking about putting it anywhere in the vicinity of where they live. Then suddenly there's massive pushback,” recalled Frey as the city began the process of developing Minneapolis 2040. Stephen Goldsmith, Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the director of the Innovations in Government Program at the Ash Center, as well as former mayor of Indianapolis, understood the political risks inherent in the plan, remarking, “It took a lot of courage to get this done and say we’re going to take advantage of current market conditions by freeing up more land for housing through these zoning changes.”

Frey and the city council had their eyes on exclusive single-family zoning, which they believed helped perpetuate discrimination and limited supply in a hot housing market. “All we're saying is that in addition to being able to bulldoze a small single-family, relatively affordable ranch home and put up a mansion, which by the way you're still allowed to do, you can also put something up that is more affordable. Whether that's a duplex or a triplex or a fourplex.”

In leafier, single-family neighborhoods in the city, residents treated the plan skeptically at first. “Because it involves your own backyard, involves people’s own neighborhoods, by goodness, there was pushback,” recalled Frey. Right after the draft plan came out there were these lawn signs that began popping up all over the city that said, ‘don't bulldoze our neighborhood.’”

Yet rezoning advocates weren’t daunted by the initial political pushback. They worked to explain how the plan wasn't an attempt to somehow outlaw single-family homes or permits, but rather offered a way to make more neighborhoods accessible to the majority of Minneapolis residents. “Politically, it was a very gutsy plan. All of a sudden, you’re saying to a single-family homeowner that your next-door neighbor can bulldoze their home and build a small apartment building in its place. Without the city’s real and meaningful attempts to engage the community, it’s hard to see how this plan would not have ended in a political firestorm,” said Goldsmith.

Ultimately, the arguments of zoning reform proponents won out, and the city council, with whom Frey had closely partnered to craft the plan, ultimately approved the proposal on a 12–1 vote. The Metropolitan Council, a regional policymaking body and planning agency that must provide the plan's final signoff before it can go into effect, is currently reviewing the plan. The council is expected to give its approval later this year.