A Zoning Lesson Remembered

The city of Minneapolis has passed a 2040 plan that includes making triplexes permitted housing in every residential area in the city which were previously mostly single-family homes with a mix of duplexes in some areas. This change has many arguments for it and a few against it.

I recently wrote a reflection on my past efforts many years ago dealing with an effort to reduce - not increase zoning density in an effort to preserve the strength and vitality of single-family neighborhoods. It was published in the South Side Pride. https://southsidepride.com/2019/12/02/up-zoning-remembered/

Before being elected to the city council in 1973 at age 24, I was an elected and active member of the Minneapolis Model City Planning and Policy Board, which was made up of citizen representatives elected by precincts within the Model City area. This included a broad area roughly between Cedar and Lyndale and I-94 to around 38th Street - a large chunk of the city just south of the downtown central business district.

We had independent funding courtesy of Uncle Sam and split into four major cores, Housing, Social Services, Recreation and Public Safety, and Income. While I served on the Income core, with a personal focus on developing employment training programs, I became fully apprised of the issues determined as important in each of the other cores at our every two-week meetings.

Housing was a big deal. The Model City area was home to some of the oldest properties in the city, and rental demand was high as the leading edge of the baby boom was flooding the area due to its proximity to downtown jobs and for students the university. Rents were relatively low although increasing in the face of the burgeoning demand. The downside was that much of the housing was clearly substandard with most dating back to the 1800s and pre WWI era.

Photo by Jessica Furtney on Unsplash

As would be expected much of the attention was on ideas to upgrade the housing stock with loan and grant programs aimed at housing rehab, to political support for ideas like rent control, and tenants’ rights and ending redlining. New housing utilizing defensible space for security, and innovative ownership structures were investigated. Less flashy was an examination of just how the area slipped into decline.

People tend to like to find villains, and two were identified: Absentee landlords and two and a half story walkups.

While a significant majority of the entire area was already converted into rental properties, there were still sections of the neighborhoods I represented once elected to the city council that had a core of owner-occupied single-family homes and owner-occupied duplexes. These residents were concerned about their neighborhood and its short and long term prospects. They tended to fall into two groups: long term survivors and young urban pioneers, demographically the old and the young.

The young within the model city effort looked to the old to explain what had happened and why. They heard tales of one, and then another owner-occupied home on their block selling to investors as urban flight and the suburban life lured people away, not to be replaced by homeowners. Tales of tall grass and peeling paint diminishing the overall look of the neighborhood. And a cycle began, as one homeowner after another escaped before their property values declined further, except for those who could not or would not.

They told stories of developers acquiring two or three adjacent properties and then informing the adjoining neighbors that they would be building an apartment building and to either sell now or suffer the increase in traffic and unknown new neighbors next door. The process was called blockbusting, and it occurred throughout the area.

Photo by who?du!nelson on Unsplash

At that time, the entire residential area of my ward was zoned R-6 under the then in effect zoning. That was the highest possible density level and was the same as was required for the Cedar Square West high rise complex, also in my ward.

In essence, it was as if there were no zoning restrictions at all. The result was that many many blocks of previously all single-family or duplex housing were host to at least one apartment building — typically a two and a half story walk-up. This added to street congestion, increased mobility rates, and coincidental crime issues and a transformation of the neighborhood from being family-oriented to one less so.

Within my ward, the area with the strongest residual base of homeownership was in the Whittier neighborhood. Together with activists from the community, we began what was called a 40-acre study. This process was required because courts have ruled that a city cannot reduce the zoning on a property “capriciously.” Doing so would be limit the potential uses for a property, and fewer and less dense alternatives would make the underlying land less valuable.

Changing the zoning category and lowering its potential uses from high rise densities to that of single-family homes constituted an illegal taking of property rights from the property owners without compensation. The courts recognized the rights of cities to lower zoning as long as it was part of an overall reexamination of zoning over a sizable area rather than on a parcel by parcel basis. They settled on 40 acres as the minimum size needed to justify a city exercising its “police” powers in the form of restricting people’s rights to do what they will with their property.

This study required extensive community hearings and an in-depth look on a parcel by parcel basis at actual existing uses. Several well-attended neighborhood meetings ensured that the stakeholders in the community were informed and demonstrated support for the changes. By and large, community sentiment was to lower the area’s zoning to the dominant existing uses. The city council eventually passed the proposed changes.

The success of the first effort, lead to its replication throughout the rest of my ward and elsewhere in south Minneapolis.

The resulting zoning changes made homeownership a less risky endeavor in the “inner city” and may have indirectly assisted in improving the availability of mortgages in the area. As importantly, the process allowed citizens an active role in claiming and defending their neighborhoods. It is my belief these actions helped preserve the livability and quality of the areas housing stock and made the city a safer and more secure area in which to live.

In hindsight, if I were to go back and make a change to the results, it would have been to allow more density along arterial streets, while protecting the interior blocks. In the past, blanket higher zoning led to the disruption in the character of the neighborhood and led to disinvestment by owner-occupants. This, in turn, leads to an eventual decline in the quality of the housing stock. That is the lesson we learned back in the Model City days and remains true today.

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