Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, probably talking about zoning.
As housing prices and homelessness rates in growing cities like Portland continue to climb, city governments have begun experimenting with new policies to relieve their rent-burdened citizens.
The most recent—and most radical—example comes from Minneapolis, which became the first major US city to eliminate single-family zoning in December. This means that property owners will be allowed to construct buildings with up to three units—like a duplex or triplex—on property that was exclusively reserved for a single home.
The decision is expected to increase the number of affordable homes in Minneapolis, and reverse archaic zoning laws built to segregate the city’s diverse communities.
Minneapolis, like Portland, is overrun with residential buildings that fall into one of two categories: Massive apartment complexes or standalone houses built for a single family. What’s absent is what city planning wonks call “missing middle” housing—the type of residence that falls somewhere between these two polarizing categories, like a duplex, triplex, or a cluster of small standalone homes. These in-between buildings are considered the answer to skyrocketing rents, car-dependent neighborhoods, and creeping city sprawl.
But with restrictive laws that only allow the construction of massive apartments or single homes, cities are effectively banning this type of mid-sized housing.
Minneapolis is the first to approve this type of zoning reform at a citywide level, but it’s not the only city that’s taking it on. Portland City Council is slated to vote on a similar plan in 2019. In September, Portland’s planning commission approved a proposal to cap the size of all new Portland homes and allow a maximum of four units on one property. If approved, that means this plan would go further than Minneapolis’ zoning change.
It’s possible the Oregon State Legislature, however, might beat Portland to the punch. Shortly after Minneapolis City Council approved its zoning change in December, Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek shared plans to introduce a bill during the 2019 legislature that would require cities with over 10,000 residents to allow up to four units on property currently zoned for a single-family home.
To prepare us for this potential housing reform—at either the city or state level—the Mercury spoke with the top architect on the city’s zoning overhaul, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey.
Frey entered the mayor’s office just over a year ago with big promises to expand affordable housing and improve resources for the city’s houseless community. His immediate push to change the city’s zoning rules was met with both fanfare and resistance—many still think the change will clutter their neighborhood or ruin their views.
With the same arguments bubbling up in Portland, we asked Frey how he navigated the conversation and put the promise of longterm housing affordability before petty complaints.
(Editor’s Note: The Mercury’s questions have been edited for clarity)
Portland Mercury: What inspired you to take on single-family zoning in the first place?
Mayor Jacob Frey: Minneapolis has a long history of very intentional segregation. After the Civil Rights Act was passed and it became illegal to explicitly make decisions based on race, a lot of that tendency shifted toward our zoning code. I believe the precision of the solutions need to match the precision of the harm initially inflicted. And that harm was precise.
Mercury: The city council approved this plan with a 12-1 vote. Did you have that kind of support from the beginning?
Frey: I would say that it shifted over time. A lot of it is education and understanding around what the plan does and does not do.
Mercury: What were the biggest misconceptions?
Frey: Minneapolis is not bulldozing any neighborhoods. Right now in Minneapolis, you are allowed to knock down a small, single-family, relatively affordable ranch home and put up a mansion. That’s already allowed right now. All we’re saying is that in addition to putting up a mansion, you can also put up something more affordable.
There are large swaths of our city zoned exclusively for single-family, which means that unless you’re able to build a really big home on a really big lot, you can’t live in that neighborhood. I believe in a beautiful diversity of socio-economic backgrounds in every neighborhood. I believe in affordable housing amidst middle and upper income, and in order to do that, you have to first allow for it.
Mercury: Any other major roadblocks you met along the way?
Frey: It’s funny in that, especially in liberal cities like Minneapolis and Portland, people are all for affordable housing conceptually, at the macro level. But as you start talking about putting it in anywhere near the vicinity where they live, there’s pushback.
Sometimes, the only thing people hate worse than the status quo is any change at all. In our case, like Portland, change is necessary.
Mercury: Traditional single-family neighborhoods aren’t always the most accessible for people without cars. How does public transportation play into this plan?
Frey: If you’re concerned about transporting a new population from their home to work… that’s a fair concern. We need to build out our transportation system and that needs to grow part and parcel with growth. At a certain point, it does become a chicken or an egg thing. But we weren’t going to be chicken about it.
Mercury: That was a great joke. Can you tell us how you crafted this plan without having any other city examples to base it off of?
Frey: The reality of it is that we are entering uncharted territory. But it’s territory that needs to be entered if you plan on making any sort of difference. The issue I’m perhaps most passionate about is pushing back on very intentional segregation, which is exactly what this does.
Mercury: Private developers can have considerable sway over city zoning decisions. What did they have to say about this major change?
Frey: We did not hear anything from developers about this plan. It wouldn’t necessarily be an issue for large-scale developers since you can already build skyscrapers downtown. People talk about wanting community-oriented development. My question is: How do you define that? Are you talking about more locally-owned operations that have the ability to offer two or six or eight units [of housing], not 350? That’s what this allows.
Mercury: This plan is, in part, meant to expand affordable housing in Minneapolis. How quickly do you see that development and affordability in Minneapolis?
Frey: Development is impacted by a hundred different facets. Zoning is one of them. It’s long-term change that we’re focused on. You won’t see dramatic shifts in the next two years. Is the comprehensive plan going to create affordability in and off itself? No. But it is an important tool when used in conjunction with subsidy and the creation of more low-income housing throughout the city.
Tackling intentional segregation is something that we in Minneapolis wanted to confront, and it’s an issue where we’re not alone. Many cities have this dynamic and I would hope that many cities are up to the challenge.
Mercury: Anything unexpected or uniquely important you learned from this process?
Frey: People care about their neighborhoods, and I love them for it. They are in love with the unique characteristics that make their neighborhood special. Those characteristics can and will remain, while also allowing a city to evolve. Cities evolve, and we need to make sure that ours evolves in a way that accommodates people who need homes.
If I could offer any advice to Portland, it’s that the conversation is going to be difficult, but it’s one worth having and it’s important. Is our city universally pleased with outcome? No. But universal pleasure is not what you aspire to achieve.