As a city-planner-turned-land-use-and-city-attorney, I have had the opportunity to practice at the intersection of land use, development and land economics. That experience, and my lifetime as a Minneapolis resident, frame my comments on the Minneapolis 2040 plan and planning process.
The Minnesota Land Planning Act mandates that each of the 105 municipalities in the seven-county metro area undertake a decennial comprehensive plan update. The act mandates that each plan address minimum elements, including land use, transportation, sewers, water supply and parks/open space. The customary planning process starts with an inventory of these elements.
For many decades, the Minneapolis City Council has delegated area planning to the neighborhoods from West Broadway to Linden Hills to Marcy-Holmes. While there is a need to coordinate many important functions across the city, this delegation of neighborhood empowerment has produced the city we know today. Those neighborhood plans will be substantially pre-empted with the new, centralized Minneapolis 2040 plan.
The 2040 plan proposes a radical reconfiguration of the land-use patterns in Minneapolis to include districts with “very high” densities up to 800 dwelling units per acre and permitting, as a right, moderate-density apartments (fourplexes) in virtually all single-family neighborhoods. The policy pretext for these sweeping changes is offered to solve the “affordable housing crisis” and “create a more vibrant, dense metropolis.” That densification will result in affordable housing is driven by an argument advanced with absolute certainty based upon an unproven theory — that Minneapolis can use “density” to achieve housing affordability. The evidence from every other North American city shows the opposite: that density is associated with less affordability, in part because building bigger and higher costs more per unit.
This radical land-use experiment will cost Minneapolis our most affordable homes, because developers are in the business of maximizing profits. Free to build where they want (instead of where the city should encourage greater density), developers will tear down the lowest-priced homes. These teardowns will be replaced with investor-owned rental fourplexes, which will be more expensive than the houses that were removed, in part because the price of the new housing must include the cost of the housing that was bulldozed.
On March 21, at a meeting of the Lambda Alpha International Land Economics Society, Heather Worthington, the planning manager for Minneapolis 2040, declared that “millennials are not interested in homeownership.” This point of departure of the city’s chief planner contradicts the realities of the largest demographic generation in U.S. history. The front edge of the millennials did face severe headwinds starting their careers with record student debt and the Great Recession. Abbe Will, a research analyst at Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, reports that upward of 70 to 80 percent of millennials say, “I want to own a home someday.” Fannie Mae’s National Housing Survey (November 2017) placed that preference for homeownership of current renters ages 25-34 at 93 percent. Such a disconnect between the 2040 plan’s chief architect and the reality of the data is troubling. The policy now being advanced is designed to be self-fulfilling by destroying the starter homes in Minneapolis that could anchor millennials with kids to our city neighborhoods.
The architects and supporters of Minneapolis 2040 have submitted a plan that embraces the guiding principles of the “YIMBY” (“Yes In My Back Yard”) movement. The core of YIMBYism calls for densification as the solution to many of our social ills, especially affordable housing. Minneapolitans are being forced to participate in an experiment in this latest fad in new urbanism. Unfortunately, the peer-reviewed research and empirical data validating the promises of densification do not exist. Be forewarned: Anyone who dares to question the YIMBY promises runs the risk of being branded selfish, elitist or racist. See: “Rise of the Yimbys: The Angry Millennials with a Radical Housing Solution,” the Guardian, Oct. 2, 2017 (tinyurl.com/guardian-yimby).
There are completely foreseeable, unintended consequences of wholesale densification. For example, the addition of fourplexes in single-family neighborhoods (with no off-street parking) will first push out the most affordable owner-occupied single-family houses. The cookie-cutter fourplexes owned by real estate investment trusts will replace affordable homeownership. Additionally, the role of speculators will invariably overshadow house investment by single-family homeowners. This paper recently chronicled hundreds of vacant and boarded houses in the city. One speculator alone owned 87 vacant residential properties on the North Side. The YIMBY solution suffers from a failure to confront these realities. This pattern of speculation is an early stage of gentrification.
City Council President Lisa Bender is promoting “inclusionary zoning” in the 2040 plan. Inclusionary zoning is YIMBY code for little or no zoning. Virtually every city in North America has some form of exclusionary zoning. Exclusionary zoning excludes certain uses by district, not by people. The notable exception to this general zoning principle is Houston. Enough said.
Minneapolis 2040 fails to take into account the fact that every critical element of our city’s infrastructure is broken or underfunded. Planners refer to the “carrying capacity” of infrastructure. Pick an essential municipal function — parks, public safety, transportation, schools, transit, stormwater management — all challenged, underfunded and in need of improvement. Some fall short more desperately than others to meet present needs and those of the next generation. Planners call this the “need gap.” Minneapolis 2040 fails to address the need gap of our city’s investment in basic infrastructure.
But more than anything else, the greatest shortcoming of Minneapolis 2040 is that it is a divisive document rather than an expression of goals and policies that unify our city. Minneapolis is a wonderfully rich tapestry of diverse communities. A comprehensive plan should not be a source of culture wars in the blogosphere or council chambers. The next plan should be a document we rally around and celebrate. We should expect more from our city leaders.
Tim Keane lives in Minneapolis and practices real estate, land-use and eminent-domain law.