This week, the Minneapolis City Council takes up the city’s comprehensive plan, which is intended to guide development through 2040. The plan has been the subject of bruising political battles for a year, and no one seems completely happy with the result.

But for all the compromises that have gone into the plan, it represents a significant step toward reducing housing inequality and residential segregation in the city. In particular, the plan’s proposal to allow by-right triplex construction in all Minneapolis neighborhoods should be understood as a landmark fair housing policy — a simple, effective and easily-administered change that will help erode major barriers to housing choice in the Twin Cities.

Residential exclusion has been a root cause of racial inequality in Minneapolis for many decades. In the first half of the 20th century, the city and private homeowners explicitly sought to bar families of color from the city’s most affluent quarters. Although overt racial discrimination is now illegal, many of Minneapolis’ richest areas remain virtually off-limits to lower-income residents today — because they contain no affordable units and few rental units of any kind.

The wealthiest half of Minneapolis neighborhoods contain barely a third of its rentals, less than a quarter of units with rent under $1,000, but over 70 percent of homeowner units.

One reason these divides have persisted for decades is that it’s almost impossible to create affordable housing in affluent Minneapolis neighborhoods. Most of the city’s wealthier areas are subject to land-use rules that require virtually every structure be a single-family home, and, on top of that, almost every lot is already developed. That means the number of housing units in those neighborhoods is effectively capped at present levels.

That leaves few avenues for adding smaller, more-affordable housing. One way is to purchase pre-existing units and rent them at affordable levels. But it’s prohibitively expensive to “downgrade” existing homes into cheaper units one-by-one — although wealthy residents often bulldoze existing homes to build larger, more expensive houses.

The other method for increasing affordability is to seek a special exemption from the city to build larger projects, with many new units. But here, too, the challenges have proven almost insurmountable. These developments cost tens of millions of dollars to build and take years to plan, and usually encounter neighborhood opposition. Faced with the reality of slow and expensive development, developers usually resort to building the most costly, profitable rental units they can. Working-class renters need not apply.

What cannot occur under existing law is exactly the process that would most help those working-class renters: organic, small-scale development, mostly conversions of existing buildings. These developments are unlikely to produce high profit margins — the wealthiest renters are unlikely to trade out gleaming lofts for basement apartments — but they give individual property owners the ability to put another unit or two in an existing house.

This is exactly the development the 2040 plan seeks to spur, by allowing up to three units on all lots in all residential areas.

In doing so, the plan raises the “cap” on the number of housing units in single-family areas, and creates significantly more opportunities for the private market to produce housing that’s affordable at moderate incomes. This, in turn, erodes segregation, because people of color are disproportionately likely to occupy that income range.

Opponents of the comprehensive plan contend that this will dramatically reshape the city. It may reshape living patterns, but history suggests that duplexes and triplexes can be invisibly integrated into Minneapolis neighborhoods. This is a far more delicate way of adding housing stock than the current practice of producing large numbers of units all at once in huge buildings.

These small-scale rental buildings are already present in most parts of Minneapolis — although their number is falling in recent years as opportunities for new development have diminished.

The comprehensive plan is not a panacea for housing inequality. But addressing part of the problem is better than addressing none of it at all. No matter how forward-thinking Minneapolis is today, it counts for little if the city’s land-use laws indefinitely perpetuate decades-old patterns of discrimination.

By adopting the comprehensive plan, Minneapolis shows that it’s willing to take action against its own pernicious legacy of segregation.

 

Will Stancil is an attorney and research fellow at the University of Minnesota.