To relieve a worsening shortage of housing, Minneapolis planners have suggested allowing the construction of four-unit apartment buildings in virtually any neighborhood.
City Council members have been briefed on the plan, which could transform vast swaths of the city now limited to single-family homes.
Increasing residential density to accommodate a growing population and drive down the cost of housing in Minneapolis was a campaign priority for Mayor Jacob Frey and Council President Lisa Bender. The proposal to lift zoning restrictions in single-family neighborhoods is one part of a draft comprehensive plan, which the city will release later this month. The plan won’t be approved until December.
On Tuesday, Bender and Frey said the comprehensive plan has been years in the works and will be subject to extensive public comment. They declined to speak directly to the proposal to rewrite zoning rules to allow fourplexes on property across the city.
“You can’t create more housing options if you don’t allow for them,” Frey said. “Now’s the time to have the conversation. Not to make a decision, but to have the conversation.”
Density is already a flash point across the Twin Cities, with neighborhood groups often fighting aggressively against new apartment buildings. The latest dust-up was over the Sons of Norway project in Minneapolis’ East Calhoun neighborhood, a 319-unit development a few blocks from Bde Maka Ska.
The majority of the city is now zoned either for single- or two-family homes, and rewriting the rules to allow fourplexes on those properties would be a historic shift.
Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins, who represents several south central neighborhoods, reiterated that nothing in the plan is final but said she was raised in Chicago in small-scale multifamily homes. Having renters was a means for her family to pay the mortgage, and the extra space allowed them to take in extended family who needed a place to stay, she said.
“That was just my milieu,” she said. “My family always owned multifamily housing, so I see it as a way to build wealth in families.”
When it comes to the prospect of fourplexes dotting neighborhoods in Minneapolis, Jenkins said, “I do think there will probably be some pushback from communities.” She said she gets both sides of the argument and that change is difficult.
“If you want to keep your four-bedroom home, more power to you,” Jenkins said. “But we’ve got to have more housing options for people.”
Council Member Andrew Johnson, who represents the southeast corner of south Minneapolis around Minnehaha Falls, said the idea would go over with his constituents “like a lead balloon.”
He said that he is pro-density but that fourplexes should be confined to commercial areas and blocks along bus routes or light rail lines.
“My concern is a policy that will inadvertently accelerate the destruction of affordable starter homes,” Johnson said. “Ward 12 has historically been an affordable neighborhood for families to get their first home, and we want to keep it that way.”
Razing a home and constructing a four-unit apartment building on the lot will be cost-prohibitive for most residents, he said.
“You’re not going to turn that single-family into a fourplex unless you’re making a substantially large paycheck,” Johnson said. “Investors will primarily benefit by snapping up starter homes and turning them into rental units.”
Most new housing built in Minneapolis in recent years is in or near downtown, Uptown and the University of Minnesota, but that is starting to change.
Faced with a growing population, rising rents and little money to pay for low-income housing, the City Council is hoping greater supply will help meet demand and slow the rise of prices. The city has cut several land-use regulations in recent years and regularly bends zoning rules so developers can build more multifamily housing in more places.
Bender said the council directed staff to draft a plan that works toward meeting 14 goals, one of which is making the city more affordable. The council won’t approve the plan, called Minneapolis 2040, until December.
“I’m glad to hear that staff is taking our directives seriously and proposing ideas to meaningfully address our housing affordability problem,” Bender said. “I’m looking forward to reviewing staff’s draft. There will be months of public comment and months more of official public feedback.”
Frey said given how much work has gone into the comprehensive plan, it is a “disservice to the entire city to drop-kick the conversation before it’s begun.”
“This is touching on so many facets of our city and can’t be reduced to one single element of a draft that hasn’t even been released yet,” Frey said. “It is a long runway.”
Council Member Cam Gordon, who represents the area around the University of Minnesota and part of the Seward neighborhood, said it’s crucial for the city to plan for increased density.
He said he is concerned about unintended consequences from allowing owners to build fourplexes anywhere, and he worries that cheaper homes in neighborhoods that need starter homes would be the first to get torn down to make way for fourplexes.
“I don’t have confidence and faith in the free market to be fair in those types of things,” Gordon said. “It’s a good discussion point to have. I’m glad we have a few months to do that before we come up with a final comp plan.”