A hundred people crowded into a back room at Gluek’s bar on Tuesday to mobilize for what they view as the most pressing issue in Minneapolis: zoning.
They clinked beers and shouted over the downtown bar’s din to support Neighbors for More Neighbors, a group that is pushing for greater housing density in the city and aiming to convert what is often the defensive posture of pro-density advocates into a proactive campaign.
The group is energized by a proposal revealed last week to allow fourplexes in virtually every neighborhood in Minneapolis, an idea that some City Council members already predict will meet with formidable opposition.
“We are here to make change,” Janne Flisrand, one of the group’s organizers, told the group at Gluek’s. “We want everyone to have secure housing in Minneapolis and across the region, and we need your help.”
New housing projects that make Minneapolis more densely populated almost always run into vocal opposition from neighbors who can fill a meeting room with people complaining about parking and traffic. As the City Council prepares to unveil a draft comprehensive plan next week, Neighbors for More Neighbors is aiming to add voices in favor of a more thickly populated city.
“That’s the idea, to shift the dynamic,” said Ryan Johnson, a web developer who’s leading Neighbors for More Neighbors. “The default view on new development is opposition, and we believe that we need all the housing we can get.”
Opposition to the fourplex idea, which is one part of the lengthy draft document, will likely be stiff. About two-thirds of the city is zoned to prohibit construction of anything larger than a duplex, and some people in neighborhoods want to keep it that way.
Those in attendance at the Neighbors for More Neighbors kickoff on Tuesday see the current zoning code as “exclusionary.” They broke into discussion groups to talk about what motivated them to attend the gathering and what they believe are the ingredients of a successful social movement.
Mayor Jacob Frey strode into the room around 8 p.m., grabbed a mug of beer and later stood on a bench to speak.
“When you introduce what is undoubtedly one of the most forward-thinking comprehensive plans in the country, you kind of wonder how it’s going to go over,” Frey said. “Walking through this door and seeing this crowd was one of the most heartening things I’ve seen.”
Neighbors for More Neighbors started with Johnson and John Edwards (better-known on Twitter as WedgeLive) creating memes, video and art about zoning and density, including posters with messages like “I Want To Upzone” or “Don’t Coon Rapids Northeast.” The art attracted attention from the national YIMBY (yes in my backyard) movement. A reaction to the NIMBY (not in my backyard) reflex, YIMBY has attracted young, pro-development housing activists across the country, especially in San Francisco, one of the tightest and most expensive housing markets.
One poster Johnson created showed a happy couple hugging for the camera, but said, “You can’t always tell if he believes in single-family zoning. If he mentions ‘neighborhood character,’ it’s time to talk about zoning. If he starts to gripe about ‘renters not contributing to the neighborhood,’ it’s time to talk about zoning.”
When the fourplex proposal was reported last week, Edwards created a “Fourplex Explainer” video with ominous music that uses a professional wrestler to personify “exclusionary zoning,” and then superimposes a fourplex over the wrestler’s head as he’s body-slammed to the mat.
Behind the whimsy is the belief that greater housing density is a moral imperative.
Johnson said the status quo, in which about two-thirds of the surface area of the city is zoned for single-family homes or duplexes, is a relic of racial segregation. Proposals such as allowing fourplexes nearly everywhere would make neighborhoods more affordable and economically integrated and help chip away at the city’s notorious racial inequality, he said.
“This is a big chance to right a lot of historic wrongs,” Johnson said of the comprehensive plan. “One of the things that we’re doing here is trying to push back on modern zoning, which is in a sense the grandchild of racist redlining laws.”
Beyond the social justice argument, Johnson and his allies at City Hall and in the community believe that more homes in the city will put pressure on landlords to keep prices down. Another concern is climate change, and helping the city to develop in ways that allow people to drive less. More types of housing would lead to more density, which would support more grocery stores and pharmacies and restaurants within walking or cycling distance of more residents.
Flisrand, a former City Council candidate and fourplex owner in Lowry Hill, said her neighborhood has gotten too expensive for many current residents to stay. Most people don’t think about zoning, she said, but once they do, they are interested, and most people don’t notice the fact that there are already grandfathered fourplexes in neighborhoods across the city.
“It’s really important to speak up for the need for more housing,” Flisrand said. “Because we just don’t have enough.”
Johnson said the group has a list of about 150 people who’ve signed up to receive e-mails alerting them to show up for meetings or to write public officials in support of new projects.
Few people in the city will be paying more attention to the details of the comprehensive plan when a draft is released on March 22.