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Tobias Peter, in his May 8 commentary "State housing bills are dead; time for local leaders to step up," advocates for taking away zoning protections from single-family homes so they can be demolished and replaced with apartments. Peter argues that zoning is holding back developers, and if we reduce zoning protections, the private marketplace will magically provide cheap and abundant housing.

This theory has been debunked by none other than the Urban Institute. It looked at 180 zoning reforms affecting density in 1,136 cities and found that changing zoning was associated with a less than 1% increase in housing supply within three to nine years of reform (tinyurl.com/land-use-reforms). This tracks with Minneapolis. The 2040 Plan, which dramatically reduced zoning regulations, has been in place since 2018 and has not produced dramatically more housing. But like many zombie ideas, the zoning idea just doesn't die.

In addition, the Urban Institute found no evidence that more low-cost housing was built, or that lower-cost housing became less expensive when zoning was reduced. This isn't surprising. The real reason new housing is so expensive is that the costs to build — lumber, copper, labor, etc. — have been increasing much faster than inflation. The private marketplace simply cannot produce deeply affordable housing, the housing critical for truly low-income persons. In Minneapolis, there has been an increase in deeply affordable housing, but only because the city has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies.

Peter argues there will be benefits from removing protections for existing homes. He argues tearing down existing buildings allows for new state-of-the-art energy-efficient buildings — ignoring the environmental cost of digging up copper and cutting down trees for that housing. He argues that new housing in predominantly white communities will allow people of color to leave poor communities — and become renters in white communities. He argues without zoning changes, infill development would not occur. Yet new housing is popping up all over in the suburbs and the region is meeting its housing goals (tinyurl.com/housing-goals). He argues zoning changes will bring density, yet the Twin Cities is forecast to grow only about 12% in the next 20 years, according to Metropolitan Council long-range forecasts. He also argues that housing will decline in value and thus become affordable over time. I would like to invite him to the Linden Hills neighborhood with its beautiful — and expensive — 100-year-old homes.

The most important thing that Peter misses is that what housing we build and preserve matters. In 2021, the Minnesota home ownership rate was 75.6%. In 2023, it was 74%, a decline of 1.6 percentage points in just two years (tinyurl.com/mn-homeownership). This represents half a billion dollars going to rent instead of building wealth for residents. This is fundamentally the wrong direction and policies like incentivizing the destruction of wealth-building housing will just worsen the situation.

We need to first redefine affordable housing. Advocates say anyone paying 30% or more of their income in rent has unaffordable housing. But at the end of the month, renters still have no equity. We should invest in "affordable" housing that helps people build wealth. We need to reorient affordable housing programs to support wealth-building instead of wealth-taking. Recently a commentary in the Star Tribune lauded the construction of 900 units of "affordable housing." ("Minnesota called for more housing. The Heights is an answer," April 29). But the subsidies went to the developer, not the residents. Imagine if those millions of dollars instead went to help people buy those units. Truly poor people could be on a path to building equity.

We need to protect, not destroy, existing home ownership by keeping single-family housing zoning in place. We need to reorient "affordable" housing programs to produce more wealth-building housing for people who are deeply poor. We need to trust that cities can figure out how to thoughtfully site new development without the meat cleaver of a state-mandated upzoning of single-family homes. Especially given the modest growth the state is going to face in the next 20 years.

The wealth of future generations depends on the decisions we make today.

Lisa McDonald, of Minneapolis, is a former City Council member and is one of the founding members of the citizen group Minneapolis For Everyone.