To fight the affordable housing crisis, Tina Kotek wants Oregon to follow Minneapolis’ lead.
Kotek, Oregon’s speaker of the House, has proposed a bill to eliminate single-family zoning in cities of at least 10,000 people, allowing for fourplexes in residential neighborhoods. If passed, it would take the core policy Minneapolis enacted with its 2040 Comprehensive Plan last year and apply it to an entire state.
“When Minneapolis took the bold step to address their crisis, it created a sense of momentum,” said Kotek, a Democrat. “Minneapolis made it clear that the conversation was about addressing historical exclusion and took a big step toward building inclusive communities. That conversation resonates across the United States, and it resonates in Oregon.”
For cities across America threatened by the disappearance of affordable housing, Minneapolis has become a test case. It’s the first major city to take action to upzone its neighborhoods historically reserved for single-family homes.
Since the City Council’s 12-1 approval of the plan, which will allow duplexes and triplexes in all residential areas, Council President Lisa Bender has been speaking to government leaders from all over the country wanting to hear how Minneapolis did it.
“There’s been a lot of interest in our legislative process and how we were able to reach this nearly unanimous decision about a very controversial problem that is front and center in a lot of cities around the country,” Bender said.
With more than half of Minneapolis zoned exclusively for single-family residences, the plan captured the attention of the city in the months leading up to the vote. A vocal group of homeowners accused the city of selling out to developers who planned to bulldoze their neighborhoods. Other so-called YIMBYs — “Yes In My Back Yard” proponents — rallied in support of the proposal, and some criticized it for not going far enough. The city is also facing a lawsuit from a coalition that says the plan will damage the environment.
As the City Council begins to implement the new zoning policies, other cities will be watching to see what happens in Minneapolis — including how the plan plays come election time, said Jenny Schuetz, who researches housing policy for the Brookings Institution.
“Lots of cities that have affordability issues are watching Minneapolis to see how this plays out,” she said. “There’s also some wariness to see what happens to the council members who supported this, and the mayor, to see if there’s going to be a political backlash.”
California following, too
California is also poised to follow Minneapolis. This week, a high-profile bill to eliminate single-family zoning in much of the state passed a key hurdle in the Legislature.
The notion of nixing single-family-only neighborhoods comes as major American cities struggle to stay affordable places to buy or rent.
Since the end of the recession, rising home prices have outpaced incomes, driving a crisis across the country that’s pricing out low- and middle-income families. In San Francisco, the epicenter of the crisis, the median home costs $1.4 million, double the cost in 2012, according to Zillow.
“People are just finding that that growth comes with a big downside when it comes to affordability,” said California-based writer Patrick Sisson, who has a housing column on the real estate website Curbed. “And it’s really reaching a breaking point in some places.”
Affordable housing is now the dominant political issue in many cities, and long-term solutions have been elusive.
This, plus a low rental vacancy rate that’s driving up rents, laid the foundation for Minneapolis to pass the 2040 Comprehensive Plan last year.
Sisson believes others could learn from the Minneapolis process, including how the city engaged the public in dozens of forums in the months leading up to the City Council vote. In introducing the plan, the city pitched the public on how creating more housing could help desegregate neighborhoods, ease greenhouse emissions and streamline transportation.
“When you talk about this in a much wider sense, people can see how this will be a big benefit,” he said.
A four-letter word
Political leaders in Charlotte, N.C., were also paying attention when Minneapolis passed its Comprehensive Plan last year.
This spring, Charlotte’s planning director, Taiwo Jaiyeoba, invited Minneapolis planners Heather Worthington and Paul Mogush to speak to city and community leaders on how they did it.
Like Minneapolis, Charlotte has also struggled with rising home costs and a history of segregation perpetuated through housing. Jaiyeoba isn’t proposing eliminating single-family zoning altogether, but he believes allowing for more types of housing could solve some of these problems.
“People are still going to worry about change, because change is a four-letter word,” he said. “We just have to make sure we message this properly.”
The angry messages have already been coming in. But he’s maintained optimism from early signs of support as well, he said. “I have had real estate people, developers and some people who live in established older neighborhoods say, ‘Yes. It’s about time.’ ”