A bipartisan group of Minnesota lawmakers blame local zoning practices for stifling the construction of affordable housing, and have proposed reining in how cities regulate development.
One bill would bar cities from dictating what materials homebuilders must use, or specifying that new homes have big garages — elements builders say drive up housing prices. Another would allow duplexes in any part of Minnesota zoned for single-family homes, and ensure cities are making room for higher density housing.
The legislation also takes aim at an increasingly common practice of approving developments under “planned unit developments,” essentially a negotiation between cities and developers outside of the normal zoning code. The bills would curb cities from using that process to demand extra fees or design changes.
The proposals are likely to meet fierce opposition among local leaders who say they must have control over how their communities grow.
The issue has made for unlikely bedfellows: The lead authors on one bill are Bloomington DFLer Rep. Steve Elkins and southern Minnesota Republican Sen. Rich Draheim.
“The whole goal here … is to get more affordable housing in local communities. And we have zoned that out,” Draheim said at a committee hearing last week. “Most cities do not have zoning for high-density affordable housing. And that’s what we’re trying to get at here.”
The reforms are supported by local homebuilders.
“The accumulation of all of these additional regulations over the last 10 or 20 years has really made it impossible for us to build affordable homes in this market,” John Rask, vice president for land at M/I Homes, a major homebuilder, told senators.
Rask said many communities require lots wider than 75 feet, vs. the 65-foot lots they typically build on. Other cities have large minimum garage sizes, which can change the entire design of a home.
“It’s not uncommon for that to add $30,000 to the cost of a home, just by something as simple as saying, ‘Well we want your garages to be two feet wider,’ ” Rask said.
Rask said they often have to use a planned unit development to get around restrictions, but cities may then ask for other things, like more expensive siding.
“The first-time home buyer, they’re ... trying to get in at a lower price point,” Rask said. “Spending money on materials that are above and beyond the building code is certainly a burden to them.”
Dave Unmacht, executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities, said land use planning is one of the largest responsibilities that cities have — and cities take it very seriously. He suggested asking mayors why certain policies were implemented.
“There was clearly and obviously a community need and a community interest, and our elected officials followed the … advice of the citizens and the people that are doing that work,” Unmacht said.
Unmacht, who was attending a National League of Cities meeting Monday in Washington, D.C., said similar efforts to tackle zoning powers are emerging in states across the country.
“If we need to have a comprehensive conversation about how we do this, let’s do that but in a productive, healthy way that encourages more flexibility and more creativity, not … taking away local control of our city councils,” Unmacht said.
He added affordable housing is a complex conversation with a lot of variables.
“We don’t believe that making changes to zoning and land use controls at this level and with these specifics are going to solve that problem,” Unmacht said of the bills. “There’s a lot more to it.”
Elkins said cities, which are very reliant on property taxes, have an incentive to zone land for development that generates more in taxes than they demand in public services — such as luxury homes.
Minimum lot sizes are a major culprit, he said. Bloomington, which he represents, requires a quarter-acre lot for most single-family homes. Other cities require half an acre, 1 acre or — at the edge of the metro — 2.5 acres.
“By requiring more land than necessary you are almost directly requiring that only expensive homes can be built in your community,” Elkins said. “And some cities are doing that.”
Elkins, a former Metropolitan Council member, said some cities designate high-density areas in their comprehensive plans, but don’t change the zoning to match it.
So when a developer seeks a rezoning, neighbors sometimes organize in opposition and persuade the city to request a change to the comprehensive plan to lower density, he said.
“You end up with multifamily housing developers who are thwarted repeatedly from developing additional multifamily housing in places where it’s clearly an allowed use in the comprehensive plan,” Elkins said.
The bill seeks to ensure cities make their zoning codes consistent with their long-term plans.
“It’s the [housing] supply more than anything else that will help reduce the prices and the rents,” Elkins said.
“We do have to build our way out of this problem and we can’t do that if every home that gets built needs a half an acre or an acre or 2.5 acres.”