Single-family zoning hurts a lot of people. In Minnesota’s largest city, reformers put them front and center.
Tomorrow the Minneapolis City Council is slated to do something long considered impossible in American politics: end single-family zoning in an entire city. The council provided preliminary approval to the plan in December by a 12–1 vote.
If the policy is approved, as expected, it could mark a major turning point nationwide. Social scientists broadly agree that bans on multifamily housing are bad for housing affordability, bad for racial inequality, and bad for the environment. Yet there has been a broad political consensus that changing these long-entrenched policies is out of the question. In neighborhood debates about planning and zoning policy, the loudest voices usually belong to people who are satisfied with the status quo. The vaguest of not-in-my-backyard objections from wealthy homeowners—who attend public meetings and regularly vote—are often enough to thwart the construction of new housing.
What’s happened in Minneapolis is different—and so unusual that my colleagues at the Century Foundation and I undertook a detailed review of how and why reformers prevailed. In Minneapolis, housing advocates have succeeded by shifting the focus of public discussion toward the victims of exclusionary zoning. More important, advocates also showed public officials and their own fellow citizens just how numerous those victims were.
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