A needlessly racialized zoning fight offers some cautionary lessons for supporters of housing reform.
Howard Husock - City Journal - August 25, 2020
In the months before the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a small group was doing its best to spread the message that the city was deeply racist. They were not protesters or looters, or the organized African-American community of the city’s soon-to-be-burned North Side, but rather the mayor and city council. Their focus was what might have seemed an obscure and technical topic: zoning. They were led by one-time San Francisco city planner Lisa Bender, president of the city council, a position considered almost as powerful as that of the mayor.
“We’ve inherited a system that both for decades has privileged those with the most and forgotten the people that we really have left behind,” Bender said. “And housing is inextricably linked with income, with all these other systems that are failing, especially in Minnesota, people of color.” She put forth a plan to relax single-family zoning and to permit more multifamily home construction in a city that was—at least pre-George Floyd—attracting millennials and increasing its population, anomalously for the Upper Midwest. Mayor Jacob Frey shared Bender’s view. The city, he told Politico, was perpetuating “racist policies . . . implicitly through our zoning code.”
What might have been both an effective consensus reform and a change that could inspire other cities and suburbs to follow suit backfired, thanks to being tied—unnecessarily and unjustifiably—to alleged racism. The plan did not originate in the city’s black community, and black leaders in Minneapolis have not even mentioned it as part of what the city must do to expunge racism in the wake of Floyd’s death. It was driven by the city’s white progressive leadership.
Yet loosening land-use policy has appeal across the political spectrum, not just among progressive urbanists. Indeed, the Trump administration has committed itself to increasing construction and housing supply by making it easier to build. “Owning a home is an essential component of the American Dream,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson has said. “It is imperative that we remove regulatory barriers that prevent that dream from becoming a reality.” “We’re all hoping for Minneapolis to succeed,” said a representative for the National League of Cities in December, at a Department of Housing and Urban Development conference in Washington. The ingredients to build a coalition for change were in place.
Instead of seeking political consensus, those promoting Minneapolis 2040—a “comprehensive plan” that includes both the citywide rezoning and a “mandatory inclusionary-zoning” law, requiring apartment developers to include lower-priced units in every new building of 20 units or more—made the reforms inseparable from racial issues. As a result, the law divided liberals in this deep-blue city, which has been growing for the past decade, though its population remains well short of its 1950s peak; President Trump critiqued the plan as typifying a Democrat plot to destroy suburbs. Opponents of the plan, many of them residents of the relatively few neighborhoods where single-family homes predominate—though not to the exclusion of two and three-family homes—suddenly found themselves attacked as the heirs of Jim Crow, notwithstanding census data that clearly demonstrates significant racial diversity, even in the city’s affluent neighborhoods.
Thus, because of how the issue was framed, an inherently good idea—reassessing zoning for its effects in suppressing the housing market—became a hot-button issue. For supporters of housing reform—including in places that need it far more than Minneapolis—the city’s example offers some cautionary lessons.
Local zoning—more than any federal or state policy—is a key determinant of what kind of housing gets built, and where. In America’s pre-zoning era, city neighborhoods included a variety of housing types, from row houses and duplexes to bungalows and New England triple-deckers. Multifamily housing allowed households of modest means to use property ownership, along with rental income, to climb the economic ladder.
Since local zoning was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1926, however, it’s gone from being relatively flexible to needlessly restrictive in many places. The original architect of “model zoning law,” New York tenement reformer Lawrence Veiller, head of the National Housing Association, saw zoning as a way to keep residential and industrial uses separate, but he nonetheless assumed that residential areas would be economically diverse, with housing for both the affluent and the working class. That’s how things worked out in the pre-World War II years, when many new, higher-income “streetcar suburbs” made room for poorer neighborhoods. Developers of Shaker Heights, Ohio, for instance—considered America’s wealthiest municipality in the 1920s—complemented its mansion districts with a neighborhood of two-family homes. Wealthy residents and those of lower incomes lived in the same municipality, sharing its tax burden, public facilities, and community and political life.
Expanding suburbs and growing cities gradually took on a dramatically different form, however. As early as 1969, David Schoenbrod, then of Yale Law School, observed that newer developments lacked the traditional mixture of housing types. “On most undeveloped land around large cities,” he wrote, “minimum-lot size zoning prohibits all development save single-family dwellings on lots that are very large by traditional standards.” Schoenbrod saw accurately what lay ahead: “Bidding up housing prices wherever they go, those excluded further crowd the central city or move to the outer edges of the commuter belt, where zoning is typically more lenient. They consume land much faster than they would under free market conditions; and their dispersion increases expenditures on expressways and reduces the feasibility of mass transportation.” Half a century later, the “bifurcated society” that Schoenbrod warned about has come to pass in many American communities, especially in the Northeast and California’s Bay Area, where limited supply inflates housing prices and the preference for single-family construction makes it tougher for lower-income households to get a foothold in the housing market.
In a country with local control of land use, altering this now long-established trend toward single-family zoning can happen only if the political will exists to do so. In Minneapolis, a surprising local election result—a sharp turn left in the 2017 city council elections—laid the groundwork for such an effort: the Minneapolis 2040 plan.
Minneapolis 2040’s leading voice is Bender, chosen as city council leader by young progressives who have replaced five incumbents on the 13-member body. Rather than trying to persuade the affluent that relaxed zoning regulations might be in their interest, should they wish someday to downsize; or, in the interest of their adult children, looking for affordable places to live in the city; or beneficial to Minneapolis’s overall economic future, in order to accommodate newcomers, Minneapolis progressives racialized the housing issue.
Bender and allies pointed with alarm to a measure showing that Minneapolis has one of the greatest disparities between black and white household income in the U.S. As the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, aligned with the activists, put it, based on a Census analysis, “while conditions of blacks are frequently no worse in Minnesota than in other states, the disparity—the gap between whites and blacks—is among the largest in the nation.” To explain this, the newspaper attributed the gap to “special benefits made available over time to the white population,” referring to “redlining”—federal mortgage guidelines that hampered blacks from buying homes, in Minneapolis and most other American cities—but long since abolished. Radical corrective action was therefore needed to expand housing, especially in affluent, predominantly white neighborhoods.
It was against this backdrop that opposition to the plan wound up being vilified, at a public hearing, as “white pastoralism.” Such attacks stunned middle-class homeowners, many of whom considered themselves left-liberals. Opponents such as Rebecca Arons, a classical cellist who lives with her husband, a lawyer, in a 1914 craftsman-style home in the city’s Lake Harriet section, views herself as a “feminist and human rights advocate”—and certainly no racist. Yet suddenly, she was being likened to a segregationist. As Steve Cramer, head of the Minneapolis Downtown Council and a former city council member, observes, “there’s been a ‘blaming and shaming’ aspect of the discussion, which didn’t adequately separate historical decisions and motivations which had discriminatory intent from the current-day reality of homeowners who have invested in their property and neighborhood, and now were being found guilty by association with the past.”
The advocates’ arguments about latter-day segregation and racial disparity in Minneapolis don’t survive scrutiny. Like most American cities, Minneapolis has some identifiably white and identifiably black neighborhoods, but the contention that it is de facto segregated isn’t supported by numbers. The largest group of households in the Linden Hills neighborhood, for example, a pastoral district near a lake with many large homes on its shore and a center of opposition to “upzoning,” earns upward of $75,000 annually, the top category in Minneapolis city neighborhood data—but 4.3 percent of its households are African-American, compared with 7.4 percent for the metropolitan area as a whole. The Victory neighborhood is 18.3 percent African-American, and 40 percent of its population is in the highest-income category. It is both well-off and racially integrated.
Black poverty in the city is high, true, but Minneapolis has become a center for the resettlement of black refugees fleeing the civil war in Somalia, which strongly influences the numbers about racial wealth disparities. Minneapolis is now home to some 74,000 refugees—the largest concentration of Somalis in the nation. In the North Minneapolis Hawthorne neighborhood, among the city’s poorest, 38 percent of residents are black, and 21 percent are foreign-born. In the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, 44.5 percent of residents are black, and 42 percent of the population is foreign-born. Many of these people are black Africans—recent immigrants, not African-Americans with roots in slavery, Jim Crow, and redlining. Minneapolis has, in other words, been importing African poverty and thus creating ongoing disparities. That it has offered a home and opportunity to refugees should be celebrated. But the circumstances of these new residents should not be confused with any legacy of American racism.
Nor is Minneapolis a bastion of single-family homeowners, as reformers suggest. According to Census data, single-family homes account for only 42.9 percent of residential structures in the city. A mix of row houses and two-to-nine family structures make up another 20 percent, with the remainder comprising units in larger apartment buildings. The city—much of it built in the pre-zoning era—is already a model of mixed residential housing, in other words. That’s especially true compared, with, say, San Jose, California, which has the nation’s highest housing prices, and where single-family homes make up 65 percent of residential structures—or with outlying Minneapolis suburbs, not affected by the city’s restrictions on single-family zoning and potentially alienated by the arguments made for it. A prime example: affluent Shorewood, a postwar suburb, where zoning variation consists of little more than establishing varying lot sizes for single-family homes ranging from big (10,000 square feet) to bigger (20,000 square feet).
The middle-class urban neighborhoods of Minneapolis that have voiced the strongest opposition to the 2040 plan already are characterized by a fair amount of residential and racial diversity, suggesting that their residents are worried about neighborhood character, not about having more minority neighbors or seeing mid-block homes demolished for unsightly replacements. Calling them bigots isn’t going to win them over—and these neighborhoods aren’t done fighting. A new group, Smart Growth Minneapolis, led by Arons, is seeking to use environmental law to block the new zoning, on the grounds that the more “impermeable surface” created by new construction will create street runoff—and further pollute the city’s lakes, with their famously public beaches. Failing that, opponents may seek enactment of a more stringent state environmental-impact law—perhaps resembling the notorious California Environmental Quality Act, which has impeded untold Golden State developments. The victory of housing reformers could be undone by such regulatory activism, just as it could be undone by a change in the composition of the city council.
In Minneapolis, these conflicts were unnecessary. Permitting more small multifamily homes—the two-family structures that allow strivers and savers to climb—is a good idea. But by linking it to the history of American racism, supporters not only alienate white liberals but also misrepresent their constituents’ interests, for which older homeowners might feel sympathy, under the right conditions.
Supporters and opponents of Minneapolis 2040 represent notably different types of constituencies. Council President Bender represents a district she estimates as 80 percent renters; 2040 opponents mostly represent homeowners. Plan proponents tend to be younger—millennial progressives looking up, economically and perhaps pessimistically, at entrenched, older liberals. In the city’s Lowry Hill East area—home to many younger, well-educated newcomers, and boasting hipster bars, restaurants, and a great bikeway—57 percent of residents have a bachelor’s or graduate degree, but the largest percentage earn in the lowest income quartile (below $35,000). Children make up just 5.5 percent of the population. The 2040 plan has considerable support here, where one can find lawn signs for a group called Neighbors for More Neighbors.
These are younger households, many led by young, creative-class newcomers to one of the few growing cities in the Upper Midwest. The city should be attentive to their interests, which focus on housing affordability in a city where rents are rising (though they stand roughly at the national average). Kaley Brown, who heads a community organization, says that her members worry about whether they can afford to live in the city. “Housing, housing, housing,” she says. “That’s what they talk about.” These are Bender’s core constituency. Bender is concerned, she told me, about “servers and bartenders” not able to afford their rents, but her preferred solutions, in addition to the polarizing 2040 plan—such as bringing rent control to Minneapolis—will only worsen the problem.
By contrast, in Linden Hills, residents are also highly educated (69 percent hold bachelor’s or graduate degrees), but 59 percent are in the highest-income group. These are established, liberal, upper-middle-class families, and children account for 22 percent of the population. Here one finds “Don’t Bulldoze My Neighborhood” lawn signs. These residents see their economic interests threatened by new construction that might diminish the value of their properties. That could happen—more supply could reduce the value of existing homes, as could unattractive new construction. These concerns underscore the importance of approaching such constituencies with arguments that might persuade rather than alienate.
Neither Linden Hills nor Lowry Hill would likely vote Republican, but the 2040 plan has revealed a split in their interests, which the plan’s framing in terms of racial injustice did much to expose and nothing to bridge. Though plan proponents won this battle, making the quest for greater housing supply a racial conflict left deep wounds in Minneapolis’s civic life—which was then roiled further, of course, by the Floyd episode and its destructive aftermath. As a strategy, racializing housing reform is likely to fail in places like the city’s wealthy suburbs, where housing supply is far more constrained.
Consensus might have been achieved without unnecessarily casting the debate in terms of updated Jim Crowism. What would a better framing—indeed, a better rezoning policy—have looked like? One possibility: up-zoning without demolition. Kaley Brown observes that converting larger houses to multifamily use would help those in her neighborhood; bulldozing is not necessary. Indeed, a single-family home can be converted to a two or three-unit structure without changing its façade, only its interior. The streetscape would remain unaltered. Another possibility: advocates could have crafted a compromise that allowed up-zoning—and thus, more new housing—on commercial streets that adjoin areas zoned for single-family housing. Many plan opponents seemed open to such a deal. Given the actual density of Minneapolis, this would likely have sufficed to let the city keep expanding. Instead, advocates have needlessly sparked a pushback that might yet undo their plan.
City planners should also accept that there is nothing wrong with the construction of new, stand-alone lower-income neighborhoods—not public housing, nor even other forms of subsidized housing, but small homes built in dense clusters that make them “naturally affordable.” Building new housing in those parts of the city with the highest land costs will not provide housing for upwardly mobile households, including those of color. A “poorer side of town” should not be anathema to progressives. The commonalities of residents’ socioeconomic status can help foster a spirit of community, as those who defend historically black neighborhoods against gentrification implicitly accept. Yet Heather Worthington, Minneapolis’s director of long-range planning, says that she’d consider new, low-income districts a sign of “failure.” This worldview notably contrasts with that of residents of the looted South Side who, post-Floyd and post-riots, have emphasized such nuts-and-bolts needs as reopening a neighborhood Target.
Zoning wars are always among the fiercest in local politics, and Minneapolis has proved no exception, but the city’s housing battle has national relevance. America’s most economically productive areas are also the places with sky-high housing costs that make it hard for newcomers to live and work there. America needs its single-family suburbs, especially, to relax their zoning codes. That won’t happen if advocates attack these communities as “exclusionary” because of the styles and tastes that prevailed when they were built. Crying race may have allowed white Minneapolis officials to signal their virtue, but it will not help advance a worthy cause.
Howard Husock is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, contributing editor of City Journal, and author of America’s Trillion-Dollar Housing Mistake: The Failure of American Housing Policy.