💡How can Minneapolis improve its housing policy?

When we went from publishing memes to doing advocacy work in 2017, we published this post as a policy grab bag of things Minneapolis could or should consider pursuing. Since then, we went on to advocate for the Comp Plan, publishing some updated policy reviews of individual topics: Housing Displacement, Expanding Ownership, Housing & Development Near Transit, Tenant Protections, and Access to Housing. None of this is exhaustive, but all of it is a good summary on particular policy areas. We’re leaving the original post up below, but note that some things may be a little outdated.

At Neighbors for More Neighbors, we take housing policy seriously, as you can see from our humorous collection of pro-housing posters. To clarify where we stand on policy, we have developed our own comprehensive plan for zoning reform.

We believe in housing for all. We believe in ending exclusionary zoning. We believe in mixed-use zoning. We believe in raising height limits and decreasing setbacks. We believe zoning is currently a powerful tool of institutional racism, and we believe in dismantling that power. We believe that increasing the amount of housing units available in all neighborhoods can help make entire cities affordable. We believe firmly in preventing displacement.

This means we support naturally-occurring affordable housing, government-subsidized affordable housing, and privately built market-rate housing. We strongly believe renting is nothing to be ashamed of, whether it’s by choice or circumstance; we support homeownership; we believe in apartments, condos, townhomes, senior housing, and supportive housing. Because we are merciful, we believe that if you like your single family home, you should get to keep it! We support government-funded housing, and we support privately-funded housing. We believe more people living in urban areas is greener than sprawl, and we believe that supply and demand are linked. We believe we are in an environmental crisis that demands change, and some of these changes will be in our approach to housing policies.

We believe Minneapolis is experiencing a housing shortage, as evidenced by rising rents and low vacancy rates. We believe that housing policies of the last several decades have been intentionally implemented and maintained by now rich landowners, who are disproportionately represented in land-use discussions and policy.

If you want to join in and help us achieve our goals, sign up for the mailing list, like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter. A lot of the work requires countering a vocal minority that maintain exclusionary housing policies, and we can’t do that without you!

Policy Goals

Below is our platform for zoning reform. When we talk to our friends about zoning, this is what we tell them. Guiding these principles is the belief that overly restrictive zoning leads to: 1) less housing being built; 2) housing that is more expensive to build, rent, and buy.

While comprehensive zoning reform isn’t a panacea, we believe that removing zoning-related obstacles to housing affordability will lighten the workload of affordable housing advocates fighting for precious government funding. The problem is too big. Solving it requires a team effort, and a willingness to embrace good ideas from across the spectrum.

Note that this will be an evolving document. We hope for it to serve as a guide for local housing advocates in Minneapolis (yes, and St. Paul!)

Overview of sub-topics:

  • End Exclusionary Zoning
  • More Affordable Housing
  • Renters’ Rights
  • More Paths to Wealth
  • Mitigate Residential & Commercial Gentrification
  • More of the Missing Middle
  • Accessibility & Aging in Place
  • The Process

End Single Family Zoning

Single-family zoning is the biggest roadblock when it comes to providing access to jobs, schools, public transit, or even quiet and clean air. A large chunk (greater than 60%) of Minneapolis is zoned this way, and parts of Minneapolis formerly were not, but have been intentionally restricted in the amount of housing they can provide. Advocates of this have spent the past few decades working to keep more people out of their neighborhoods, causing displacement and gentrification, with an ideology that defines legally permissible housing as being between one building and one family. While single family homes may be appropriate for some people, they are not appropriate for all people, and restricting whole neighborhoods to this type of housing is exclusionary and must be changed to permit more types of housing.

Single-family zoning is tied to a culturally-specific conception of traditional family structures. But not all cultures have the same definitions of family or family size, and single-family zoning in Minneapolis has strict occupancy limits. If we want to be more welcoming to diverse ideas of families, our housing policy needs to reflect that. If we’re going to be a sanctuary city, we must recognize that family structures of new immigrants may not be reflected in zoning and building code.

Source: https://oldurbanist.blogspot.com/2015/12/single-family-zoning-in-seattle-and.html

Things we can do:

  • Allowing conversions of single family homes even to duplexes and triplexes will create much needed housing
  • Anti-McMansion measures: allow residential infill by allowing construction of smaller single-family buildings
  • Duplex & triplex conversions create more job and business opportunities for small developers that are locally rooted and aware of their communities’ needs
  • Allow more mid-sized construction and a greater diversity of housing types (see below: missing middle)
  • Occupancy limits in Minneapolis are defined in two places, building code and the zoning code and are also quite restrictive. This must be changed and simplified.
  • Re-legalize boarding houses, these were outlawed as a part of downzoning to “protect” single-family neighborhoods
  • Remove the homeownership requirement from the Accessory Dwelling Unit policy — currently the single or two-family home must be occupied by the owner to permit an ADU.
  • Zoning near shorelines is incredibly restrictive, and part of this is enshrined in state law, specifying a low limit (no more than 25%) to the amount of housing on shorelines that may be duplexes, triplexes or fourplexes.
  • Permit more types of housing, generally

More Affordable Housing

In Minneapolis we aren’t currently building much affordable housing: housing for people below a certain threshold of area median income, and below market-rate. There are some projects underway, but we need much more. We also need more buildings and housing projects that are mixed income: including units that are market-rate, and affordable, yet private developers alone shouldn’t be forced to solve affordable housing issues.

Historically and presently, affordable housing is the most likely type of housing to be opposed. Neighboring cities also have a particularly bad track-record for denying mixed-income and affordable housing, and bargaining them out of existence. On the other side of that coin, “gentrification” is often a complaint of wealthy property owners who couldn’t possibly be gentrified from a neighborhood, but are happy to use affordability concerns as a cudgel against the idea of any multifamily housing in their backyard (we’re speaking of white people in half million dollar single family homes).

We need more affordable housing, we must pursue:

  • Expanding the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. We currently have $10 million allocated, we could do far better. Denver will allocate about $150 over the course of 10 years ($15mil/year), and Denver is looking to do more.
  • Streamlining and speeding up approval and permitting processes for affordable housing projects (may require state level legislative intervention)
  • Funding or financing the purchase of at-risk Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing to keep it affordable
  • Expanding the tax base (more neighbors pay more taxes!) so that we can increase funding for the above policies as well as other programs that keep Minneapolis affordable to more people.
  • A more equitable system of land-value tax, for land values above a certain threshold (would require legislative intervention to allow cities to institute their own taxes).

Renters’ Rights

In Minneapolis, renters are excluded from many important land use discussions, and marginalized by the belief that they do not contribute to the neighborhoods they live in. While we don’t claim to speak for all renters, we believe exclusionary zoning is built upon an exclusionary political process. Empowering renters is an important part of fixing that problem.

Recent events in the Whittier neighborhood of Minneapolis have also made it clear renters need more advocates. We cannot simply rely on social media outrage to save people from being displaced by the renovation, and subsequent large rent increases, in older apartments. Rent stabilization (e.g., a cap on the percentage of rent increase allowed) is one potential stopgap solution to situations like this.

However, rent stabilization does not address the root cause of the problem: a shortage of available housing for all income levels. Even under the best of all policy worlds, some people will be left behind by the housing market. We believe rent stabilization and just cause eviction policies could go together to ensure that no one can be de facto “evicted” by extreme rent increases, or evicted for petty reasons because a landlord wants to renovate and upscale an apartment.

Minneapolis also recently instituted an Intentional Communities Ordinance as a way to allow unrelated adults living together as a community a way to exceed “family”-based occupancy limits. While some advocates (not to name names, but it was us!) successfully fought against the initial draft of the ordinance for less restrictive language, we can still do better when it comes to occupancy restrictions.

  • Remove occupancy limits from being defined twice by the city: in the zoning code and in the building code
  • Renters’ first right of refusal: in the event that landlords opt to sell the land, renters should be given the opportunity to purchase or lease
  • Dedicating more funds for preserving naturally occurring affordable housing if a landlord opts to sell the land
  • We support exploring a local inclusionary zoning policy, with the caveat that inclusionary zoning policies have not had impressive results nationally. We must be careful to do this in a way, possibly incentive-based, that does not counterproductively discourage the creation of more housing.
  • Guaranteed housing if kicked out for redevelopment
  • Relocation fee assistance
  • Stronger regulations & enforcement of building code
  • “Just Cause” eviction ordinance
  • Establish a means to ensure landlords engage in equitable renting practices (See: housing discrimination against same-sex couples and trans people)
  • Removal of cisheteronormative ‘family’ language in occupancy restrictions
  • Creation of a Renter Advisory Committee to the City Council
  • Redo processes for involvement: as part of the Neighborhood Revitalization Program, the city has funded a system of neighborhood associations (that primarily function as homeowners associations), many of which presently use city money to organize opposition to new housing. This process is overwhelmingly white, rich, and populated by landowners, leaving out the voices of everyone else. This is a power structure that reinforces the existing inequities in our society, and it must be dismantled.
  • Rent increase caps as an emergency stop-gap measure to protect against displacement (see: Whittier neighborhood & CPM), while recognizing rent increase caps alone are not the solution. If this becomes a primary strategy to prevent displacement and keep rents low: it will stifle housing investment, lead to discrimination against long-term residents, disadvantage new residents or existing residents looking for a shrinking pool of available housing.,. It’s also important to note: rent control is prohibited by state law, which requires municipalities to pass rent control by ballot measure.

More Paths to Wealth & Entrepreneurship

Property ownership is one of the few paths to wealth that our society provides. But Minneapolis doesn’t have a lot of room to build new single family homes, and single family homes are increasingly out of reach for many. We must also recognize this as a consequence of colonialism: we live on unceded land, and yet we’re forcing people into a colonialist and patriarchal idea of land-ownership for wealth. We need more paths to wealth for more people.

An overarching problem of course, is that zoning prohibits many types of property and productive (profitable) uses. Restrictive zoning also creates bureaucratic hurdles for someone interested in starting a small business or open a new retail space in their neighborhood.

Ways to help:

  • Pursuing policies that encourage the construction of more condos, making homeownership more affordable
  • Allowing certain mixed-uses by-right in more zoning classes
  • Allowing more neighborhood-scale, small retail and commercial
  • Allowing more pop-out storefronts, in neighborhood interiors
  • Allowing more live-work units (sharing home/small-biz mortgage rather than having two mortgages is great, and this eliminates a barrier to wealth)
  • Legalizing owner-occupied rooming houses
  • Making AirBnB fully legal
  • Supporting Community Land trusts (Minneapolis: http://www.clclt.org/what-is-a-land-trust/), which can include not only homes and townhomes, but condos

Mitigate Residential & Commercial Gentrification

We need to mitigate commercial gentrification, particularly in so-called “transitional neighborhoods,” where existing residents risk being left without services they depend on as wealthier residents and businesses move in. We cannot stop wealthy people from moving in, but we can stop the impact this has, and prevent businesses and people from being completely displaced from neighborhoods.

Our current zoning code unfairly discriminates against certain neighborhoods. Zoning makes wealthy, single-family areas off limits to new housing development. As a result, in other desirable neighborhoods with more liberal zoning, development booms are intense, magnifying any effects of development-induced gentrification.

The solution to this is allowing all our neighborhoods to grow. Every neighborhood has an obligation to welcome our new neighbors to a more equitable and affordable city. Similarly, the zoning code does a disservice to the residents of many neighborhoods by denying them access to retail, convenience stores, pharmacies and other important services.

  • Allow more commercial uses in new and existing buildings, by-right
  • Allow more small business nodes in neighborhood interiors (some neighborhoods in Minneapolis completely lack corner stores, but have plenty of residents who would be well-served by them)
  • Note: if upzoning creates certain permitted uses widely agreed to be harmful (gas stations, gun shops, TGI Fridays), the zoning classifications should be modified.

More of the Missing Middle

Minneapolis has seen a fair amount of large-scale development downtown and in Northeast, which has raised some concern about development as a whole. If you look at what is happening downtown, you might think “the monstrosities” are coming for your quiet little single-family block.

Mid-sized development helps provides the added population to support more walkable neighborhoods with more retail destinations and other amenities. This often means smaller units, lower off-street parking requirements, simple and lower-cost construction. Those ideas might sound scary to some, but it’s not a mega-tower. And don’t forget the main idea here: people need places to live!

Current zoning makes it outright illegal to build the small-scale, mixed use development that characterizes some of the most desirable residential-commercial nodes in the city. The kinds of places people say they love. If we’re going to create those kinds of places again, it has to be legal to do it.

One way to accomplish this could be a stronger focus on a form-based zoning code. Rather than the current code, which regulates uses (residential vs commercial, which type of commercial uses are allowed within a given zoning district, how many residential units and occupants are allowed in a given building) in addition to form (height, bulk, distance from the sidewalk and other buildings). Zoning codes that rely more on regulating form give greater flexibility to how people and businesses use the inside of new and existing buildings while still allowing a conversation about how neighborhoods look and in what way they evolve over time.

There are also some modifications that can be made to the present type of zoning to make it less restrictive.

More on the missing middle. More on form-based zoning.

Other things we can do:

  • Eliminate maximum Floor Area Ratio (the ratio of the building’s total surface area to land lot it occupies) in all zoning districts, but especially R3 and R4 to allow for maximum flexibility of use for already existing buildings. FAR is particularly restrictive and limits building sizes.
  • Change maximum lot coverage requirements, which are presently very restrictive and would prevent building things like the brownstone buildings of Stevens Square
  • Allow more types of housing, smaller unit sizes for people who don’t want roommates or need much space
  • Decrease or remove minimum parking requirements (this has a direct effect on cost of construction, and increases the cost of housing, making it a de facto tax on non-drivers). Don’t worry, people who need parking will still be inclined to buy it! Plenty of parking will be built despite the absence of a minimum.

Accessibility & Aging in Place

Just as large single-family mansions built in the 1890s don’t serve the needs of the modern 3-person family or empty-nester, a large portion of the housing stock in Minneapolis isn’t accessible to people of all generations and abilities. Much of our housing was built before the Fair Housing Act (1968), and HUD’s Fair Housing Accessibility Guidelines were created (1991). Costs to retrofit existing houses and buildings can be high, and there is not a lot of available housing in Minneapolis/St. Paul that meets these guidelines. We cannot solve this with existing zoning and existing buildings.

The Process

We need to streamline the general approval process for new housing: projects that fit present zoning may be subject to neighborhood appeal, lawsuit, additional impact studies, and generally frivolous attempts by rich white landowners to delay or deny housing. This affects both affordable housing, and market-rate housing. State governments in California and Washington are working on legislative solutions to this, as a response to opposition to affordable housing from cities (like Berkeley) and neighborhood organizations.

We also need to make it clear to our politicians: when they cave to pressure from a neighborhood’s loudest, most entitled, most privileged residents, this does unacceptable harm to the rest of us. If you support more neighbors, make that fact clear to whoever represents you on the City Council. Together, we can stand up for a future that’s more sustainable, equitable, and affordable.

Neighbors for More Neighbors Advocacy Goals

In addition to our existing artistic endeavors, Neighbors for More Neighbors will work locally for the following:

  • Fighting with housing advocates for pro-housing and pro-affordable housing policy changes, including: zoning changes, comprehensive plan changes, city funding of affordable housing, tax changes to support housing, state-level legislative changes
  • Support housing proposals as they come forward through the City Planning Commission, and Zoning & Planning Committee
  • Support safer, more sustainable street designs that work for all people
  • Support more equitable processes for community involvement
  • Social justice initiatives including higher wages and workers’ rights

Do you need an ally for a housing cause? Get in touch. Even if you don’t subscribe to the whole Neighbors for More Neighbors manifesto, we seek to build a “big tent” for housing advocacy. Let’s work together on priorities we share, while continuing to build on our mutual understanding of the issues.

Local Housing Organizations & Groups

If you’re looking for local organizations and groups that care about housing, make sure you’ve heard of these, too:


Alliance Housing

Avenues for Homeless Youth

Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative

Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota

City of Lakes Community Land Trust

Community Action Partnership of Hennepin County

Housing Justice Center

InquilinXs UnidXs por Justicia

Metropolitan Consortium of Community Developers


Sustain Ward 3 (St. Paul!)

Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity

Urban Homeworks

More reading

Zoning, School, and Jobs:

Exclusionary Zoning & Areas of Concentrated Poverty

Productive housing conversations & validating real concerns

Homeownership and Inequity

Housing policy and political alignment:

The harm of restricted zoning

Land use, zoning, building, and taxation: