Our progressive values should include “Housing for All”

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Standing in the way of upzoning means standing in the way of access to jobs, transit, parks and schools.

Over the past few weeks a slow-rolling debate has unfolded in the Star Tribune opinions section and the Southwest Journal letters to the editor. It began with a cry for “livability” (echoed in the Southwest Journal, and rebutted here) surrounding the project to redevelop the Sons of Norway building and its bountiful fields of asphalt. Several great responses came in, calling out the vagueness of livability and describing the local history of exclusionary zoning; underscoring the need for affordable housing; and pointing out what zoning is and how it is not set in stone.

Weeks later, Sons of Norway was approved in the City Planning Commission, and then unsuccessfully appealed in the Zoning and Planning Committee by ECCO, the neighborhood organization representing the area. After that point, a group of ECCO people published a letter in the Southwest Journal, and was on the same day rebutted by the following letter to the editor, written by one of us, and reproduced here.

As someone whose generation is currently facing rising rents, persistent and extreme low vacancy rates, housing insecurity and a worsening climate crisis set to displace countless people from the coasts, it’s upsetting to hear people talk about how inconvenienced and disturbed they are to have just a few more neighbors on their block. Too often, those who voice concerns about new housing do not live in fear of rising rents, and consequently find it so easy to deny housing stability to others.

Zoning provides a legal framework for how to use land, and while not set in stone, there is a lot of institutional power invested in maintaining the status quo. Historically, this power has been wielded by rich white landowners to exclude people from neighborhoods, by race, religion, or income. Tightly restricting what types of housing can be built in an area can make it economically impossible for people below a certain income bracket to live there. We passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968 to prevent housing discrimination and end racial covenants in deeds, but that didn’t fix how zoning is used to maintain this historic racial and economic segregation.

All of this often happens under the guise of ironic terms like “livability”, where a “livable” city is measured by how few residents are allowed to live there; under the guise of “protecting the environment”, where we are told it’s preferable to sprawl outwards into wetlands, far away from urban bike and transit amenities, because a privileged few don’t like the idea of apartments nearby. We’re also told that “no one is listening” to the very people who’ve spent decades constructing this system, and yet we continue to accept their regressive pro-sprawl arguments. But that balance of power may be shifting as the city begins to listen to the very people who have been intentionally left out of the conversation for decades.

We can clearly see the outcomes of these failed policies now. The demand for housing is so large that people in affordable neighborhoods are threatened with displacement, as investors purchase older and cheaper apartments to upscale them for renters with more money. We desperately need more housing, we desperately need more government-subsidized affordable housing, and we desperately need renter protections.

Minneapolis thinks of itself as progressive, and rightly so. We have very engaged people demanding adequate pay, fair working conditions, equal rights, and action on climate change. Our progressive values also tell us that everyone deserves good access to jobs, transit, parks, good schools, and entertainment. This is what abundant housing can provide us, yet our current path leads to sprawl, housing insecurity, and poor access to essentials like groceries. We also know improving access to these things has a direct effect on public health and public safety. Minneapolis is a great city, and we need to ensure that access to the best of what this city has to offer is available to all. It’s time to build enough housing so that everyone can live in and afford our neighborhoods.

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