Comment on the Draft Built Form Zoning Regulations

On December 8, the Minneapolis City Council’s Business, Inspections & Zoning Committee will meet to consider new built form regulations to align the zoning code with the Minneapolis 2040 Plan.

Neighbors for More Neighbors, along with a coalition of local organizations, signed on to a letter to call for specific changes to the zoning code that regulate limits on density and lot size and to add more affordability incentives. The text of the letter is pasted below.

The Minneapolis City Council will hold a final vote on these built form regulations later in December. If you would like to add your or your organization’s name to this letter of support, please fill out this form, and we will include your name on the next version of this letter to the City Council later this month.

December 1, 2020

Re: Comment on the Draft Built Form Zoning Regulations

Dear Members of the Minneapolis City Council: 

We are writing to you as non-profits, advocates, housing developers, and service providers. In November, we sent a letter to the Minneapolis Planning Commission concerning the Draft Built Form Regulations, designed to align our City’s built form code with the polices set forth in the Minneapolis 2040 Plan. We offer the following response to the Draft Built Form Zoning Regulations as amended, with the hope that you consider our remarks as you pass the final policies. Thank you for the opportunity to provide input on these important policy decisions.

Floor Area Ratios: We support the floor area ratios (FAR) as amended. The Minneapolis 2040 Plan was lauded for allowing the development of duplexes and triplexes on formerly single-family lots. In this, the 2040 Plan presents a clear mandate: remove the historic and exclusionary barriers to denser infill development in low-density areas. That’s why we support the FAR ratios as amended by the Planning Commission. A stepped FAR encourages the development of smaller, more affordable homes for projects with 1-2 units, while allowing projects with 3 or more units to have a higher square footage overall. For buildings with 3 or more units, a higher FAR means that units can be larger, more flexible to a variety of housing needs, and therefore more family friendly. The Planning Commission’s choice to increase FAR limits will help remove existing barriers to denser infill development, thereby affirming the intent of the Minneapolis 2040 Plan policies.

Additionally, we support FAR flexibility for incremental infill development in Interior Zones: Given the choice between seeking variances and conditional use permits, or simply tearing a structure down to build a new one that can maximize the FAR by right, we fear that teardowns will become the path of least resistance. With the added cost of demolition, this will drive up the resulting cost of the new structure, ultimately damaging the chance for affordability. Interior Zones should allow single lots with existing buildings to evolve incrementally without incentivizing the teardown of structures to add new housing units. No special approval should be needed to add a building that in most cases will be very similar in size to structures already allowed by right behind principal buildings (ADUs).  

Our recommendations include:

  • Interior 1-2: On lots with 1 existing unit, developers can add 2 new units, OR on lots with 2 existing units, developers can add 1 new unit, in either case up to the maximum FAR of 0.8.
  • Interior 3: On lots with 1 existing unit, developers can add 2 new units, OR on lots with 2 existing units, developers can add 1 new unit, in either case up to the maximum FAR of 0.9.
  • All structures built on a single, Interior lot are able to have the maximum height allowed by the zone, regardless of the height of the existing structure(s).

If our below recommendation for minimum lot size is not adopted, incremental infill should be allowed by right in Interior 2 Districts on lots of least 4,800 sq. ft. and in Interior 3 Districts on lots of at least 4,200 sq. ft. This is because it is common in these areas for lots to be less than 125 ft. deep—and under the 5,000 sq. ft. minimum adopted by the Planning Commission, thereby triggering potential variances. 

Lot Size: We support the Planning Commission’s amendment to eliminate the large lot provision, but we think the base minimum lot size should be reduced at least to 4,000 sq. ft. The Planning Commission amended the Draft Built Form to reduce minimum lot size to a consistent 5,000 sq. ft. across the City. We support this direction, but we would like it to go further. A significant portion of the City’s housing stock, over 14,000 buildings in Interior Districts 1-3, is built on lots smaller than the proposed minimum. A number of these smaller lots remain undeveloped. If the City’s zoning code rests on the assumption that the minimum lot size is 5,000 sq. ft., when there are smaller buildable lots available, then those smaller lots would continue to require variances to be developed. The variance process can be expensive and challenging to navigate, a potential roadblock to interested developers. One of the objectives of the Built Form Regulations is to reduce the number of variances approved. We understand this is a nuanced topic. We believe that by reducing the minimum lot size, the Built Form Regulations could reduce the need for variances. We support continued analysis by staff to remove other provisions that could trigger variances and, as needed, related policy adjustments to the Built Form Regulations, to ensure that minimum lot size does not serve as an undue barrier for developers who want to build on small lots. 

Additionally, larger lots cannot be subdivided into parcels smaller than the minimum lot size. A higher minimum would reduce options for subdividing and developing non-standard sized lots—both small and large. Lowering minimum lot sizes could allow for expanded creativity and nimbleness in development. Smaller lots can sustain smaller buildings and unit sizes and add to the variety of our City’s housing stock, a stated goal of the 2040 Plan. At a time when we need more affordable units, we shouldn’t overlook the option of developing smaller buildings on smaller lots. For these reasons, we propose setting the base minimum lot size to 4,000 sq. ft. 

Affordability: We support the extension of affordability incentives into Interior Districts 1-3. The City’s inclusionary zoning policy applies to developments of 20 or more units. Developers can either make a percentage of units affordable at a certain income level or pay a fee in lieu. The Built Form affordability incentives are a separate and, ideally, complementary way to increase the number of affordable housing units in new development. As drafted, the affordability incentive does not apply to Interior Districts 1-3, as it kicks in only for developments of 20 to 50 units, incentivizing developers to comply with the inclusionary zoning policy’s affordability guidelines. However, by reserving affordability premiums only for Districts with greater density, the Draft Built Form Regulations will preempt efforts to integrate affordable housing into single-family neighborhoods. Instead, the affordability incentives should encourage developers to build affordable units in a variety of building sizes and Interior Districts. 

From the recent Planning Commission meeting, it seemed there was consensus on this point. We understand there are a lot of factors that go into developing an affordability incentive for lower-density districts. Here, we would like to contribute the following:

  • Incentives are optional for developers. Therefore, there is limited risk in extending the affordability incentives to all residential development. We believe such a change would complement the efforts of the City’s inclusionary zoning requirements.
  • If there is an administrative cost associated with tracking developers’ affordability compliance, we believe it is a worthwhile investment. For decades, administrative resources were used to uphold exclusionary zoning at the federal, state, and local levels. Any meaningful investments toward countering the impacts of this history will also, understandably, involve an administrative cost. By proactively furthering the development of affordable housing in a fair and equitable way, Minneapolis can be a leader in addressing this history of exclusion. 
  • For affordability incentives to be effective, the premiums need to be valuable enough to motivate developers to do something above and beyond what they already plan to do. Much of this value is relative to the size of potential development. For example, a premium of 0.1 FAR increase for a single-family dwelling is proportionately more valuable than a premium of a 0.1 FAR increase for a multi-family dwelling, which already has a higher FAR baseline. For this reason, we recommend tiering the premium value and type based on the development size.

One possible suggestion for revising the affordability incentive is indicated in the table below, adjusted slightly from our initial recommendation. We understand that staff will be conducting additional research on this policy change; with these numbers, we hope to show an example of how premiums could be tiered based on the size of the development. Perhaps the most valuable premium is the opportunity to develop additional units. This would allow mission-driven developers to increase the impact of a project and support the City’s housing goals.

DistrictAffordability StandardsValue of Premium
Interior 11-2 units, at least one unit at 60% AMIFAR increase of 0.2
Interior 13 units, at least 2 units at 60% AMIFAR increase of 0.2,and a fourth unit
Interior 24-6 units, at least two units at 60% AMIFAR increase of 0.2, and permission to add 3 additional units per lot
Interior 310-20 units, at least 4 units at 60% AMIFAR increase of 0.3, and permission to add an additional floor
Interior 320+ units, use incentive as previously drafted

Without a strong mechanism for affordability, pro-density zoning can lead to a surge in the development of market-rate or luxury housing. This does not address the needs of City residents. The Minnesota Housing Partnership reports that average housing costs for properties built since 2010 are 40% higher than housing costs for other properties. Much of the new construction occurred in denser areas of the City. This suggests an increase in expensive housing in denser urban areas. There is a growing need for more affordable housing and for housing options in other parts of our City. Whether the Built Form Regulations truly meet the needs of Minneapolis residents depends on this affordability mechanism. We understand City Council is considering extending affordability to Interior Districts 1-3. We strongly support this direction, and we would be happy to work with City Council and CPED staff to discuss these regulations further.

We are grateful to our partners at the City of Minneapolis for their commitment to the residents of this City. Minneapolis 2040 has established a framework for bold and transformative change over the next twenty years. We believe that with some revision the Built Form Regulations can live up to the values of the 2040 Plan. We would be glad to answer any questions or offer clarification as needed. Please email Janne Flisrand, with Neighbors for More Neighbors, at with any questions.

Thank you. 

Align Minneapolis
The Alliance
City of Lakes Community Land Trust
Housing Justice Center
Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia
Metropolitan Consortium of Community Developers (MCCD)
Minnesota Housing Partnership
Neighbors for More Neighbors
Sierra Club North Star Chapter
Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity
Urban Homeworks, Inc.

Anthony Damiano, Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA)