Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
A milestone upzoning plan in Minneapolis capped a year that saw pro-housing forces duel NIMBYs in cities nationwide.
A few weeks ago, Minneapolis made zoning history when its city council endorsed a comprehensive plan that would enable denser housing development across the city. Elements of the Minneapolis 2040 plan still need to be passed into law, so it falls short of an outright ban on single-family housing, as both supporters and critics have described it. But it’s still the most progressive legislative push by any city yet to face up to the affordable housing crisis, and it’s turning heads in Philadelphia, Dallas, Seattle, and other cities.
“Such an ambitious, large-scale overhaul of zoning rules is practically unheard of in U.S. cities, where single-family neighborhoods with their rows of houses set behind landscaped front yards have typically been off the table during discussions of citywide ‘Smart Growth’ and affordable housing,” reads the Los Angeles Times editorial board’s green-with-envy endorsement.
Other facets of the plan are drawing critical acclaim, too. The policy eliminates off-street minimum parking requirements, making Minneapolis the fourth city to make such a move. (San Francisco pulled the trigger earlier in December, while both Buffalo in New York and Hartford in Connecticut did so in 2017.) Reason hailed Minneapolis 2040 as a victory for free-market deregulation (even as it pooh-poohed an inclusionary zoning ordinance that encouraged developers to set aside units for low-income families).
By its end, 2018 turned out to be the year of the YIMBY. Not only did Minneapolis prove that a major American city could pass pro-housing zoning reforms beloved by Yes-In-My-Backyard types, it could pass them all at once, and without forcing the mayor to flee by cover of night. Indeed, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey is taking a victory lap on the strength of a truly comprehensive plan—with features that address climate change and structural racism—although it might have cost him the support of some wealthy homeowners. But even this political liability is distributed, as all but one city council member joined together to pass the scheme.
Could this be the blueprint for a housing wave—a strategy that unites social justice warriors, type-A transit maximalists, and Howard Roark–ian libertarians? After the success of Minneapolis 2040, the better question might be, how could it not?
Oregon hopes to be the first state in the nation to test that assumption. As Willamette Week reports, State House Speaker Tina Kotek, the representative from Portland, is drafting a bill to end single-family zoning in any Oregon city with a population of 10,000 or more. The legislation would effectively upzone 47 different cities, from tiny Monmouth in Polk County to Eugene, Salem, and Portland. For years, liberal Portland has been unable to muster support for a policy that would enable fourplex housing developments anywhere in the city; if it’s that difficult to pass zoning reforms in one of the most progressive cities in the nation, it’s only going to be trickier when conservative Eastern Oregon has its say.
Steep odds for state-level upzoning are also the rule in California, where Scott Wiener, housing champion and state senator, has introduced legislation to repeal a constitutional amendment that restricts low-income housing, as well as another bill to boost denser development near transit. For the latter piece, this is Wiener’s second bite at the apple, after the similar State Bill 827 went down in flames in April. No, 2018 wasn’t an unambiguous victory for housing advocates.
State government likely presents more challenges than opportunities for zoning reform. Texas, for example, passed a bill in 2015 that preempts any municipality from enacting local protections for Section 8 voucher holders. Landlords who discriminate against renters with housing aid drive segregation patterns today. If Atlanta succeeds in passing reforms to promote granny flats, curb minimum parking requirements, and legalize new apartment buildings (all changes endorsed by the city’s zoning board), there’s always the threat that the Georgia state legislature will interfere, as it has done or threatened to do with local laws regulating tobacco, Airbnb, the minimum wage, and more.
Sweeping bans on single-family zoning are unlikely anywhere. Even in Minneapolis, where threeplex housing will be allowed on single-family plots, the new dispensation does not grant room for buildings that are much larger in scale. Earlier this year, U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson pitched a rules change as a strategy for combating NIMBYism. (But this is conservative slight-of-hand: Instead of tying federal housing funds to affirmative efforts to desegregate, Carson would pin them to deregulation.)
Two years out from the next election, affordable housing is already a subject of national debate. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, a possible presidential hopeful in 2020, introduced a comprehensive bill called the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act. Not to be outdone, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, another 2020 contender, put out a Housing, Opportunity, Mobility, and Equity Act. Respectively, these bills represent the carrot and the stick, as far as as federal approaches to housing go. Neither will get a moment’s consideration from the Republican-controlled Senate, but they signal that fair housing could be an issue in the 2020 election—at least in the Democratic Party primary.
Maybe the most important turn in 2018 was not how this city looked to expand its supply of accessory dwelling units (like in Seattle) or how that city realized that single-family zoning is choking its growth (also Seattle). Housing advocates suffered setbacks this year, after all, in places such as Reno and Boulder. And new housing starts are still dismal compared to pre-recession highs. Now, the recovery may be grinding to a halt.
Instead, local leaders hit on successful ways for overcoming the value-action gap—a wonky term for the phenomenon seen when homeowners in progressive neighborhoods post yard signs welcoming all peoples even as they oppose nearby housing developments. Going forward, there are proven tactics for bridging the value-action gap and solving for the ABCs of social change—attitude, behavior, and choice. Minneapolis finally got the damned thing done, and others will follow.
Finally, 2018 marked the Year of Our Lord when NIMBYism went from a seemingly unstoppable force to a figure of mockery. End your year with one Minneapolitan’s delightful zoning parody: “I Was Radicalized by Minneapolis 2040.”
“As I drove from 50th to Lake Street I was subjected to the type of pure urban obscenity that occurs when single family houses mix with apartment buildings. There were duplexes, triplexes, plexplexes,” writes Kristopher Kapphahn, a Twin Cities biostatistician. “They were all just nestled right in among innocent single-family homes. And it was awful. Anyone who has taken Bryant through South Minneapolis knows what I now newly knew: it’s the very definition of urban hellscape.”