Zoning reform: Minneapolis, MN
- Reducing pressure at all price points: Local governments generally have a range of legislative, regulatory, and operational levers to create the conditions for increasing overall housing supply in their communities. An increase in the total supply of housing, regardless of price point, reduces the rate at which housing prices increase and increases affordable housing supply. Without the ability to build denser housing, any local strategy to create new affordable homes will be limited in its effectiveness.
- Passing supply-friendly rules and regulations: Many local rules and regulations can be reformed to facilitate increases in the net total of available homes. Such changes, which have demonstrated effectiveness both in strong and soft markets, include eliminating or reducing the use of single-family zoning (where the only legally-permitted structure on plots of land are single family homes), upzoning (permitting denser housing), adapting building codes to enable more efficient construction, and encouraging mixed-use developments. Many of these changes are legislative, requiring passage by a local council.
- Taking a supply-focused approach to land use: Similar to zoning reform, local governments can further increase housing supply by writing new rules on land use requirements. This can include lifting restrictions on accessible dwelling units, reducing parking requirements, reducing minimum lot size, and more. Some communities may also facilitate the construction of more affordable housing through the establishment of community land trusts, strategic leveraging of land banks, or enabling housing construction on public land.
- Incentivizing development: In addition to zoning and land use, jurisdictions can provide financial incentives for significant increases in available housing units. Such approaches may include tax abatements, tax exemptions, and appraisal gap financing (covering the difference between the appraised and market value). These incentives can be applied both to new construction and significant rehabilitation of dilapidated units.
- Streamlining permitting processes: A relatively low-cost component of a broader housing supply strategy can include updating processes for construction permits, environmental reviews, and waiving related fees. Such changes are mostly operational, and can facilitate more rapid housing development and, in turn, a more favorable building environment.
While multiple rigorous analyses demonstrate that strategies to increase overall housing supply can be effective, further research is needed to confirm effects across locations and market types (i.e. renters).
- A 2021 quasi-experimental study found that higher density zoning was associated with increased housing supply and development density.
A 2018 empirical review and theoretical analysis found that increases in overall housing supply moderate price increases, thus making more housing affordable to low- and moderate-income residents. However, further research is needed to confirm effects across markets and conditions.
A 2014 literature review found that restrictive land use policies can raise house prices and reduce new construction.
Results and accomplishments
Minneapolis changed zoning on the 70 percent of city land that had previously been exclusively zoned for single-family homes. The new zoning allows for up to three housing units per lot.
The Minneapolis Long-Range Planning Division held over 150 public engagement sessions to gather community input on the 2040 Comprehensive Plan reforms.
The planning team received over 20,000 public feedback comments during the development of the 2040 Comprehensive Plan.
- The first city to enact comprehensive zoning reforms: Minneapolis was the first city in the U.S. to pass multi-faceted, citywide reforms to legalize construction of duplexes and triplexes citywide.
- Near-unanimous City Council support: Despite vocal opposition, mostly from a small number of wealthier homeowners, planning officials and local advocates successfully persuaded the Minneapolis City Council of the need for comprehensive zoning reform, with the Minneapolis 2040 Plan being approved by a near-unanimous 12-to-1 City Council vote.
- Setting the stage for reform across the country: Minneapolis achieved significant citywide zoning reforms, garnering national recognition with features in The Atlantic, PBS, the Harvard Kennedy School, and more. The city’s reforms have helped inform similar efforts in Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, Oregon, Virginia, and others.
From 2010 to 2018, the population of Minneapolis grew by over 83,000 households. During that same period, only 64,000 new housing units were built. Largely because of inadequate housing supply, median rent and home prices rose by more than a third. A factor limiting the supply of new housing was Minneapolis’ zoning code. At the time, about 70 percent of the city was zoned for single-family homes, preventing the construction of multifamily units.
In 2019, the City Council approved the Minneapolis 2040 Plan. As part of the plan, the City legalized duplexes and triplexes in areas formerly zoned for only single-family use. To further encourage the construction of more housing, the plan also eliminated parking minimums for new construction, allowed denser construction along transit routes, and permitted the construction of larger buildings.
Keys to the plan’s success included having clear and ambitious goals from the start, which prevented the City from “pre-compromising” on its goals; robust staffing to allow for in-house plan development and community outreach; grassroots advocacy that built support for the plan’s reforms; strong community engagement efforts, which built trust and enthusiasm for the plan; champions in City government; and a focus on making a multi-pronged case that connected the changes to broader issues of racial, economic, and environmental justice.
Challenges to the plan included organized opposition to zoning reform, issues aligning zoning changes with related land use and built form regulations, and, so far, the low take-up of new denser construction allowances.
What was the challenge?
- Population growth outpaces the supply of homes: From 2010 to 2018, the population of Minneapolis grew by over 83,000 households. During that same period, only 64,000 new housing units were built. As a result, median rent and home prices rose significantly, by roughly 34 percent and 39 percent respectively. By 2018, roughly half of Minneapolis renters were considered rent-burdened, defined as spending more than one third of their income on rent.
- Single-family zoning limits housing supply: One major contributor to the mismatch between housing demand and supply in Minneapolis was a zoning code that only permitted single-family homes on approximately 70% of land in the city. As a result, few additional homes could be built within city limits. With new supply constricted, between 2000 and 2015, a large amount of “naturally occurring” affordable housing became much more expensive, reflecting market rates. Competition for existing homes increased, leading to rising rents and home prices.
- Racist history of exclusion: Like cities across the country, the widespread use of single-family zoning in Minneapolis had its roots in the racist housing policies of the 20th century, when racial covenants and restrictive zoning codes were used to prevent people of color from living in predominantly White neighborhoods. Over time, racial covenants evolved into racially biased redlining that artificially excluded people of color from more desirable neighborhoods. The use of restrictive zoning codes in Minneapolis contributed to the city having one of the largest disparities in White and Black homeownership rates in the country.
What was the solution?
- A state-mandated process creates opportunity for reform: Leveraging a state-mandated decennial planning process, Minneapolis planning officials successfully advocated for a range of changes to local zoning codes that allowed for the construction of significantly more homes across the city. The changes, part of the Minneapolis 2040 Plan, were finalized in the Fall of 2018 and formally approved by the City Council in October 2019. The first zoning reforms took effect in January 2020.
- Legalizing duplexes and triplexes citywide: Among the reforms in the Minneapolis 2040 Plan was legalizing up to three homes on any lot. This affected approximately 70% of land in Minneapolis.
- A web of reforms aimed at housing access and affordability: Other reforms included eliminating parking minimums for new construction, allowing multifamily buildings along more transit routes, and passing zoning changes allowing slightly larger buildings.
- Large-scale, intentional outreach: To solicit community input and build support around specific reforms, Minneapolis Long-Range Planning staff engaged in an unprecedented community outreach process spanning over two years, including over 150 public meetings, conversations with thousands of residents, and creative engagement strategies.
What factors drove success?
- Clear and ambitious goals from the start: At the onset of the planning process, city planning staff were encouraged to articulate their true vision for land use reform and not "pre-compromise." The City Council endorsed the goals set by the planning staff and proposed several of their own. Together, this helped initiate community conversations around land use reform at a more advanced starting point, build support for specific strategies, and ultimately enact major reform.
- Adequate staffing: From 2016 through the approval of the 2040 Plan, a team of 14 employees from the Community Planning & Economic Development department were devoted full time to advancing the Plan's proposed reforms. Having a fully staffed team enabled the Long-Range Planning division to develop a more robust vision, engage communities in greater depth, and conduct planning work in-house rather than contracting with an outside firm.
- Pro-homes grassroots advocacy: Neighbors for More Neighbors (N4MN), a local advocacy group that emerged in support of the 2040 Plan, generated and mobilized enthusiasm for the reforms. N4MN brought members to public meetings to voice support for reforms, coordinated letter writing campaigns to City Council members, and built coalitions with labor, economic justice, and environmental groups to broaden support.
- Making a multi-pronged case for reform: The 2040 Plan made the case for land use reform from several angles, including racial equity, economic opportunity, environmental justice, and climate change, facilitating support from groups across issue areas, including the Sierra Club, MN350, Service Employees International Union (SEIU Healthcare Minnesota), and Our Streets Minneapolis.
- Champions in city government: Throughout the planning process, City Councilmember (and eventually, City Council President) Lisa Bender was a vocal proponent for land use reforms, helping persuade other Councilmembers and the population at large of the need for abundant homes.
- Strong community engagement and outreach efforts: The Minneapolis Long-Range Planning Division conducted an unprecedented degree of community engagement to inform and build support around the 2040 Plan, holding over 150 public meetings and receiving over 20,000 public comments. Their outreach was guided by a detailed Civic Engagement Plan that outlined key principles, target audiences, and strategies for engagement. The team appeared regularly at community events, maintained an effective digital presence, and successfully engaged communities seldom reached during similar processes. This engagement built trust in the city's proposals and strengthened enthusiasm for reform.
What were the major obstacles?
- Consistent, organized opposition: Opposition to the 2040 Plan reforms came primarily from a subset of homeowners who feared changes to their neighborhoods. Some housing developers also worried they would lose their competitive advantage as zoning regulations shifted.
- Low take-up post approval: Since the single-family zoning reform took effect in January 2020, there has been little take-up of the new triplex allowances, likely due in part to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and in part to staged implementation of changes to land use and built form codes, which have not yet taken effect.
- Aligning zoning, land use, and built form regulations: Without sufficient complementary reforms to zoning codes like lot size requirements and other built form regulations, the return on investment for developing multi-family housing will likely be insufficient to generate significant amounts of new housing construction.
In her inaugural address, then-Mayor Betsy Hodges announces
an ambitious goal of increasing the city’s population by over 100,000 residents, a goal that city planners agree will require significant housing development.
The City Council approves a proposal introduced by then-Councilmember Lisa Bender to legalize Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) in single-family zoned neighborhoods, setting the stage for future, larger reforms.
A pair of contradictory articles focused on Minneapolis are published in The Atlantic, with one hailing the city as miraculous in its ability to attract businesses, retain talent, and maintain affordability, and the other outlining the city’s stark inequality of opportunity. These articles spark reflection among local leaders and a desire to invest in addressing equity citywide.
The City Council approved a reform, proposed by then-Councilmember Lisa Bender, to reduce minimum parking requirements for residential projects along transit corridors, setting the stage for future, larger reforms.
The LRP team begins their community engagement process, focusing initially on how the built environment connects to housing affordability, transportation, jobs, and the environment. The LRP team engages with residents through culturally competent community workshops and dialogues, street festivals, artist-designed creative engagement, “meetings-in-a-box” (a civic engagement method that allows community members to host their own feedback sessions with a city-provided kit), and a strong web and social presence.
Mapping Prejudice creates comprehensive, approachable data visualizations of historical and present-day housing inequality in Minneapolis. Their work illuminates the deeply embedded, racist legacy of land use from racially restrictive covenants to zoning in Minneapolis, highlighting the urgent need for reform.
Building on the engagement conducted in the latter half of 2016, LRP launches their second phase of outreach focused on specific strategies. During this phase, LRP debuts an innovative mobile engagement technique, Imagining Equity, that allows community members to interactively express their own vision of an equitable future.
5 new City Council Members are elected, expanding the coalition of young, progressive members focused on addressing rising housing prices and cost of living.
Lisa Bender, an urban planner by training, rises to the position of City Council President. Bender’s years of experience as a Minneapolis City Councilmember and her background as a city planner enable her to work effectively with both the planning department and the public.
LRP releases a preliminary draft of the 2040 Plan to the public and hosts over 100 public meetings and feedback sessions in addition to online comment boxes and exercises to gather feedback on the Plan, receiving over 17,000 public comments.
Following revisions from the Spring and Summer feedback sessions, and with the City Council and Mayor Frey’s authorization, LRP delivers a final draft of the 2040 Plan to the Metropolitan Council (Met Council), the regional body overseeing policies in the Twin Cities, for review. The Met Council approves the policy reforms in September 2019 and returns the Plan to the Minneapolis City Council for final approval.
With the Met Council’s approval, the Minneapolis City Council officially approves the proposed 2040 Comprehensive Plan in a 12-to-1 vote, allowing city departments to begin work to align city regulations with the newly approved 2040 Plan.
The City Council approves an ordinance that adjusts zoning and land use regulations to allow multi-family dwellings up to three units in any part of the city. These reforms, which include the citywide legalization of duplexes and triplexes, take effect in January 2020
How did leaders confront the problem?
- Divide between housing supply and demand: As Minneapolis’ population grows rapidly, housing development struggles to keep up, leading to increasing home and rental prices. In 2015, The Atlantic publishes a pair of articles that together paint Minneapolis as a city of opportunity ripe with inequality. By 2018, roughly half of the city’s renters are cost-burdened.
- Using existing procedures as an opportunity for reform: The Minneapolis Long-Range Planning (LRP) division, then led by Heather Worthington, identifies the decennial, state-mandated Comprehensive Plan as an opportunity to reform local zoning policies in ways that promote greater housing affordability and economic opportunity.
- Fresh city leadership prioritizes land use reform: In 2017, five new City Council Members are elected, many of whom campaigned on equity-related issues like affordable housing and racial equality.
- Neighbors for More Neighbors turns out support: Following the 2017 elections, local housing reform advocates John Edwards, Ryan Johnson, and Janne Flisrand grow Neighbors for More Neighbors (N4MN) into a broad coalition advocating for more abundant homes and housing affordability in the Twin Cities. As the 2040 Comprehensive Plan took shape, N4MN helped generate community support for the Plan, organized residents to attend public meetings, and galvanized extensive community feedback.
How was the strategy designed?
- Assembling a dedicated team: The Long-Range Planning Division convened a team of 14 members led by Heather Worthington that was dedicated entirely to redesigning and reimagining the upcoming Comprehensive Plan. The city invested significant resources into this effort, conducting outreach, research, and planning almost entirely in-house.
- Setting clear goals: Following an initial round of community engagement, LRP defined 14 distinct guiding goals that they intended to address through the 2040 Plan. These goals range from eliminating racial disparities and increasing housing availability and affordability to combating climate change and preserving city history and culture. The City Council soon endorsed the goals, facilitating support from elected officials down the line as specific reforms were proposed.
- Commitment to extensive community engagement: LRP brought city planning conversations to the public in approachable, culturally-relevant ways. Contracted local artists created innovative and engaging community outreach tools, community meetings provided free food and childcare, and LRP provided accessible materials that allowed community members to host their own meetings and feedback sessions.
- Zoning and built form regulations identified as barriers to mobility: In addition to restrictive and exclusionary single-family zoning, various built form regulations were identified as barriers to more affordable and equitable housing. These included off-street parking minimums, which increase development costs, and limits to building multi story residential buildings along transit lines.
How was the approach funded?
- Utilizing existing resources: Because Minneapolis is required to complete a long-term plan each decade, the city had already allocated funding toward the 2040 Plan process. The largest expenses were contracting artists for creative and innovative engagement strategies and developing a website for the Plan that explained built form and zoning maps and proposed reforms in an interactive, accessible way.
- Cutting costs by planning in-house: The Long-Range Planning Division was able to complete the extensive community engagement work within budget by conducting the policy and planning work in-house rather than through a hired consulting firm.
How was the plan implemented?
- Step-wise implementation: Following the Plan’s approval in October 2019, an effective date was set for January 2020. Rather than attempting to write an entirely new zoning code to comply with the 2040 Plan, Minneapolis sets out to complete implementation in stages. This allowed the city to prioritize reforms that were more urgent and simpler to execute, then gradually implement reforms that built upon earlier changes.
- Quick rezoning to match the Plan: Less than one month after approving the 2040 Plan, the City Council moved to begin reforming city code to comply with the Plan, beginning with legalizing duplexes and triplexes throughout the city. The City Council passed an ordinance in early November 2019 to codify this change.
- Implementation distributed across departments: The task of implementing the 2040 Plan reforms was distributed across various city departments. Each policy or reform included in the final plan had already been assigned to a specific city department for implementation with a specified timeline for completion.
- Planning for the future: The 2040 Plan contains a significant number of proposed reforms that will be enacted over the next decade. To appropriately allocate resources, the 2040 Plan includes an implementation chapter that divides the proposed reforms and strategies into short, medium, and long-term priorities and lays out key agencies responsible for implementation.
How was the approach measured and refined?
- Measuring long-term impact: The city is currently working with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis to identify clear outcome metrics and measure the long-term impact of the 2040 Plan policy changes on housing affordability, equity, and more.
- Further adjusting city policies to allow for meaningful development: As Minneapolis proceeds to implement the 2040 Plan reforms, city planners and leaders will need to adjust built form and land use policies to align with zoning regulations to allow for large-scale, cost-effective development.
- Iterative process of refinement: As additional data and outcomes on the impact of the Plan’s reforms become available, city leaders will continue to refine zoning codes in an effort to achieve the stated goals of the Plan.
- Peer collaboration to improve implementation: After Minneapolis legalized multi-family dwellings throughout the city, Oregon soon enacted similar zoning reform at the state level, with the City of Seattle following close behind. As additional municipalities explore broad zoning reform, LRP and the broader Community Planning & Economic Development Department plan to work closely with peers across the country.
Results for America would like to thank the following individuals for their help in completing this case study: Heather Worthington of the City of Minneapolis Long-Range Planning team (former); Joe Bernard of the Minneapolis Community Planning and Economic Development Department; Janne Flisrand of Neighbors for More Neighbors; and Richard Kahlenberg of The Century Foundation.