Pro-2040 – Letter to the Editor


Given the desperate need for affordable housing in our city right now, I was disappointed by Perry Thorvig’s narrow view on the potential consequences of more widespread upzoning across Minneapolis in the article “Future density! Farewell, neighborhoods?” in the March 2024 issue of Southside Pride.

Minneapolis needs these apartment buildings

While making their point, Perry leaves out a great deal of context when it comes to current housing and development trends in Minneapolis. While Perry is correct to point out that the city has more apartment units today than in 1950, they neglect to expand on the fact that average household size has decreased since 1950, from 3.2 to 2.2. This discrepancy alone is enough to understand why more housing units are needed now. Not only does the city need more multifamily units, we need more of them that are affordable. Median rents in the city have increased by 17% since 2013. This increase has contributed to the almost 50% of renters in Minneapolis who spend greater than 30% of their income on rent. If larger apartment buildings are seen as out of place when juxtaposed in quaint neighborhoods, and widespread upzoning as detailed in the 2040 plan is viewed as undesirable by the author (whether this opinion is actually because of unstudied environmental impacts or more based on the implications of the plan when it comes to neighborhood character is not too hard to parse given the overall tone of the article), then how exactly would Perry suggest we accommodate the desperate need for housing in the city?

Why are these buildings such an affront to neighborhood character?

Perry is keen to refer to the excessive size of newer apartment developments in comparison to older multifamily developments, and how this large size is a detriment to the incredibly abstract and subjective idea of “neighborhood character.” What Perry fails to consider are the reasons why these new developments may be so large in the first place. Historically there has been less developable space zoned for construction of multifamily structures; this scarcity has incentivized developers to maximize the available rentable space in new construction in order to maximize rental income. This incentive wouldn’t be nearly as strong if multifamily structures were allowed in more places, but thanks to zoning reforms implemented by the planning department in the 1970s, the process by which upzoning can occur has been made more arduous for developers. Zoning controls related to upzoning like those adopted in the ‘70s, and the same kind that the 2040 plan is trying to counteract, are one of the main reasons we are experiencing such an affordability crisis today. Many of the structures built after the 1963 code and before the 1970s reform are considered Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing today, and if it weren’t for restrictions placed on their development, it’s very possible that Perry wouldn’t have to worry about apartments such as those at 42nd and Nicollet seeming so out of place. It is truly peculiar to hear Perry lament the behemoths that are popping up and destroying “neighborhood character” while at the same time singing the praises of the very zoning reforms that contributed to the form in which such structures exist today.
The Minneapolis 2040 plan is attempting to do exactly what allowed these quaint, mixed-use, multi- and single-family home neighborhoods to exist in the first place – make upzoning easier and less burdensome for developers. There is no reason to believe that, should upzoning be made easier, single-family neighborhoods will be obliterated and all our streets will be occupied by structures such as those at 42nd and Nicollet. After all, this didn’t happen in the 1960s when there were few or no restrictions. In fact, it would appear it contributed to some of the very neighborhoods we have today that are so high in “character.”

What is even meant by neighborhood character?

In my bid to intelligently articulate a response to Perry’s arguments, having a more concrete definition of what exactly is meant by “neighborhood character” would have proved helpful. Is Perry referring to the mix of buildings that already exist in the neighborhood? If so, where does one draw the line temporarily for what kinds of aesthetics are allowed to contribute positively to character? If it is “old time” apartment buildings the author wants, then it is puzzling that they fail to mention how the zoning controls of the 1970s helped make these structures more difficult to build and facilitated the crowding of larger developments into the areas that don’t require rezoning. Or is it possible that there are more dubious meanings underlying the author’s use of the term?
Given the social, economic and health benefits that come with high-density versus low-density development, it is hard to entertain the phrase “neighborhood character” as anything other than a dog whistle for protecting property values and resisting change that might lead to demographic shifts in the neighborhood. The fact that the author views the high prevalence of multifamily structures as something irreconcilable with the idea of a neighborhood is telling with regards to what is truly meant by the strategic crutch of “neighborhood character” leaned on by Perry to argue for restrictions on upzoning. Should the 2040 plan come to fruition and the process of upzoning be made easier, the only neighborhoods we will be bidding farewell to are those that have benefitted from historically restrictive zoning practices that have facilitated high concentrations of single-family homes and low-density neighborhoods that have contributed to the extreme gaps we see in homeownership between racial groups, and the widening crisis of affordability. Neighborhoods with large numbers of multifamily units are still neighborhoods – neighborhoods that will increase our tax base and sense of community and social capital, decrease reliance on cars, increase the feasibility of mass transit, and so much more; neighborhoods that we should all strive to create for the sake of our city’s future.

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