The 2018 Minnesota legislative session adjourned without making much progress. Among the few areas of bipartisan consensus was affordable housing. The final bonding bill devotes about $90 million to build new affordable housing and renovate existing properties. That commitment falls short of Gov. Mark Dayton’s $115 million request, and further short of the $130 million in #Bonds4Housing that advocates were hoping for. Still, the Legislature’s $90 million investment shows that, even in an era of unprecedented partisan dysfunction in our state government, Minnesotans truly care about making sure that we all have a safe and affordable place to live.
I think about affordable housing for a living, so I am all in for public policy that prioritizes it. Everybody should have a chance to live in our state without going broke. But what if spending money on affordable housing isn’t actually the best way to make housing affordable? What if we could reach universal housing affordability faster, more equitably, and more efficiently without spending tens of millions of bonding dollars?
I believe Minnesota can create more affordable housing, in more places, with more dignity and diversity, at negligible public cost. And I think we can do it without bribing developers or concentrating poverty. How? By burning outdated, restrictive and racist zoning regulations as fuel for change.
That’s exactly what Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender envisions with her draft inclusionary zoning ordinance for our state’s largest city, where I live. As Peter Callaghan described it, Bender’s proposal would “either require or encourage developers of larger residential buildings to make a certain percentage of the rental units in a project available to lower income people at less-than-market rents.” This is the best idea in affordable housing, hands down.
But inclusionary zoning is hard to grasp — not least because it’s strange to imagine getting something good, like affordable housing, without spending money on it. That’s why expensive and possibly ineffective investments of public money tend to occupy the headlines, stir up activism and secure legislative support.
Minneapolis 2040, Minneapolis’s ambitious draft comprehensive plan, is a case in point. The plan says our zoning should change to “allow multifamily housing on select public transit routes,” let multifamily buildings continue to be built in neighborhoods where they already coexist with single-family homes, and allow fourplexes in residential areas citywide.
Thanks to powerful and sometimes hilarious “YIMBY” activism, municipalities outside the Twin Cities are taking affordable housing seriously too. Some suburbs are requiring a percentage of new housing to be affordable. Others are requiring developers to make accommodations for low-income households their new developments displace.
Those are all reasonable economic levers to pull. They’re so reasonable, in fact, that they won’t make much difference. Even when policymakers make a deliberate effort to bring housing within reach for more people, municipal leaders fail to recognize the power they already have to make that happen.
Think of zoning differently
That’s where inclusionary zoning comes in.
Existing zoning regulations — as outdated, irrational and exclusionary as they are — are an immense resource that municipalities, including Minneapolis, can use to force positive changes. We just have to think of zoning differently.
Most well-intentioned proposals to make housing more affordable assume that affordable housing has to come at a public cost — in the form of tax incentives, special set-aside fees for affordable construction, or sweeping zoning changes that let developers build where and what they want in exchange for very little public benefit. But there’s a better way to use zoning for good. Instead of bribing developers to build housing people can afford or changing regulations in advance to lure them into building housing they wouldn’t otherwise, I want to encourage you to join me in supporting a version of Lisa Bender’s approach:
Leave the zoning regulations exactly as restrictive and outdated as they are now. Then, when developers ask for variances, grant them — in exchange for affordable units. Thinking of old zoning this way, as a resource, capitalizes on the natural demand for housing that exists right now, and the natural desire of developers to meet it.
Rather than bribing developers or twisting their arms, I want our mayors, city councils and zoning boards to recognize the leverage they have already. Don’t change old zoning: instead, burn it as fuel to drive a more affordable future for everybody.
Chris Voss is the founder and CEO of RightSource Compliance, a Minneapolis company that works toward better living in affordable housing nationwide.
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