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Burn zoning as fuel for change

Chris Voss

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?

Another way

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 By burning outdated, restrictive and racist zoning regulations as fuel for change.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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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Constance Sullivan on 06/28/2018 - 04:12 pm.

    It’s fine for a real estate investor consultant on how to manage and profit from their “affordable housing” projects to recommend abolishing any Minneapolis zoning laws that inhibit his clients from doing whatever they want, wherever they want, in our city. But we don’t have to buy his recommendations.

    Don’t “burn” our zoning restrictions, either with the Minneapolis 2040 Plan’s proposed blanket abolition of low-density residential zoning throughout the city or with Voss’s strange Wild West concept of bribing developers to include affordable units in their large multi-unit projects by removing zoning restraints lot by lot (called “spot zoning,” whether you get it by variance or by code). Apply to do whatever you want, and Minneapolis will automatically grant you a variance to do what’s not permitted by code? Please.

    I see a lot of real estate people–builders, developers, brokers, bankers, property management firms and consultants who aid all of the above–salivating at the idea that Minneapolis’s new plan will eliminate zoning restrictions that currently limit density in residential neighborhoods and blocks. They’ve wanted that for decades (ask any neighborhood association with a land-use or zoning committee)!

    There are many solid reasons to oppose the up-zoning proposal pushing for greater density everywhere, as determined solely by developers in the industry and their investors.

  2. Submitted by Janne Flisrand on 07/01/2018 - 02:17 pm.

    Affordability is possible only with predictability

    We need more affordable homes, and more middle-income homes. We need more apartments (owned and rented), whether they come in a 4-unit building, whether they’re in a 140-unit building, or whether they’re a free-standing accessory dwelling unit in a back yard. We need enough homes for our growing population.

    Zoning, just like a budget, is a moral document that communicates our values. We face a choice. We can continue to use our zoning to keep people out, offering access only to those with lawyers and super-technical land use expertise and infinite time to navigate complex approvals systems. Or, we can use our zoning to invite our neighbors and networks to build triplexes and small apartment buildings, to claim ownership of our communities. That is possible only when our zoning is clear and predictable. Our neighbors are more likely to build homes at every price point for our growing population, to build the variety of homes our aging population needs, and to keep wealth in our communities.

    We also need a legal strategy — and “burning zoning as fuel for affordable housing” is not legal. State law requires zoning comply with the existing comp plan. The variances being allowed today are given when there’s a case to be made that they are out of compliance, or that the zoning places an unreasonable burden on whoever is building. We must update our comp plan for our current needs, and our zoning to comply with that plan.

    We need predictability, we need to know where homes can be built, and we need to allow for incremental growth on every single block of our city. We should allow significantly more homes along commercial corridors and on transit corridors. And we must allow the sort of small-scale apartment buildings that exist throughout residential neighborhoods in Minneapolis and that are now illegal to build. Most critically, we must insist that racially concentrated areas of wealth (particularly in SW and S Mpls) that have used zoning to exclude affordable and moderately priced apartments and homes make space for new neighbors. Those are the places with abundant amenities and opportunities, and with scarce housing opportunities.

    Predictability means we update our zoning code to convey that people are welcome. Zoning, just like a budget, is a moral document that communicates our values. It’s time Minneapolis lives up to our values to do our part to protect the climate, to proactively address our extreme racial disparities, to give every kid access to a promising future here, as we do in our conversations over coffee, at our places of worship, and on social media.

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