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Minneapolis residential discrimination: Why neoliberal zoning will fail

Fixing segregation demands a metrowide solution. Yet Minneapolis has acted on its own via its 2040 comprehensive plan to address historical discrimination.

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
While there may be a local demand for affordable housing, housing is also a national market sensitive to price, profit, and cost issues that often are not local.
The spatial distribution of housing in Minneapolis and all of the Twin Cities metro area is a product of race and class. Yet curing this discrimination does not reside in the elimination of single family housing through changes in zoning or a comprehensive plan. Such an approach, call it neoliberal zoning, is destined to achieve the same results in land use that neoliberalism achieved economically over the last 40 years domestically and internationally.

Residential housing patterns are the product of discrimination. Private discriminatory preferences coupled with market decisions were enabled by racial covenants, government redlining, and zoning to produce the segregation patterns we see today. Countless books, such as Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton’s classic “American Apartheid,” tell this story well. Nearly 25 years ago at the University of Minnesota, I helped author a study pointing to the Twin Cities metro region being the third most segregated urban area in the nation. More recently, the U’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity located persistent segregation in the placement of low-income housing and education policy choices that concentrate low-income people of color in specific neighborhoods and schools.

Metrowide solution needed

Fixing this segregation demands a metrowide solution. Yet Minneapolis has acted on its own via its Minneapolis 2040 Comprehensive Plan to address this problem. Its solution mostly includes elimination of single-family zoning, believing that intensification of land use along with market incentives will encourage the building of more housing. Presumably this market-driven approach will mean more housing in more places, thereby fixing the economic and racial residential discrimination.

Both a New York Times article and current Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson have lauded this market-driven fix. Unfortunately, this approach will fail, exacerbating existing problems.

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Again, the Minneapolis approach to liberating the market to address its housing woes is neoliberal zoning. Neoliberalism is the term used to describe a series of U.S. domestic and international economic policies that begin with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher (in the UK) and continued through Bill Clinton and Tony Blair and into the present with Donald Trump. Neoliberals believe that a return to market fundamentalism – cutting government regulation and business taxes along with globalization in free trade – would rejuvenate domestic and world economies.

photo of article author
David Schultz
The reality, as many economists such as Thomas Piketty, Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz have described and statistics show, is that neoliberalism has produced the greatest gaps between the rich and poor in the U.S. since before the Great Depression. The rich have truly gotten richer, with the middle and lower classes gaining little. Maybe we are overall richer as a nation as a result of neoliberalism, but the externalities of these policies have produced powerful economic inequities that overlap with race.

The elimination of single-family zoning to encourage intensified land use across the city rests on a similar logic that will yield parallel results. In theory the breaking up of large single-family houses in south Minneapolis will produce more housing, but it is doubtful it will be low-income or affordable. Conversely, permitting the breakup of existing homes in north Minneapolis into multifamily units or their demolishing and replacement with multiple units also will not guarantee affordable housing in integrated neighborhoods. This is a recipe for gentrification as developers will enter areas, buy homes, and dislocate current residents by building more high-end units.

Ignores the way housing markets work

The Minneapolis comp-plan fix ignores the realities of the way housing markets work. While there may be a local demand for affordable housing, housing is also a national market sensitive to price, profit, and cost issues that often are not local. Developers have few incentives to provide affordable housing.

Beyond the fact the neoliberal zoning will not fix the segregation problems, elimination of single-family zoning will produce additional problems. One, there is an inherent value in preserving a mixture of uses — from a historic preservation perspective but also in terms of how a multiplicity of uses, ages, and styles of buildings and residential options appeals to the widest variety of individuals. As Jane Jacobs, perhaps the greatest 20th-century scholar on cities, wrote in her “Death and Life of Great American Cities,” cities are generators of diversity; it is that which makes them interesting and centers of commerce. Two, phasing out single-family zoning does not eliminate a demand for these types of units and people seeking them, often middle class and those starting families, will flee to the suburbs. Three, for many, single-family homes represent a sense of community, connectedness, and stability that are worth preserving. Finally, given how interconnected residential and education discrimination are, tackling one without addressing the other dooms solving both problems.

Minneapolis’ population is exploding, and more housing is needed to address that demand. This housing needs to address all income levels and needs, and be spatially distributed in a way that is economically and racially fair. Unfortunately, Minneapolis’s neoliberal zoning policies will do little to address these issues.

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science. He is a former city director of code enforcement, zoning, and planning and a former housing and economic planner.

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