Minneapolis is a remarkable city. It has charted its own path to greatness: growing market-leading businesses, fostering world-renowned artistic expression, engaging and elevating its extraordinary first peoples, welcoming waves of new Americans into its cosmopolitan melting pot, and nurturing a spectacular greening of the urban environment. In most instances, hard work and creative leadership executed in typically humble Minnesota fashion has led to these results. But there are also painful deficiencies in this great world city: racial disparities and an affordable housing crisis.
Current Minneapolis city leaders are focused on these challenges and, like their predecessors, are seeking substantive solutions. National attention was focused last year on the bold decision to eliminate single-family zoning as one effort to address the housing crisis and disparities. However even that effort is being challenged in emerging research on upzoning. Unfortunately, a pattern is developing that suggests the necessary hard work and creative leadership are missing in the formation of innovative solutions that under meaningful analysis indicate a high likelihood of success.
The latest example of this phenomenon is the “Seattlification” of rental housing regulations. Two City Council members have proposed new ordinances that would substantially disrupt the rental market by limiting property managers’ ability to continue to provide safe and affordable housing.
Well-intentioned but ill-conceived
The well-intentioned ordinances are meant to lower barriers to housing for renters with criminal histories and low credit scores, and simultaneously limit security deposits that might mitigate those risks. These ill-conceived ideas are borrowed directly from Seattle and Portland, Oregon, where policymakers are struggling with even deeper housing affordability crises, often made worse by the latest round of their own municipal lawmaking.
Instead of promoting new approaches to helping those with recent criminal histories find housing, the draft ordinance says those with felony offenses five years from sentencing, including violent and predatory offenses, would now be eligible for housing, and a denial by the property manager would subject the manager to criminal prosecution. Furthermore, the ordinance cites a recent study by Wilder Research as the basis for concluding that “many criminal histories have no significant effect on housing outcomes.” The research has minimal application to market-rate housing since the study focused on subsidized affordable housing providers with supportive social services, and the study could draw no conclusions on renters with violent and predatory offenses since they were not included in the study.
It is imperative that Minneapolis city leaders first study the results of the extreme policy experiments in Seattle and Portland before replicating them here. The widely viewed documentary “Seattle Is Dying” is cautionary for Minneapolis having already implemented many similar policies as Seattle.
What alternative solutions might exist for these leaders? Minneapolis must rapidly increase housing production through several policy initiatives that would broaden the available housing spectrum and increase supply, including permitting very affordable co-living projects. Some of these projects could include supportive services and additional building security for those making transitions after completing their criminal sentence.
Other production reforms include partnering locally in the construction revolution that is already occurring in the United States in places like California and Chicago, which also may mean easing regulations. This system reform could create 30 to 40 percent cost savings over our current model of housing production and deliver it much more rapidly. Minneapolis could also establish incentives and risk mitigation programs to encourage the private market to accept renters with challenging histories — including criminal, credit and rental histories — out of which can emerge a set of best practices as the program matures to further improve renter success.
These ideas deserve study and analysis, and they deserve further refinement and innovation. There are other solutions that also need full consideration. But the residents of Minneapolis do not deserve failing and recycled Seattle ordinances. They deserve solutions that will significantly address the shortage of affordable housing. They deserve city leaders who humbly set about the hard work and creatively lead us to policies and programs that truly solve the problems that still beset this great world city.
Cecil Smith lives in Minneapolis and serves on the Minneapolis Housing Advisory Committee. He previously served on the Governor’s Housing Task Force and as Board Chair of the Minnesota Multi Housing Association.
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