Last week, Mayor Jacob Frey announced a goal to fund $50 million on housing projects in Minneapolis as part of efforts to address an affordable housing crisis in a city “growing faster than it has since 1950.”
Look no further than trying to rent an apartment or buy a house these days to see that yes, the city’s burgeoning population is putting a crunch on some of its resources. But that fast?
Yep. And then some.
Between 1940 and 1950, Minneapolis added more than 29,000 people, an increase of 6 percent, according to U.S. Census data. By 2020, the Metropolitan Council projects that Minneapolis will have added about 40,000 residents since 2010, an increase of more than 10 percent.
For the last 70 years, though, growth has been the exception rather than the rule for Minneapolis’ population. Here’s a look at the bumps and dips in the city’s population history.
Boom and decline
Minneapolis first incorporated as a city in 1867, but it didn’t show up on the Census Bureau’s list of urban places until 1880.
That year, the city listed a population of 46,887, making it the U.S.’ 38th largest city.
In the decades that followed, three major industries — warehousing, lumber and flour milling — would create demands for workers that fueled a population boom.
Minneapolis’ central location made it a natural place for warehousing. In fact, if you walked through the North Loop’s trendy converted warehouse apartments a century ago, you’d find them full of farm implements and other goods waiting to be shipped on trains across the plains.
“We’re right in the middle, and we had a great train system. Order your plow and it’ll arrive in the next week or two on the train, or any of your other supplies,” said Penny Petersen, an author of local history books who also works with Mapping Prejudice, a history project looking at racial disparities in housing.
Head toward the river and you’d find lumber mills, and, of course, flour mills. For a time, Minneapolis, which had the waterpower to run mills near St. Anthony Falls, was known as the flour milling capital of the world.
After booming from its earliest days to around 1920, population growth in Minneapolis slowed. One factor was immigration: In 1924, immigration quotas were imposed and immigrants from Asia were restricted outright.
But it also had to do with the economy. Minneapolis lost its status as the preeminent U.S. flour milling town after changes to trade law made it cost-effective to import Canadian wheat. While Minneapolis mills experimented with importing Canadian wheat to a degree, Buffalo, New York, near the Canadian border, rose to prominence in the milling industry.
“The economy in Minneapolis was pretty much exploding, especially from the 1870s through World War I, and then starting (during) World War I, things really started to decline,” said Kirsten Delegard, a scholar-in-residence at Augsburg who runs Historyapolis. “You have this economic decline in the ’20s and ’30s when a lot of other cities are expanding.”
But, in the 1920s, during a farm slump and through the Great Depression, enough people moved off the farms where they couldn’t make money and into the city for work to sustain slower growth.
Loss to the suburbs
In the 1940s, the economy of the Twin Cities grew stronger, as it shifted to more of an added-value economy, Delegard said: think General Mills focusing on breakfast cereal instead of flour, marketing and packaged foods. Its population continued to rise through the World War II years.
But after 1950, Minneapolis, like other cities, started to see the beginning of a decades-long decline in population.
Between low-cost mortgages, which made home ownership manageable for many families, and new highways, many families — particularly white, middle-class ones — moved from Minneapolis into the suburbs.
“A lot of the first-ring suburbs, like Hopkins, Richfield, Bloomington, and even St. Anthony — they were all farm communities up to that point. And then in the 1950s, these towns really took off population-wise,” said Heidi Heller, an archivist at the Hennepin History Museum.
Even some companies, like General Mills in 1958, moved to the suburbs.
The population loss only accelerated in the 1960s and ’70s. From 1970 to 1976, the Minneapolis Star reported, Minneapolis lost nearly 17 residents per day. At the time, the outflow of population was chalked up to the allure of the suburban lifestyle, as compared to the urban core.
“The city’s population loss has been attributed to several factors by planners, including the belief by many city dwellers that suburbs offer less crime, better schools, more housing choices and lower property taxes,” the Star reported.
Because of racial covenants, moving to the suburbs was an option available mostly to white families, which only served to exacerbate regional racial and socioeconomic segregation.
Minneapolis wasn’t the only city to see this pattern: These broad factors prompted rapid suburbanization, and consequent urban population loss, all over the country.
After decades of hemorrhaging population to the suburbs, Minneapolis’ population loss finally began to slow by the 1980s: For the first time since the 1940s, the number of births in the city of Minneapolis exceeded the number of deaths within city limits for three consecutive years, a 1981 article in the Star said.
In the 1990s, Minneapolis’ population hit a low, at 368,383 — a size not seen since before the 1920s. But economic prosperity in the ’90s helps explain why the population’s nosedive ended, said Matt Schroeder, a senior researcher at the Met Council: between 1990 and 2000, the city’s population grew by nearly 4 percent, according to the Census.
As the suburbs grew rapidly in the 2000s, enough people were moving in and out of the city that its population was essentially static, Schroeder said.
Between 2010 and 2016, Census figures put Minneapolis’ population growth at 8 percent.
Growth in the region has been fairly evenly distributed between the urban core and the suburbs, he said.
The population growth Minneapolis has seen in recent years isn’t unique to Minneapolis. In the years since 2010, many cities have seen rapid growth as young people move back into cities to be close to their jobs and other amenities.
Don’t get too excited, though: Minneapolis’ 8 percent growth between 2010 and 2016 is dwarfed by growth in Austin, Texas (20 percent); Seattle (16 percent); and Denver (15 percent), and is behind Portland’s (10 percent).
But the Mill City has grown faster than most other Midwestern cities, data show. Only Omaha, Columbus, Lincoln and Madison grew faster than Minneapolis between 2010 and 2016, according to Census data, while St. Louis, Cleveland, Toledo and Detroit lost population during that time period. St. Paul grew by 6 percent.
Vacancy rates have declined and there’s been a small increase in average household size this decade, too, indicating high demand and more people per unit in the city, Schroeder said.
Demand for housing in Minneapolis has spurred residential development in areas that weren’t highly populated — like downtown and the Warehouse District — but it’s also prompted new construction in some of the city’s established neighborhoods, with high-rise apartment towers going into neighborhoods like Uptown and Northeast Minneapolis.
“What has made such a difference this decade, I would say, is just that rapid growth in housing developments,” Schroeder said.
Correction: This article previously stated that Buffalo, New York's proximity to the St. Lawrence Seaway helped its flour industry surpass Minneapolis' in prominence. The St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959, after Buffalo ramped up its flour production.