The following essay about a potential zoning reform in Minneapolis offers important lessons for any city that wants to increase housing options and affordability. It's republished with permission from our friends at Streets.MN.


Word has leaked of a very preliminary plan to legalize fourplexes in virtually every neighborhood in Minneapolis. A fourplex is a small apartment building with four units but zoning laws forbid them in many residential neighborhoods. This  legalization is one part of a larger draft comprehensive plan that hasn’t yet been made public. If implemented, it would be the boldest land-use reform in the country, reversing a decades-long trend of restrictions that have contributed to higher housing costs and racial/economic segregation.

Here are eight reasons I think we should embrace this plan to legalize fourplexes in Minneapolis.

 Vacancy rates go down and rents go up. ( Source )

Vacancy rates go down and rents go up. (Source)

1. We are experiencing a regional housing shortage. Vacancy rates have hovered around 2% for years. This inflates rents higher than they’d otherwise be. Scarcity is bad for the people who can least afford it. We need more housing.

Now, assuming you agree with me that we urgently need more places for people to live, maybe I can convince you that…

2. Fourplexes (and triplexes/duplexes) are the most economical and accessible way to create new housing. This applies both to tenants and the small homebuilders who could construct (or convert) them. That’s because these small apartment buildings are more like houses. Small multi-family houses are cheaper per unit to build than your typical multi-lot, 6-story apartment complex or a downtown luxury tower. While it’s important to note that new construction is almost always more expensive than equivalent existing housing, allowing more fourplexes would create a supply of homes that are more accessible than most of the new homes being built today.

3. People say they hate “big.” Big apartment buildings. Big developers. Big landlords. Big profits... A 40-story condo tower was proposed in Downtown West just last week, and the developer bragged they would be the most expensive homes in Minneapolis. We need to grapple with the fact that our current zoning code has a preference for big developers, big buildings, and big single-family homes to the exclusion of less expensive mid-scale housing. If you want to open up the housing market to the little guy, then we need to allow the kind of housing that can be produced by a small builder and owned/occupied by a small landlord. That’s a fourplex!

4. We must end exclusionary zoning that creates nearly all-white enclaves of luxury single-family homes. To borrow a phrase from a friend, maybe “mansion districts” in Minneapolis are a bad thing. It’s time to admit our zoning code plays a role in segregating our city and limiting opportunity and access to our most desirable neighborhoods. The reason Lowry Hill East is more affordable and less segregated than Lowry Hill is tied up with a legacy of redlining and restrictive zoning. Zoning reform doesn’t solve this problem by itself, but we can’t deny the role our zoning code plays in perpetuating it.

 Just a litte fourplex in Portland, minding its own business, not bothering anybody. (Source: Ian Poellet)

Just a litte fourplex in Portland, minding its own business, not bothering anybody. (Source: Ian Poellet)

If you’re against the idea of legalizing fourplexes, you prefer a zoning code that encourages exclusive neighborhoods and favors the most expensive (luxury!) forms of development. And you can’t pretend otherwise the next time you rail against another big, unaffordable, “out of scale” apartment project.

5. Fourplexes could be public/subsidized housing. Overly restrictive zoning makes no distinction between public and private; it’s a legal barrier to housing of all kinds. Affordable housing funds are limited — you can stretch that money a whole lot further on a fourplex.

6. Fourplexes are unobtrusive, even in places where zoning doesn’t allow them anymore. I’ve noticed that people who already live in neighborhoods full of fourplexes show up at city hall all the time to testify about protecting their “single-family neighborhood.” People live among fourplexes, unaware they’re living among them, to the point that they would fight to their last breath to protect their wonderful neighborhood from becoming what it already is — a neighborhood with fourplexes. This is a good post from Scott Shaffer showing how we’ve used extremely restrictive zoning to make existing neighborhoods illegal.

7. Household sizes are shrinking. The typical household in Minneapolis contains 2.3 people. This is one whole entire person smaller than the average US household size in 1960 (3.33). We don’t need as many bedrooms as we used to. As people age and their families evolve, people often want to continue living in the neighborhood they love; but this isn’t possible in exclusively single-family neighborhoods. Let’s adjust to the cold, hard facts of demographics by providing homes for people who don’t need or can’t afford a three-plus bedroom house.

8. Saying a particular thing is “allowed” to exist is not the same thing as saying it’s mandatory. Allowing fourplexes does not mean every single-family home must become a fourplex. (And to debunk a concern that was reported on the local internet forum e-democracy, legalizing fourplexes does not mean homeowners will be required to become renters.) The vast majority of people will continue to live in homes that are not fourplexes, even in neighborhoods where fourplexes become legal.

If you’re worried about what happens to starter homes: homebuyers are already tearing down smaller single-family homes to replace them with much bigger, more expensive single-family homes. To the degree that you believe “starter homes” are still a thing in South Minneapolis, we’re not protecting them. Home values are increasing due to scarcity, and the only thing we can guarantee by maintaining the status quo is that our single-family real estate will be occupied, year after year, by ever-richer families in ever larger single-family homes.

And before you say “Fourplexes alone can’t save us!” remember this is just one small part of a comprehensive plan charting the next 20 years in Minneapolis on topics ranging from equity, sustainability, livability, growth and more. Fourplexes aren’t magic, but this reform is a necessary break from a status quo that restricts housing choice and uses the zoning code to promote the most expensive forms of luxury housing. And like so many things in politics: the only way an idea this good has any chance of surviving is with your overwhelming and extremely vocal support.

(Top photo source: Ian Poellet)