Response to John Edward’s piece, “Beyond Apocalyptic Yard Signs.”

I wanted to respond to John Edward’s piece, “Beyond Apocalyptic Yard Signs.”  From the comments here, many of the folks who have responded here are responding from the frame that Mr. Edwards put forward. The link to his piece is here:

And before I go forward, I would acknowledge that although we have different approaches to the end, we share the same goals.  A love of this City and concern for its future.  Keeping it affordable and keeping it thriving.

Mr. Edwards wrote:

“It’s a maddening time lately, with political actors denying obvious truths and using scare tactics to sidestep honest dialogue. In any debate about change, political winds favor the side with the simple message: NO. It’s easy to fearmonger, deceive, and put words on lawn signs that conjure impending annihilation.”

I like to think Minneapolis is better than that. In Minneapolis we recognize real problems and act to solve them. We recognize that housing is in short supply and unacceptably expensive for too many of our neighbors. We recognize that climate change is real, and is driven by lifestyles made necessary by our region’s sprawling, auto-oriented development patterns. We recognize that nobody should have opportunity limited by the fact they can’t afford to live in the right neighborhood.”

To foster an honest conversation about the Minneapolis 2040 Comprehensive Plan, let’s focus on this widely recognized fact: Minneapolis doesn’t have enough homes. MPR reports that the fabled “starter home” is disappearing from the Twin Cities due to a combination of factors: “land, laws, labor, and lumber.”

I agree with Mr. Edwards in that political actors are denying obvious truths and using scare tactics. But the scare tactics are not in lawn signs but in on-line falsehoods.  If we do agree to the facts, then the answers become self-evident.  The idea that “Minneapolis doesn’t have enough homes” is not true – at least it is not true for market-rate housing.  Here is the truth about market-rate housing:

  • The Minneapolis median home value in 2018 is what it was in 2003, adjusted for inflation. (Minneapolis City Assessor)
  • Although the median home value increased each year over the last five years, it decreased each year over the previous five years. (Minneapolis City Assessor)
  • The median home value in Minneapolis in 2018 was $255,000. This means half of homes were less and half were more.  Median family income was $72,970 in 2016 (American Community Survey).  According to NerdWallet’s housing calculator, the median home is affordable to the median income family in Minneapolis.
  • The City of St Paul hasn’t even recovered from the Great Recession, with a median home value of $184,000. ( ) Minneapolis is less than 10% of the overall regional housing market.
  • Apartment rents went up 3.3% last year (RentCafe).
  • The stock of unsold housing is in short supply as a natural business cycle. We had an oversupply five years ago and were in short supply ten years ago. We are in the middle of one of the longest economic expansion ever. When the crash comes (and it will), we will have an oversupply. That is the business cycle.
  • We have literally thousands of new units in the pipeline.
  • As to the concern about starter homes disappearing, the article talked about suburban single-family starter homes. Not Minneapolis.

I will say it again – we are not having a crisis in market rate housing. The data simply does not support that argument.

We are absolutely having an affordable housing crisis.

Mr. Edwards continues:

“For the sake of conversation, here’s a few examples of things affecting the cost housing:

  • Energy efficiency standards substantially add to the cost of a new home
  • Land on which to build new homes is made more expensive because of growth boundaries
  • Restrictions in zoning codes all across the Twin Cities prevent building “twin homes” (or fourplexes, or apartments, or anything that’s not a single-family home) that share a wall and sell for much less than an equivalent single-family home
  • Car parking requirements add to the cost of every unit of housing, especially when it’s a massive parking structure

If we can agree to the facts (that these things affect the cost of housing), then — and only then — we can move to what should come next: an actual conversation about what we value.”

We must agree about the things that affect the price of housing.  Mr. Edwards notes some items but they are not the major driver of housing costs.  What are?  Here are a few:

  • One driver of costs is whether a housing unit is old or new.  An old house is cheaper than a new house.  When we demolish old houses, and replace them with new, we create more expensive housing.
  • Another driver is whether a property is rental or ownership. Home ownership, whether it is a single-family home or a condo, is the single best way for the average American to build wealth.  When we replace ownership with rental, we make housing more expensive.
  • A third driver of cost is how large of housing a family needs. 40% of Minneapolis residents are kids under the age of 18 and their parents.  80% of our three plus housing units are in single family homes.   Only 10% of multi-family homes are 3+ bedrooms.  (US Census) Rent for a 3-bedroom apartment is 25% higher than the average and almost double a studio apartment. (RentCafe, July 2018) As we demolish homes and replace them with rental, we make housing more expensive for families.  And when we replace a single-family home, a home with parents and couple kids, with a fourplex with studios with one person each, what have we accomplished?

Mr. Edwards continues:

“No doubt, there are trade-offs: someone who values action to fight climate change will probably support energy efficiency standards and growth boundaries–believing sustainability is worth the added housing cost. Sometimes an action can tick off multiple priorities at once: easing density restrictions and parking requirements will move us away from the expensive, auto-oriented, exclusively single-family neighborhoods that dominate most of the Twin Cities. It’s not unheard of — even for a person with a garage — to list abundant street parking as their number one value (because we’re having an honest conversation, please don’t be ashamed to say it out loud).”

I am proud to say street parking is important. Mobility is the life blood of a city.  I could not get to my job without my car. I could not take my kid to school without my car.  I could not take my child to soccer games or her friend’s house or camp without my car.  I could not see my friends or take care of those who rely on me without my car.  I could not do my shopping.   A car is the best leading indicator of an individual leaving poverty. Limiting people only to where they can walk or bike or take transit would radically reduce job opportunities, school choice, business customers and the vitality of our city.

Mr. Edwards continues:

“What are the values served by saying the most walkable and transit-accessible areas in the state of Minnesota must be dominated by low-density, auto-oriented uses? What are the values served by saying these areas must always and forever be reserved for ever-larger single-family homes?”

That keeping housing costs low is important. That keeping housing for families in our city is important.  That a vibrant city comes from diversity and that means the people who want a garden or a back yard for their dog are just as important as those who want to live in a multi-family unit. That we honor our history and where we came from.  My home was built as worker housing 100 years ago and I proudly maintain that heritage.

Mr. Edwards continues:

“We’ve inherited a system, a legacy of redlining, that’s left us with increasingly exclusive neighborhoods. It’s a system where not being able to afford the neighborhood you want means you can’t afford access to a good public school; or to be near grocery stores and other amenities; or to keep yourself and your family safe from dirty air, soil, and water. It’ll take a lot more to undo that legacy, but ending exclusionary zoning is a necessary step.”

One of the things that the YIMBY movement does very well is a bait and switch.  It tells you that if you just let developers built whatever they want, whatever they want, that if we build more market rate housing, somehow racism will be addressed. Somehow income inequality will be addressed.  Trick down racial and economic justice. But it is never clear how building more market rate housing will do this.  More market rate housing does not create more affordable housing. It just creates more market rate housing.  And does nothing for historic racism.

I will also say that personally find it odious that the YIMBY movement uses people of color to sell a pro-developer agenda, an agenda that will do nothing except accelerate gentrification in our city.

Mr. Edwards continues:

“I’ve previously written that the Minneapolis 2040 plan is bold. But it’s only bold when judged against the low expectations set by generations of misguided policies. We’ve been numbed into thinking what we’ve been doing for decades is our only choice.”

Allowing up to four families to live in a house the size of a large single-family home isn’t bold. It’s not bold to legalize three-story apartment buildings in neighborhoods adjacent to downtown. It’s not bold to allow many more people to live along major transit corridors. These are all modest changes, and the very least we should be doing to give ourselves a fighting chance at a better future.

Instead of rejecting the idea of change and holding dearly to an unsustainable status quo, I hope you’ll seek out facts about the Minneapolis 2040 Comprehensive Plan. Tell the city council what you value.”

There is a better vision.  And it is a vision that meets the values of Mr. Edwards better than what Mr. Edwards argues for.  Instead of scattering new housing through dozens and dozens of miles, concentrate new housing in existing walkable environments.  Concentrate new housing at high frequency transit nodes rather than expecting people to walk blocks and blocks in the snow and rain and dark.  Ensure new housing is built throughout the City, not just Southwest, by using zoning to direct development where it makes sense instead of whatever developers want.  Preserve single family homes because they are cheaper than new housing.  Prioritize families with children.  Maintain mobility to maintain economic vitality.

As I said at the beginning, I believe we both love our city passionately.  That we both want the best for it. We just understand the world very differently.  I hope this helps bridge that gap.

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