There is no way to sugar-coat it. The 2040 draft plan is a preposterous social engineering experiment by city officials out of touch with the majority of Minneapolis residents.
It prescribes bad policy as the cure for nearly every societal ill in the city, and adopts a smug and righteous tone to sell it. But while many residents have expressed shock – thousands signing a petition against it in just one week — the plan shouldn’t be so surprising. It is the predictable product of a broken political system in Minneapolis that advances trendy ideological causes over rational policy.
The plan seeks to greatly increase affordable housing everywhere in the city by drastically rezoning neighborhoods. The blocks now restricted to single-family homes and duplexes would be open to four-unit and to three-story buildings with more units. Adjacent blocks with transit could see four-story buildings. The scheme is premised on the unproven theory that greater housing density will lower rental prices.
Increasing affordable housing is laudable. But the 2040 plan is unlikely to accomplish its primary goal of expanding such housing into middle and upper-middle class neighborhoods. That’s because buying and tearing down a single-family home in those neighborhoods and putting up a multi-unit apartment building will be expensive. So developers, looking to recover their costs and make a profit, will need to charge much higher rents than would be affordable to those with modest incomes.
The upshot: Charming, single-family homes will be bulldozed to make way for fairly expensive, utilitarian multi-unit rentals. And the remaining homeowners on the block will likely see their property values stagnate or decline. They could get hit again if the city makes good on hints it will subsidize the new developments and hikes taxes on homeowners’ property to do it. But the city is unlikely to be able to spend enough money to reduce rents. So the only winners will be developers who will be able to slap up lots of pricey rentals in choice neighborhoods that had been off limits.
Other cities wisely backed away from similar schemes that would destroy the character of their residential neighborhoods without significantly increasing affordable housing. Once those neighborhoods are gone, like the death of giant elms, they’re not coming back.
So why is Minneapolis pushing forward with such an illogical, risky plan? The answer can be found in a city political system that caters to the whims and ideology of a small percentage of DFL party activists over the broader public. It’s not a party that Hubert Humphrey would recognize. Trendy lefty causes, special interest groups and practitioners of racial and gender identity politics drive the bus. More mainstream DFLers fall by the wayside. The recent departures of Barb Johnson, Blong Yang and John Quincy from the city council left it a much more irrational place.
In this new environment, a risky experiment rejected elsewhere in the country faces few headwinds here. The 2040 draft plan is built on a pier of shaky assumptions, but that hasn’t prompted doubts from its city hall defenders.
One major shaky assumption deals with traffic. Critics rightly fear that increasing housing density in neighborhoods will make already-congested parking and driving lanes worse. Not to worry, say the 2040 planners, who offer vague assurances that people will be riding mass transit and bikes so often that congestion won’t be a problem. To that end, the plan has set a goal of having 15 percent of city workers commute by bike in 2025.
In a rational political environment, the notion that 1 in 7 commuters would be riding bikes in a cold weather city would be dismissed as absurd. The Census Bureau reports that only 5 percent of Minneapolis commuters use bikes, and no major city comes close to 15 percent. Portland, with a climate more favorable to biking, is at 7 percent.
But facts and logic don’t matter to the 2040 backers on the city council. One of the leading proponents is Lisa Bender, who replaced Johnson as council president. Bender is a cheerleader for bike activists, a proponent of dramatically expanding protected bike lanes on city streets. Not long ago, Bender pushed for protected bike lanes on south 26th and 28th streets despite the existence of the excellent Greenway bike trail running parallel to those streets only a couple of blocks away. Not surprisingly, bikers seldom use the protected lanes. But they have squeezed motorists on the streets, causing traffic jams in rush hours. The problem is worst between Portland and Hiawatha avenues, where the streets at points straddle Abbott Northwestern Hospital, and exhaust sometimes spews from idling cars at traffic lights.
Critics of the bike lanes wondered why the city would build them without a clear need. But need wasn’t the issue. The purpose was to trumpet a cause: people should be commuting by bike instead of car, darn it. And if under-used bike lanes create traffic jams for motorists, well, it’s their fault for driving cars.
And so it goes with the 2040 plan. While it correctly condemns federal housing policies 80 years ago that restricted neighborhoods by race and other factors, the plan’s zoning policy does nothing to correct those sins of the past. But that doesn’t matter to Bender and other supporters of the plan and practitioners of magical thinking on the council and in city hall. They’ve embarked on a moralistic crusade pushing greater housing density, despite lacking proof that greater density will significantly lower rents. It’s a trendy cause that appeals to the DFL party activists who carry outsized weight in city elections.
So what practical steps could the city take to increase affordable housing? Adopt a much more modest approach that holds promise of accomplishing something. Scrap the plans for allowing four-unit or three-story apartment buildings on residential blocks. They won’t do much to bring down rents, but run the risk of bringing down neighborhoods. Instead, allow or encourage more four-story and six-story buildings on major transit routes, aiming mostly at areas with commercial activity.
PAT DOYLE, MINNEAPOLIS