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Minneapolis got rid of single-family home zoning. Should Minnesota?

A proposed bill effectively eliminates single-family zoning throughout the entire state, and removes a lot of restrictions on developers.

A proposed bill effectively eliminates single-family zoning throughout the entire state, and removes a lot of restrictions on developers. Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

In 2018, Minneapolis made history by effectively eliminating single-family zoning throughout the whole city.

The hope was to make housing denser and more plentiful, not only to mitigate a burgeoning housing shortage, but to drive down skyrocketing prices.

It’s still too early to tell exactly how it’s going to affect the city, but while we have the nation’s attention, some Minnesotans are dreaming a little bit bigger.

Rep. Steve Elkins (DFL-Bloomington), a former member of the Met Council, is one of the legislators trying to take this concept and apply it statewide. One of the many provisions in his proposed bill allows duplexes on any lot currently zoned for single-family housing in Minnesota.

“This is kind of like what Minneapolis did,” he says.

If it passes, Minnesota would become only the second state in the nation to get rid of single-family zoning, following Oregon, which approved the change last year. California has done something similar, allowing homeowners to build up to two accessory dwelling units – your various guest houses and whatnot – on their property.

That’s just one section of the bill, however. The proposal's overall goal is to make it easier for developers to… well… develop.

As often as city governments tend to agree our state has a housing problem, they also tend to impose requirements that make it harder to get projects approved -- like using more expensive building materials like brick or stone, or mandating lots of open space, or adding extra conditional fees along the way.

All this stuff, attractive though it may be to city governments and some residents, makes getting a new project approved untenable (or, at least, unattractive) to developers. in a recent Star Tribune op-ed, Elkins wrote the restrictions create a “huge barrier” – or “flaming hoops” to jump through – to the construction of affordable housing in the suburbs.

“At current Twin Cities land prices and prevailing minimum lot size requirements, it is impossible for homebuilders to profitably build anything but the exurban ‘starter castles’ that are least in demand for today’s housing market,” he wrote.

Take Corcoran, the example used in a recent report from Minnesota’s Housing Affordability Institute (a nonprofit backed by developers). The city that has strict requirements for a new building’s façade, materials, architectural style, garage size, and more.

Elkins' bill would prohibit city councils from requiring builders make apartments with wooden siding, or make them pay park dedication fees, or turn away anything denser than a single-family home. There’s a companion package in the Senate, authored by Sens. Richard Draheim (R-Madison Lake) and John Hoffman (D-Champlin).

It’s certainly ambitious, but it’s also got some rare bipartisan support. Elkins’ co-author, Rep. Shane Mekeland, is a Republican from Clear Lake. (Mekeland didn't respond to interview requests.) 

“Republicans are in favor of unshackling the homebuilding industry,” Elkins explains. “Democrats are in favor of eliminating barriers to the creation of additional affordable housing, as well as the elimination of zoning devices which some cities use to engage in exclusionary zoning.”

It’s easy to imagine a few qualms as the bill moves forward, however – particularly from people concerned about limiting local control, and the kinds of schemes developers could get up to without government oversight. But Elkins says so far, the public has been “overwhelmingly favorable.”

“I’ve had nothing but positive feedback,” he says.