Don't fear the renter

Few read all 265 pages of the Minneapolis 2040 plan's first draft, but that didn't stop them from having opinions.

Few read all 265 pages of the Minneapolis 2040 plan's first draft, but that didn't stop them from having opinions. Tony Webster

Let’s take a minute to thank Heather Worthington, executor of a thankless task.

As a long-range planner for the city of Minneapolis, Worthington has attended an estimated 50 public meetings for Minneapolis 2040, the ambitious plan to make the city a bigger and better place.

Her job involves offering information, then getting yelled at. She takes notes about what’s being yelled, and thanks the shouter for their comment. The only thing she’s not doing is wiping the spittle from their mouths.

People who show up angry are almost uniformly older, white, well-to-do homeowners. Despite all of Worthington’s assurances to the contrary, they slam her and the city for this nefarious plot to seize homes and whole neighborhoods, turning them over to a cabal of jackbooted bureaucrats, treacherous real estate developers, and— scariest of all—renters.

Worthington and 14 staffers are now racing to incorporate these 10,000 comments into a second draft of the plan. A typical entry: “I can’t find it here, but have read in the paper about changing zoning to allow small apt. Bldings in all mpls neighborhoods. This is a terrible idea and will ruin some of the most lovely neighborhoods in the city.”

There’s a reason you can’t find this information. It’s not in there. What is: the prospect of “upzoning” every parcel of housing to allow for the construction of multi-unit housing, up to four-plexes. Currently, with the exception of areas around downtown and a few thin patches here and there, almost every inch of the city is reserved for single-family homes.

If that sounds boring, you should try reading all 265 pages of the plan. Few do, not that it’s stopped any from yelling at Worthington or putting “DON’T BULLDOZE OUR NEIGHBORHOODS!” signs on carefully landscaped south Minneapolis lawns. To residents in the city’s most expensive neighborhoods, the plan looks like an act of war, a Trojan Horse that will break open to spill out a horde of transient youths who couldn’t tell an annual from a perennial if their ill-bred rescue mutt’s life depended on it.

Fears of a bulldozer apocalypse are “ridiculous,” says Council Member Linea Palmisano, who’s fighting for—and getting yelled at “once a day” by—residents of the affluent Southwest neighborhoods with most of those signs. Under state law, only properties deemed “70 percent blighted” can be taken under eminent domain. The only way a developer’s getting the keys to your house is if you sell it to them.

They’d have to pay a pretty price to do in Palmisano’s ward, or in parts of Lisa Goodman’s, which includes the Kenwood and Cedar-Isles-Dean. Let’s start the bidding at $600,000 and work up from there. Add at least $100,000 for demolition. Throw in the cost of a new multi-family structure, and the price comes out to well over $1 million.

The resulting rents will not exactly be affordable to the teeming rabble. If the orthopedic surgeon next door moves out, he’d likely be replaced by three nurses and a college professor.

Palmisano bought a home in her neighborhood at age 24, moving in two girlfriends as renters to help with the mortgage. Like her constituents, she chose the area for stable housing and good neighbors. You don’t trade in your values on closing date, says Palmisano, who suggests constituents are getting criticized by others—sometimes even city staff—if they don’t want four-plexes down the block.

“They are basically told it’s just due to their inherent-born racism,” Palmisano says. “It’s a great way to end a conversation.”

Despite efforts to engage renters, who make up a slight majority of the city’s population, public meetings are inevitably dominated by a certain kind of person— and they’re not the ones hustling to feed the kids before picking up a second shift waiting tables.

“Upper-middle-class folks have the flexibility to engage in a process like this,” says Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, who represents a big chunk of north Minneapolis.

Like those rich folks, Ellison doesn’t quite trust developers to act in the public interest. Neither does Council President Lisa Bender, which is why they’re pushing for “inclusionary zoning”—meaning new development must make a set percentage of units affordable—and a “renter’s bill of rights.” To just throw the doors open might turn Minneapolis into San Francisco or Boston: desirable cities cleaving ever-wider into groups of haves and have-nots, those who own and those who never will.

Whether the four-plexes-for-everywhere piece survives, we won’t know until late this month. If so, Goodman worries owners will take the money and run for the downsized life.

“If somebody lives in a house they bought 30 or 40 years ago for $300,000,” she says, “and it’s now valued at $900,000, and they can no longer afford the property taxes on it, that’s often the cause of people moving.”

That’s sad, but tragedy plays out on a sliding scale. Try telling one of Ellison’s constituents how hard it is to own something worth so much you can’t resist the urge to sell it.

Bender, whose Wedge-and-Whittier neighborhood in south Minneapolis is 80 percent renters, understands concerns about rampant teardowns. Lately, she observes, most have been occurring in the same neighborhoods that churn out angry commenters.

“In Southwest, they have had a lot of teardowns and reconstructions in recent history,” she says. “They’re tearing down single-family homes, and then building larger single-family homes.”

Minneapolis is growing whether you like it or not, and property values are going up. Those who own are fortunate. On average, Twin Cities homes gained 7 percent in value in each of the last two years, an enviable appreciation rate—one our market does not afford renters or the public servants who don’t dread them. 

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