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Laying Claim to Salted Earth

Image via Wikimedia Commons

The Brown Political Review receives support from the Stone Inequality Initiative for work relating to wealth inequality in the United States. BPR maintains editorial independence over the columns and stories published.

Throughout the last decade and particularly in the pandemic-defined years, the major American metropolis has undergone a mass exodus, with nearly two million residents––college-educated youth and working-class families alike––abandoning cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Rising in their place are midsize cities, loosely defined as having between 75,000 and 500,000 residents. They offer the entertainment districts, breweries, and post-industrial interior design that city-dwellers have become accustomed to, all without the exorbitant costs of living. One such city is Minneapolis, which has abundant green space, vibrant job opportunities, and robust public services. In anticipation of a renewed wave of residents, many of whom were young professionals with white-collar careers, the Minneapolis City Council passed the Minneapolis 2040 Comprehensive Plan in 2019

The plan was ambitious and, as its name suggests, comprehensive. The 1250-page document outlines several goals, each of which are underpinned by a commitment to rectifying the deep racial and economic inequality in the city. Namely, top priorities are creating more accessible, walkable neighborhoods; increasing the resilience of communities to climate change; and, most contentiously, abolishing the longstanding tradition of single-family zoning in the city of Minneapolis. Like many cities across the United States, Minneapolis faces an existential exigency for housing. The 2040 plan is a paradigmatic shift with the potential to heal past scars of inequitable housing policies while addressing current needs. It must not be held back either by outdated cries for dictating the nature of neighborhood character or by bad-faith environmental appeals.

Throughout the 1940s and 50s, the federally subsidized housing boom, propped up by strong-armed financing from the Federal Housing Administration, took Minneapolis by storm. To preserve and maintain the model of white, single-family housing, the Minneapolis municipal government and developers deployed two important mechanisms: housing covenants and zoning. 

Housing covenants––clauses woven into property deeds mandating the race of eligible buyers––were drawn into over 30,000 properties across the Twin Cities metro region. Though race-based covenants were deemed unenforceable in 1948 and outlawed entirely in 1968, their legacy remains because of intergenerational homeownership. Moreover, while covenants were struck down, zoning stuck. Prior to 2019, nearly 70 percent of the city was zoned for single-family housing, a model fundamentally inaccessible to BIPOC residents. 

Homeownership is an integral asset in building generational wealth, and limited access to this tool has certainly contributed to the massive disparities in housing outcomes today. Currently, the white homeownership rate in Minneapolis is about 77 percent while the rate for Black residents is only 19 percent. Accordingly, despite making up only around 20 percent of Minnesota’s population, people of color represent 62 percent of the state’s homeless population. 

In designing a city for the future, the Minneapolis City Council aimed to remedy the root causes of housing inequalities while preparing itself for a wave of new growth. By removing single-family zoning, the council sought to grant developers greater choice in the types of housing construction they pursue. This move is especially impactful for areas that were historically reserved for the “right kind of people,” such as large swaths of South and Southwest Minneapolis. By allowing the development of lower-cost, multifamily units in these areas––which offer accessible rapid transit, proximate job opportunities, and quality goods and services––the council finally made moves to rectify racial and socioeconomic segregation within the highly stratified city. 

As with many big ideas, the plan was met with mixed reactions. Community activists and urban scholars alike lauded the plan’s ambition, celebrating its unique, omnidirectional nature. But many of these groups also expressed hesitancy. The plan is not an immediate mandate, but instead lays a foundation upon which policy, community action, and development may occur. 

On the other hand, some residents of the city were anxious the plan would do too much. Homeowners expressed fear that the plan would galvanize developers to buy up single-family homes to convert to multi-family units. Concern about the historic character of neighborhoods, coming in large part from the majority-white South Minneapolis, echoes a not-so-distant past: one of communities coming together to restrict access to housing. The supposed character of these neighborhoods has been defined by decades of exclusion and control.

The plan was also challenged by a newly formed non-profit conglomerate called Smart Growth Minneapolis. The group raised valid concerns about urban ecosystems, which are fragile, delicate beings. For a city that prides itself on widespread access to green space and a nebula of lakes, ponds, and waterways, it’s clear that practical diligence and forward planning are needed to preserve these precarious environs. 

Smart Growth Minneapolis located its linchpin in the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (MERA). Similar to efforts to challenge housing developments under the California Environmental Quality Act, Smart Growth Minneapolis brought a suit under the MERA to Hennepin County District Court almost immediately following the passage of the 2040 plan. It cited the city’s failure to adequately study the effects of full and complete buildout. The lawsuit has bounced around district and state courts for the last four years, facing recurring appeals and challenges. Most recently, on September 6, a Hennepin County District judge sided with Smart Growth Minneapolis, forcing the city to revert to its previous 2030 Plan. There is no doubt that the city will return to the courtroom with a revised strategy, but in the meantime, developers and permitting offices have been caught in a complex dance of bureaucratic entanglement. The need for affordable housing is an immediate one, and the city at present is being blocked from adequately addressing it. 

Moreover, Smart Growth’s arguments stem from a peculiar interpretation of the plan. They claim that Minneapolis 2040, once successfully adopted, would require a total and immediate housing buildout to the greatest extent of the city’s capabilities. This view is misguided at best and asinine at worst. The plan is by no means a mandate; it lays out a maxim of design guidelines for future development. In order to carry out the plan to completion, Minneapolis would need to install top-down command planning with an unlimited budget—a move that is simply impossible. 

Outside environmental groups have since come forward critiquing Smart Growth Minneapolis as misguided in its opposition to the plan. These groups posit that it is suburban sprawl, rather than urban density, that poses a threat to our local ecosystems. As environmental movements have long argued, by increasing density, we lessen our reliance on cars and increase access to public transit and bike channels.

The Minneapolis 2040 Plan holds an inordinate contemporary significance in the realm of redressive urban planning. It suggests that the foundations of American cities may not be so unshakeable, that fundamental change is not outside the scope of possibility. While the concerns of the Smart Growth conglomerate are rational and an important consideration in the age of green urbanism, environmental groups and experts agree that they are misguided in their approach. The 2040 Plan could potentially set an impressive precedent for the equitable spatial organization of cities to come. It is a layout for allowing municipal governments to be dynamic in their approach to ongoing housing crises and to rethink the ways in which they have failed before. Let’s not let historical NIMBYisms get in the way. 

[The Brown Political Review receives support from the Stone Initiative on Inequality for work relating to wealth inequality in the United States. BPR maintains editorial independence over the columns and stories published.]