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Q&A: Anna Nelson on Abolishing Single-Unit Zoning

Josh Stephens on
Sep 9, 2020

In December, the City of Minneapolis did the unthinkable: as part of its Minneapolis 2040 Comprehensive Plan, it eliminated single-unit zoning throughout the entire city. Now, any lot that currently includes a single home can be redeveloped as a duplex or triplex. While Minneapolis's housing crisis -- like its population -- is diminutive compared to that of California, the housing pressures are real, and planners and advocates believe that limiting the dominance of single-unit lots is an important step toward affordability and equity. 

Anna Nelson
Anna Nelson

One of the leading advocacy groups supporting Minneapolis 2040, and especially its loosening of zoning restrictions, was Neighbors for More Neighbors. Somewhat, though not entirely, affiliated with the YIMBY movement that has arisen in many housing-constrained cities, Neighbors for More Neighbors is a grassroots housing advocacy group that takes Minnesota's famed neighborliness seriously and literally.

As California struggles with its housing crisis -- and considers many local and statewide efforts to loosen zoning -- the California Chapter of the American Planning Association invited Anna Nelson, one of MN4N's volunteer leaders, to speak at its virtual statewide conference, to be held Sept. 14-16 on the internet. She will participate in "Big Conversation #2: Thinking Outside the Toolbox to House California" the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 15. (CP&DR is a sponsor of this year's California APA Conference.)

Josh Stephens spoke with Nelson for the CP&DR podcast. The following is adapted from that podcast. 

As a housing activist in the Twin Cities, did you ever expect to be speaking at a California planning conference?

I did not. I am not a planner by trade. This is purely a personal passion. I've been involved in my own community in Minneapolis and have learned a lot. I'm not a technical person, but I've learned a lot about zoning and about these issues. So it's always fun to talk to people in other places because, even though our issues are different, there's a lot of similarities.

Sometimes we hear about zoning reforms and they're not quite zoning reforms, so did Minneapolis really abandon single family zoning? And what do you think that means for the city?

It is true. Anywhere that you can build homes in Minneapolis today, you have the right to build up to three units on a lot. Originally Minneapolis was looking at legalizing fourplexes citywide. Through some back and forth and some negotiations, it's now down to three units.

Neighbors for More Neighbors is part of the YIMBY movement—“yes in my backyard.” Tell me the role that you personally and your organization played in this zoning reform.

We have some alignment with what people call the YIMBY movement. We in Minneapolis don't love the term YIMBY. Partly that's because it immediately is about being against something. YIMBY is a reaction to NIMBY. For us, it's always been about being for something. We want to welcome more people and in doing so help make homes more affordable.

Neighbors for More Neighbors kind of sprung up at the same time that a lot of these policies were being kicked around in Minneapolis. The comprehensive plan was Minneapolis 2040, and housing is just one piece of that comprehensive plan. Housing is the piece that caught the most public attention. We advocated for the passage of that plan, and particularly for allowing more units kind of by-right across the city, and allowing even more density along transit lines and transit corridors.

Give us a sense of what the housing demand is like in Minneapolis. Is there a housing crisis there?

There's definitely a housing crisis. California is certainly ahead of us in level of crisis. If we do nothing we're a few decades behind California. But for people in Minneapolis it's real. Vacancy rates have dropped. There's a clear gap between the number of people who want to live in the city and the number of units available.

Tell us about the stakeholder engagement. How did you gather support for these pro housing policies?

I think there are two pieces to this. First of all, I'll talk about what the city did. Then I'll talk about what Neighbors for More Neighbors did.

The city actually did a really excellent job. They wanted to get as much engagement as possible in this plan, knowing that these are big changes and big decisions. Rather than holding the typical town halls, they went to street festivals. They hired artists to come and read poetry. They had open houses that felt like a little bit more like a fair than a town hall. There were different booths you could visit and activities. You could put a little pin on a map where you felt like you had an opinion about something. They did it as much as they could to not only engage with people, but also to try to get a wider set of voices.

Historically, people of color and renters and people from low-income backgrounds have been underrepresented in civic processes. The goal from the city's perspective was to try to bring some of those folks into the conversation. And so, props to Minneapolis for making sure more people were at the table.

We organized walk-and-talks in each of the wards of the city with the council member for that ward, where they could actually talk to people in their neighborhood and do a little walking tour of like, "Hey, here's a six-unit building that's been grandfathered into this neighborhood and it fits in so well and people love to live here." And talk about some of the diversity of housing that was in the inner city at the turn of the century before some of the more exclusionary policies got put in place.

What has it been like to be a housing activist in the wake of the George Floyd killing and the renewed vigor for social justice?

In Minneapolis as a whole, it's been a really tough time for all of us. I think in one sense, it makes what we're doing just one small piece. This is just one tiny domino in a huge line of other issues. And this is something that we can focus on and we can work on dismantling these policies, but it's not going to solve the bigger problems. With everything with George Floyd really does put it in context that this is so much bigger than any one effort.

Gentrification is a real concern for a lot of low-income neighborhoods and a lot of multiracial neighborhoods that don't want to lose what they have. Neighbors for More Neighbors has made a conscious effort. We're never going to organize around a development that isn't supported by the local community. If this is going to displace some low-income folks and they are not comfortable with what's happening, we're not going to organize counter to that because ultimately that is more important in the broader scheme.

What's been your experience working with planners in Minneapolis? How much has N4NM collaborated with them?

When I say the city, I mean the planning department, and the city did an excellent job with the 2040 Plan getting the kind of civic involvement that I think they should be doing. From our perspective, we've had nothing but good things to say. I think part of the planner's job was made a lot easier because we have a set of elected officials who believe in this work or we're backing them up and pushing them to, to push the envelope. Minneapolis had quite a big progressive wave of elections where several of our city council members, including our city council president, really do passionately believe in a lot of this work.

Can you give us an example of changing a mind? Have opponents been persuaded by any of these arguments?

We spend more time in, what I would call the big middle, where there's a lot of people that just don't know zoning policy and don't know a lot of this information and maybe aren't as active. There are going to be people who have very strong opinions against some of this work. That's not a mind that's going to be easily changed.

The folks in the great big middle that don't pay attention to zoning and land use may feel like, "Oh yeah, you know, I guess I have this opinion." And then when you start to talk about it and you actually bring up some of these issues and some of what this means, they're the ones that go, "Oh yeah, that really makes sense." I think not worrying about the loud minority and instead talking to all those other folks who could stand to benefit if rents go down over time, I think is really where it's more worth focusing.

Since the adoption of the 2040 Plan, have neighborhoods been bulldozed? Has the sky fallen in Minneapolis?

Certainly there's been new developments that have taken advantage of the vision. There haven’t been widespread, mass changes. That was explained by the city over and over again: this is going to be very gradual. This is going to be turnover over time. There's a reason it's named 2040 and not 2021.

Ironically, the message of bulldozing was also, we often talk about what was happening in these neighborhoods before 2040. People were buying up these small, affordable bungalows, bulldozing them and building million-dollar mansions in their place. That was happening, you know, with every policy we have in place. So some of these neighborhoods often were the places where the bulldozers were coming the most often and driving the cost of living up higher.

If there's one message that you're going to try to send to planners in California, what might that be?

My personal perception of California is that so many of these issues are the same. They're just amplified by 10, right? The population is amplified by 10, the amount of regulations are amplified by 10. The amount of money that's needed for affordable housing, amplify it by 10. So I think there's nothing that isn't applicable. It's just maybe a bigger lift.

Going back to my original comment, number-one is to get more people to the table. Don't do things the way that we've always done them. Because we know that political processes up and down the spectrum tend to be engaged with folks who have higher education and higher incomes and different needs than the folks at the bottom. If you can create processes that welcome diverse voices, they'll come and they'll show up and they'll get excited.

California and cities have a similar history of how some of these policies got in place. A lot of our most beloved neighborhoods you know—where we have small retail nodes and we have these mixed developments all in the same neighborhood together—a lot of those neighborhoods came about a long time ago. They're beloved today because they're walkable and they are human and they feel right. We can point to those neighborhoods and say, "look, our history was this." And we put in place these policies that now we can't even recreate that anymore. Drawing on history can be really helpful to change hearts and minds.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.