“Large swaths of our city are exclusively zoned for single-family homes, so unless you have the ability to build a very large home on a very large lot, you can’t live in the neighborhood,” says Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, reflecting on his city’s Minneapolis 2040 plan, adopted this past December. Aimed at tackling the city’s shortage of affordable housing as well as a legacy of economic and racial segregation, the plan calls for higher-density housing along transit corridors and allows triplexes to be built across much of the city — including neighborhoods previously zoned exclusively for single-family houses.
Faced with growing populations and a dire shortage of affordable housing, cities such as Seattle and the entire state of Oregon are contemplating similar measures. A growing number of cities nationwide have already done away with minimum parking requirements in order to spur development. And Grand Rapids, Michigan, actually jettisoned single-family zoning in favor of a more form-based code a decade ago and experienced 6 percent growth without an attendant apocalypse of traffic and crowding.
That doesn’t stop folks from freaking out, though. The Minneapolis proposal first prompted push-back from a group calling itself “Minneapolis for Everyone” — whose support, despite the name, was concentrated in the whitest and wealthiest parts of the city where single-family zoning predominates. Nor was that the only irony, since a fair number of the group’s signs, with the slogan “don’t bulldoze our homes,” popped up in front of homes where the owner had previously demolished an older, modest home to make way for a much larger mansion (teardowns such as the one that recently made news locally as the “McMansion on Magnolia” are far more common in Minneapolis). And then there’s the fact that opponents decried Minneapolis 2040 as “a radical experiment in social engineering,” conveniently forgetting that single-family zoning is the single most successful social engineering experiment in American history, albeit with some troubling associations.
New York had dabbled with height restrictions as early as the 1880s and Los Angeles became the first city to codify the separation of residential and industrial areas in 1908, but zoning in America didn’t really gain momentum until the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act of 1922 established the template for the zoning ordinances that, in many forms, survive to this day — including single-family zoning (perhaps coincidentally, the Supreme Court had declared race-based residential exclusion ordinances unconstitutional some five years earlier). And in 1926, the Supreme Court upheld a municipality’s right to exclude certain uses — including apartments — from areas zoned single-family residential, overturning a lower court’s finding such ordinances explicitly aimed at preventing “the colored or certain foreign races from invading a residential section.”
Since then, single-family zoning has been a mainstay of American middle-class and upper-middle-class life, reshaping the way we build and live and providing the planning framework for suburban sprawl — which leads to the final irony of the Minneapolis 2040 fight. Fearing that Minneapolis for All’s “not in my back yard” argument was falling flat, opponents formed a new group that filed a lawsuit to stop the plan, pushed the idea that single-family suburbia is more environmentally friendly and called themselves “Smart Growth Minneapolis.”