Advocates recognized more broadly that language matters a lot in policy debates. The umbrella organization pushing for the Minneapolis 2040 reforms called itself “Neighbors for More Neighbors”—a name that brilliantly evoked the shared humanity of those who want to be included in exclusive neighborhoods.
Finally, the scale of the reforms matched the severity of Minneapolis’s housing-affordability problem. After building on incremental support for in-law flats, and then painstakingly seeking input from residents, advocates also realized that the reform plan needed to go big. Rather than seeking the elimination of single-family zoning only in certain parts of the city, they sought to eliminate it in every community citywide. In this way, no neighborhood felt singled out. Minneapolis’s director of long-range planning, Heather Worthington, says taking reform citywide turned out to be a political advantage: “If we were going to pick and choose, the fight, I think, would have been even bloodier.” Ultimately, reformers in Minneapolis succeeded in reframing the discussion about zoning rules not as a neighborhood matter, but as something that affects the life of the entire community.
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Whether this same approach would bear fruit elsewhere in the country is another question entirely. Is Minneapolis—which Forbes rated as one of the most liberal cities in the country—a unicorn in housing policy? Or can reforms of single-family zoning garner bipartisan support in more conservative communities?
Evidence suggests that zoning reform can make for unlikely political bedfellows. President Donald Trump’s Housing and Urban Development secretary, Ben Carson, has an otherwise troubling record on fair-housing issues, but Carson visited Minneapolis and said he would like other cities to follow suit and eliminate single-family zoning. As Christian Britschgi declared in the libertarian magazine Reason, “Free marketers should celebrate the vote” in Minneapolis as a form of government deregulation.
And in July, a bipartisan group of legislators in Oregon passed a statewide ban on single-family zoning in cities with a population of at least 10,000 residents, overcoming the opposition of the League of Oregon Cities. Indeed, new polling suggests zoning reform is popular. In a 2019 poll, voters were asked, “Would you support or oppose a policy to ensure smaller, lower-cost homes like duplexes, townhouses, and garden apartments can be built in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods?” Supporters outnumbered opponents by two to one.
Ultimately, the legalization of duplexes, triplexes, and apartment buildings isn’t just an abstract decision; rather, it upholds fundamental democratic values affirming basic human dignity. It is humiliating for local governments to tell people of modest means that they are not welcome in a certain community and that their children do not belong in its public schools. When a community lets homeowners’ fears of imaginary bulldozers dominate the discussion about housing, single-family zoning is the inevitable result. But if the victims of single-family zoning speak up, as they did in Minneapolis, they may begin to bury an anachronistic practice that has done so much harm for so many years.