If Dallas is serious about addressing the issue of affordable housing, it should have an eye on how Minneapolis is approaching the problem. Typically, cities try to encourage developers to build affordable housing by offering incentives and subsidies. Minneapolis has found a different approach works: rethinking parking requirements and urban zoning.
Let’s look at parking first. Minneapolis used to require that new construction provide a single parking space per new unit. Three years ago, as rents continued to rise, the city decided to see if loosening parking requirements could help dampen those increases. They passed a law that allowed developers to add only a half-space per unit or, in the case of developments near public transit centers, no spaces at all. What happened? According to planning.org, Rents went down:
Apartment developers proposed projects with fewer parking spaces. That lowered the cost of construction. So, such projects began offering rents below the market’s established levels. New studio apartments, which typically went for $1,200 per month, were being offered for less than $1,000 per month.
“There’s definitely a new type of residential unit in the market that we haven’t seen much before,” says Nick Magrino, a Minneapolis planning commissioner who has researched apartment development trends since the parking code change. “Outside of downtown, there’s been a lot of infill development with cheaper, more affordable units.”
What has changed, the article suggests, is the nature of the market demand. More people are willing to forgo driving, live in denser urban neighborhoods, and seek out locations where services and amenities are within walking distance of apartments. But while that market demand has shifted, municiple codes have been slow to adjust. In most cities, developers are still forced to meet minimum guidelines drawn-up during the heyday of suburban sprawl that drive up the cost of building–and the price of renting–urban apartments. Cities are beginning to take note, and the planning.org article highlights efforts in town across America to shift parking requirements in order to stir-on a new kind of development, and often, more affordable development.
That’s not the only way Minneapolis is boldly addressing the issue of affordability. Last week, the city council made an even bolder move, completely eliminate single-family housing zoning in the city. Instead of single-family homes, developers are now allowed to construct duplexes and triplexes in every city neighborhood. Minneapolis is the first U.S. city to adopt such a measure. The hope is the elimination of new single-family housing will create density and remove barriers that have contributed historically to inequality and racial segregation in the city.
The move is shocking, but it also makes practical sense. As with so many other cities in America, many younger residents and couples can’t afford the median home price in many neighborhoods, while older residents who have owned their homes for decades are “house rich and cash poor”–stuck in their homes because they can’t afford to downsize. The addition of more multi-family units into established neighborhoods will potentially restore the “missing middle” to the market, as well as begin to reverse the role single-family housing has played historically in deepening segregation and economic inequality.
As the New York Times points out, eliminating single-family housing is not politically viable in every U.S. city. Minneapolis’ city council faced fierce opposition from residents who feared that the new policy would mean a flood of massive, destabilizing apartments developments into their neighborhoods. But many residents also see an upside:
About 50 to 60 percent of Minneapolis is zoned as single-family only, according to city officials. In some cases, duplexes and triplexes have been grandfathered in and already exist in those neighborhoods.
Even still, “we don’t have enough homes for people who want to live here,” said Lisa Bender, the City Council president, who supported the plan. “Increasing our housing supply is part of the solution.”
That means allowing triplexes in every neighborhood and another key change: making it easier to build multifamily housing near transit corridors.
Janne Flisrand, a co-founder of the group Neighbors for More Neighbors, said that the zoning changes would help people like her: She bought her fourplex in Minneapolis in 1996 and has rented out three of the units to pay her mortgage. “I want to open the door for a Janne of 2018,” she said.
If you want to see what this kind of zoning policy looks like in practice, all you need to do is drive around some of Dallas’ older neighborhoods, like East Dallas and Oak Cliff, where duplexes and triplexes nestle in between among single-family homes. Back in the 1920s, when many of these neighborhoods were built, there was a viable streetcar system that linked all these neighborhoods together. The presence of multi-family buildings often trace out the former routes of the streetcar.
Minneapolis hopes the new policy will have a similar effect on future development, allowing for a subtle densification of housing development around existing development corridors. It will also mean that neighborhoods with good schools, easy access to services, and attractive amenities will not be effectively off-limits to anyone who can’t afford the hefty price tag of buying into them.
But there are reasons for relaxing zoning restrictions and parking requirements that go beyond ending segregation, restoring the middle of the housing market, and planning for more sustainable, transit-minded development. A new report by the Manhattan Institute that came out last week warns that Texas cities could face an economic slowdown if they don’t do something to address the land-use regulations that are driving the housing affordability crisis.
Although laws in the Texas Triangle facilitate “horizontal” growth through exurban development, they restrict “vertical” growth, or the redevelopment of built areas. Even cities with loose zoning codes, such as Houston, impose some restrictions. Recent increases in house prices, furthermore, suggest that restrictions on vertical growth are beginning to cause a housing shortage in the region’s more desirable areas. The revitalization of central-city neighborhoods, meanwhile, shows a large demand for urban living that is underserved by today’s zoning codes and other land-use regulations. As horizontal growth reaches its limits, this shortage will only worsen. Unless restrictions on dense development are lifted, especially in urban cores, the Texas Triangle may come to resemble Los Angeles: a vast sprawl of unaffordable housing, beset by slow transportation and diminished social mobility.
How pressing is this crisis? The Manhattan Institute report warns that DFW is already losing its competitive edge with regards to affordability, projecting a future for the region that mirrors what has occurred in Los Angeles, while prescribing a remedy that sounds a lot like the kinds of initiative being taken by Minneapolis.
Though housing in the Lone Star State remains generally affordable, it has become markedly more expensive. In 2016, one report noted that though housing in DFW cost far less than housing in U.S. coastal cities, the metro area “began to give up some of its enormous edge” in housing affordability in the previous 10 years. In fact, DFW housing prices in February 2016 overtook the national average housing prices for the first time since 2001. . . .
A Texas future characterized by increasingly unaffordable housing, ever-increasing traffic congestion, and outmigration—in short, Los Angeles—is not one that many Texans would find attractive. But it is not an inevitable future. Based on developments elsewhere, a number of changes in land-use regulations would avoid it.
Rolling back some of these regulations won’t be easy. As Jon Anderson’s recent report on the decade-old squabble over redeveloping Preston Center illustrates, there is perhaps no more difficult neighborhood battle than one over loosening parking and zoning requirements. But the example being set in Minneapolis and the report from the Manhattan Institute should provide ample warning to local officials and representatives. The need to address affordable housing strikes right to the heart of whether Dallas will remain a competitive market in the coming decades. Other cities are willing to make seismic changes to conventional thinking around parking and zoning to meet those challenges. Does Dallas have the guts to follow suit?