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1A Across America: How U.S. Cities Are Tackling The Affordable Housing Crisis (Rebroadcast)

Pedestrians brave the cold to go for a walk on the Stone Arch Bridge earlier this year in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Pedestrians brave the cold to go for a walk on the Stone Arch Bridge earlier this year in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

A full-time minimum-wage worker can’t afford a modest two-bedroom apartment in any American city, according to a recent report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

And a lack of affordable housing isn’t just a problem for low-income Americans. According to the same report, you’d have to make nearly $35 an hour to afford a modest home in California. In Kansas, you’d need to earn nearly $16 an hour to afford a standard two-bedroom home.

As the affordable housing crisis worsens, presidential candidates (and the president) are releasing their plans for tackling this issue.

But not all cities and states are waiting for the federal government to step in. Some cities are considering “upzoning” measures to facilitate construction of new homes and to increase density in urban centers, and Minneapolis is one of them.

CityLab calls upzoning “the newest tool that cities are deploying in the ongoing fight against segregation and housing inequality.” Upzoning is when cities modify housing laws to increase population density in an area.

In many U.S. cities, most of the available land is reserved exclusively for single-family, detached homes. This is a style of housing typical of suburbs — think white picket fence and a yard with a free-standing home.

And in Minneapolis, 70 percent of the city’s residential land is zoned that way — only for single-family homes. The city is in the process of passing one of the country’s most sweeping changes to single-family zoning by eliminating the practice entirely.

If Minneapolis’ plan passes this fall (as expected) and the city eliminates single-family zoning, developers could begin to build duplexes and triplexes, increasing the capacity of the land.

Opponents say the zoning changes are basically deregulation. They point to U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson’s recent visit to the city, where he said he supported the upzoning measure as proof.

From MPR News’ recap of Carson’s visit:

The HUD secretary said he’d like to see more cities follow the lead of Minneapolis and eliminate single-family zoning, opening up every neighborhood to higher-density housing.

“Look at some of the places that have the biggest homelessness problems, like Los Angeles where 80 percent of the land is zoned for single-family housing, with a certain amount of property,” he said. “The correlation seems very strong. The more zoning restrictions and regulations, the higher the prices and the more homeless people.”

Carson also called for greater use of innovative building technology and a rollback of regulations that impede housing construction.

But some advocates say the rezoning plans don’t go far enough in making Minneapolis more affordable and they would have liked to see even more options to modify zoning laws to create more affordable housing.

And Minneapolis isn’t the only community experimenting with approaches to the affordable housing crisis.

Here’s a summary of other legislative moves, from The New York Times’ The Upshot.

“The Oregon legislature this month will consider a law that would end zoning exclusively for single-family homes in most of the state. California lawmakers have drafted a bill that would effectively do the same. In December, the Minneapolis City Council voted to end single-family zoning citywide.”

We explore the potential of “upzoning” and other approaches cities are taking to make housing more affordable.

Show and text by James Morrison.

1A Across America is funded through a grant from The Corporation for Public Broadcasting. CPB is a private, nonprofit corporation created by Congress in 1967 that is the steward of the federal government’s investment in public broadcasting.


Laura Bliss, West Coast bureau chief, CityLab, an urban policy and politics website from The Atlantic magazine; @mslaurabliss

Lisa Bender, Minneapolis City Council president, Council member from Ward 10; @lisabendermpls

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