In late 2019, Minneapolis might’ve become the most famous city in the United States — at the very least, among followers of housing policy. The City’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan, commonly referred to as the 2040 Plan, represents a rewrite of City policy around zoning and land use.

The 2040 Plan includes many different changes in the City’s approach to housing development, often with the intention to get more housing built. In a broad sense, these changes seem to have made meaningful progress in addressing some of the primary policies that can worsen our housing shortage and drive up the cost of housing. But the 2040 Plan incorporated a great deal of changes, which have each varied in terms of their impacts.

The city-wide legalization of duplexes and triplexes attracted the most headlines, but the impact of the change was overstated.

Under the 2040 Plan, neighborhoods that long had zoning codes allowing only single-family homes could now build more densely. Some touted this as the “end of single-family zoning.” Minneapolis was the first major municipality to make such a change.

The impact of this particular change has not matched the attention it initially garnered. In the years since approval and implementation of the 2040 Plan, development of duplexes and triplexes has been minimal - a mere drop in Minneapolis’s housing bucket. A tracking tool from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis finds just 104 building permits for 2-4 unit buildings over 2020-2022. Only 20 of these permits are in areas previously zoned only for single-family housing.

Why hasn’t Minneapolis seen a multiplex boom?

In part, Minneapolis’s duplexes and triplexes have fallen victim to too-strict zoning rules. In areas that previously only allowed single-family homes, duplexes and triplexes that would be built on those same lots are not allowed any additional space. Meaning a duplex or triplex would need to be the same size as a single-family house. This was an important selling point in passing the 2040 Plan, but it has become a barrier to actually building duplexes and triplexes on those lots.

The portion of a lot that housing can be built on is part of the problem, too. Bruce Brunner, a small-scale housing developer who has built duplexes and triplexes in Minneapolis, walked me through it. Under 2040 Plan rules, residential districts, with the built form designation “interior 1” and “interior 2,”  limit single-family homes, duplexes, and triplexes to a 0.5 “floor-area ratio.” This means that the total square footage of the house cannot be greater than half of the lot’s square footage. On a standard 5,000 square foot city lot, the building cannot be more than 2,500 square feet — no matter how many housing units it has. This is perfectly fine for a single-family home, but creates a challenge for squeezing duplexes and triplexes onto typical city lots.

“As you move up, you're limited by the size of your building,” said Brunner. “The intention here was to limit the duplex or triplex to the size of a single-family home, but you’re really limiting the size of the apartments, and the amount of bedrooms you can have [as you increase the quantity of units].”

The 2040 Plan impacts much more than what can be built on previously single-family lots.

“The duplex and triplex issue was maybe in the top 10 most impactful parts of Minneapolis 2040,” said Jason Wittenberg, a planning manager in the Minneapolis Community Planning and Economic Development Department. “Unfortunately, it's the piece that people have perhaps focused on a little bit more than they should have.”

For example, the 2040 Plan created flexible rules to allow multifamily housing development along busier, arterial corridors. Due to these rules, an apartment building with 20 units is planned at 50th and Lyndale. The City’s Planning Commission approved the plan on Oct. 16.

In a previous article for this series, Wittenberg highlighted City efforts to increase certainty in the development process by relying less on zoning variances, which require special approval from the City’s planning commission. He also discussed the impact of eliminating parking minimums, which has enabled developers to build less parking, and thus save in construction costs.

The 2040 Plan’s flexibility in allowing denser housing has also benefited public housing.
Minneapolis Public Housing Authority’s recent Family Housing Expansion project includes 84 units in 16 small-scale apartment buildings throughout Minneapolis, in part enabled by the 2040 Plan. This project will include a three-story, six-unit building on the 5100 block of Penn Avenue..

Under the 2040 Plan, buildings along streets like Penn Avenue have a more flexible “built form designation,” allowing slightly larger, six-unit buildings, which is more than would be allowed in the “interior” neighborhood streets nearby.  

A Minneapolis Public Housing Authority staff member said that the Penn Avenue building, which is set to house people by the end of 2023, exemplifies how increased zoning allowances have enabled the agency to do more with the land that they own. Land is expensive in Minneapolis, and by redeveloping the land that they  already own, the housing authority can reduce its costs.

The 2040 Plan on Hold

Over the past year and a half, the City of Minneapolis has been dealing with an environmental lawsuit against the 2040 Plan. Most recently, in early September a judge ruled that Minneapolis could not implement the 2040 Plan until completing a comprehensive environmental impact review. In the meantime, Minneapolis must revert to rules established in the 2030 Comprehensive Plan over a decade ago.

Lena K. Gardner, the executive director of the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalist Organizing Collective, or BLUU, has been collaborating with the nonprofit developer Urban Homeworks on a cooperative project in North Minneapolis: eight triplexes intended for single parents, and all enabled by the 2040 Plan.

Gardner expressed her frustration with the 2040 Plan lawsuit and court ruling.

“We bought these lots knowing that under [the] 2040 [Plan] we could build quality houses in residential neighborhoods — places to raise a family. The particular effort was for families in the area, facing displacement,”Gardner said.

Even before the lawsuit, BLUU and Urban Homeworks’ project had run into some of the aforementioned limitations of the 2040 Plan. Their first triplex design was rejected by City Council because it went over the limit for floor-area ratio, forcing them into a costly redesign. Ultimately, the new plan had to remove an outdoor balcony to comply with limits on floor space.

But the rest of the triplexes, which are not yet permitted, may be prevented altogether now that the 2040 Plan is on hold. Gardner says that BLUU is considering building duplexes instead, which would still be legal under the 2030 Plan’s zoning. Otherwise, they may switch to a scattered-site development that would disperse the triplexes into areas where they’d still be legal. Neither option is ideal, says Gardner — one would reduce the units of affordable housing that they could provide, and the other would weaken the purpose of the cooperative by sacrificing proximity among residents.

“We’re willing to put a lot of money, time, and resources into making this happen. All of a sudden, it’s extra red tape, extra difficulties, layered on top of things,” Gardner said.

“I’m not going to say 2040 will create a utopia city, but it’s a really good set of policies that incorporated a lot of evidence-based research, and that was lauded as a step in the right direction,” Gardner said. “There’s a lot of great projects out there, like ours, that could really help alleviate the affordable housing problem.”

The Southwest Voices Housing Affordability series is sponsored by Housing First Minnesota.