Zoning for affordable housing

Traditionally in the US, home ownership has been the main vehicle for building wealth. However, in many cities the high cost of housing prevents would-be buyers from entering the market. We’ve discussed how zoning can promote affordable housing in the form of accessory dwelling units and how it’s working in Minnesota. Now two Minneapolis suburbs are considering additional zoning changes with similar goals.

Racial covenants

Shutterstock photo of a white clapboard single-family house with a brick walkway.
Owning a single-family home is what many of us see as the American Dream. But many would-be homeowners are priced out of the market. Shutterstock image.

Housing policies were once explicitly racist. In communities throughout the US, racial covenants prevented selling or renting homes to anyone who was not white—except for domestic servants.

[In 1948]…J.D. and Ethel Shelley successfully challenged a racial covenant on their home…in conjunction with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The family, like countless other Blacks, had come to St. Louis from Mississippi as part of the migration movement. After buying a home from someone who decided not to enforce the racial covenant, a white neighbor objected. The man sued the Shelleys and eventually won, prompting them to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the state could not enforce racial covenants. The landmark civil rights case became known as Shelley v. Kraemer.—NPR, 17 November 2021

Despite this ruling and and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which outlawed them altogether, racial covenants survive to this day. Depending on the jurisdiction, removing them from deeds and homeowners association bylaws can be cumbersome or even impossible. Some states have passed legislation aimed at streamlining the process. In Minnesota, the Just Deeds Project provides legal assistance for homeowners to remove racial covenants from title documents.


Redliningthe denial of financial services such as credit or mortgage insurance to people in certain neighborhoodsalso perpetuated segregation in housing. The Federal Housing Administration, for example, refused to insure mortgages in and near Black neighborhoods, instead subsidizing housing construction in white neighborhoods. The Federal Housing Administration’s Underwriting Manual recommended using highways to separate Black neighborhoods from white ones.

Today African-American incomes on average are about 60 percent of average white incomes. But African-American wealth is about 5 percent of white wealth. Most middle-class families in this country gain their wealth from the equity they have in their homes. So this enormous difference between a 60 percent income ratio and a 5 percent wealth ratio is almost entirely attributable to federal housing policy implemented through the 20th century. African-American families that were prohibited from buying homes in the suburbs in the 1940s and ’50s and even into the ’60s by the Federal Housing Administration gained none of the equity appreciation that whites gained.NPR, 3 May 2017

This disparity in wealth makes it harder for Black households to purchase homes, further perpetuating the injustices of the past. Zoning for affordable housing can help remedy this legacy. At the same time, it makes the housing market more accessible for people of all races.

The Twin Cities has the highest gap between black and white homeownership rates for any major metropolitan area in the country. While 78 percent of White families own homes in the Twin Cities, only 25 percent of Black families are homeowners.—Mapping Prejudice

Multifamily homes in Richfield

Participation in the Just Deeds Project prompted the city of Richfield to consider allowing duplexes on lots now zoned for single-family homes. Like accessory dwelling units, multifamily housing marginally increases the housing density in a neighborhood. So long as the existing infrastructure and services can handle the additional demand, the costs to the community are low. For example, it may be necessary to use more chemicals to treat water and sewage, or to add some garbage trucks and sanitation crews to an existing route. However, these measures would cost considerably less than extending sewer lines or garbage collection routes to a new development.

In the Twin Cities, Minneapolis’ city council began zoning for affordable housing in 2019. Its 2040 Comprehensive Plan did away with single-family zoning, instead allowing duplexes and triplexes throughout the city. Environmental groups have challenged the plan in state courts on the grounds that it could result in increased traffic congestion and pollution of water runoff.

Smaller lots in Bloomington

The city of Bloomington is considering several changes to its zoning laws in order to increase the affordable housing stock. These include reducing the minimum lot size, requiring fewer parking spaces, and simplifying the permitting process for duplexes.

Regulations such as lot size or the number of garage stalls are common throughout the metro area. On nearly two-thirds of the land where only single-family houses can be built, a minimum lot size of a quarter acre or more is required — at least twice the size of a typical lot in Minneapolis or St. Paul.—Star Tribune, 27 December 2022

The smaller lot sizes are more consistent with those of some older homes in Bloomington—those dating from the 1940s and 1950s. (Today’s minimum lot sizes are due to zoning changes in the 1960s and 1970s.) The proposed zoning changes call for reducing the minimum lot width from 80 to 60 feet and the overall size from 11,000 to 7800 square feet. The minimum number of parking spaces per unit would be two rather than four.

Zoning for affordable housing will not solve the housing crisis on its own. But it will provide more possibilities to increase the housing stock. It will also help alleviate a long-standing racial injustice.