Zoning changes are the easiest way to reduce segregation in the suburbs


Last year, the Star Tribune published a fascinating but overlooked article on zoning in the Twin Cities’ suburbs, written by MaryJo Webster and Michael Corey. Illustrated with a plethora of land-use maps, the piece focused on single-family-only zoning in the city’s suburban municipalities, where only 7% percent of residential metro area land allows for multi-family housing.

This matters because multi-family zoning – allowing rental apartments to be built in residential neighborhoods – is directly correlated with regional racial segregation. That fact has become more apparent with a new working paper put out by housing researcher Salim Furth, a Senior Research Fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center. Drawing on Webster’s research, the paper lays out the connection between zoning, housing, and racism in the Twin Cities metro, suggesting that the lack of multi-family zoning is one of the greatest “bottlenecks” maintaining Twin Cities’ segregation. The good news is that, given enough political will, the problem has an easy fix. 

Missing access

To form the backbone of the Star Tribune’s article, the team gathered zoning maps from every municipality and jurisdiction in the Twin Cities, all hundred-plus places that have land use control over local housing. The results gathered by Furth were stark: 

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Zoning for multifamily housing is associated with a 21 percentage point higher non-White population share, enough to double the non-White population share of an average neighborhood zoned exclusively for single-family residences. 

The research is important because it links the mundane fact of land-use zoning to the de facto racial segregation that persists in the Twin Cities, home to more than 3.5 million people.

Mercator Center

“Sadly, it’s not that surprising to me; I’ve worked in this area for a while,” said Salim Furth, who runs the Center’s Urbanity Project, which focuses on urban housing policy.

One of the report’s key points is that the normal narrative — the homeownership gap — should not be the only focus of policy makers in the Twin Cities. 

“Minority homeownership is really important, but it’s a long-running goal,” Furth said. “In this generation, we’re not going to make enough change to close that gap; it’s really a generational wealth thing. That goal has really sidelined the basic needs. If people don’t have access to good school systems, locations near their jobs, and healthy solid housing choices, they’re not going to be in a position to build wealth for themselves.”

Redlining’s legacy

The ascendance of single-family zoning in Twin Cities’ suburbs is nothing unique or new, and is a development shared by every American city. Richly detailed in Richard Rohthstein’s 2017 book, The Color of Law, these practices were literally mandated by the federal government throughout the 20th century. Beginning in the New Deal, Federal Housing Agency manuals required its appraisers to devalue any place with apartment buildings, non-white people, or both, privileging segregated low-density landscapes with massive subsidies. This practice, often referred to as “redlining”, should be thought of as the wide-ranging institution of racist zoning, a policy that laid the groundwork for today’s racial inequality.

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“These are interrelated problems that express themselves as greater poverty, lower employment rates, or lower credit scores, much worse in the Twin Cities than the rest of the country for reasons that are a little bit opaque, even for us,” Furth admitted.

While Furth cautions that focusing on home ownership should remain a goal for long-term policymakers in Minnesota, the issue of building apartments often gets lost. The reason that home ownership rates are so low for people of color in the Twin Cities have a lot of causes that stem from segregation in the first place, making housing a chicken-and-egg situation. 

Wealth and poverty map

Met Council

This map shows areas of concentrated affluence (orange) and concentrated poverty (purple).

“We should be doing more to promote integration,” Salim Furth said, referring to suburban city leaders. “The simplest thing you can do is choose some sites good for housing, not heavily built up, [and say] we’re going to rezone this for multi-family housing.”

Fixing zoning

In the paper Furth lays out a list of policy prescriptions that Twin Cities suburbs could quickly adopt. These range from things like “traditional apartment” zoning to removing residential zoning altogether, allowing for a far greater mix of housing types in nearly every area. 

These things are easier said than done, and getting the details right makes a bit difference. 

Even cities that have been trying to change this situation haven’t done an effective job. Take Bloomington — Minnesota’s fourth largest city. Three years ago, the city passed a zoning change to allow accessory dwelling units in residential neighborhoods. But that hasn’t translated into more housing. 

“Bloomington technically allows duplexes everywhere, but functionally, to build a duplex you need larger than standard land parcel,” Salim Furth said, pointing out how rare this kind of opportunity has become in a built-out city. 

The same criticism holds true for Minneapolis, which madre headlines in 2018 for ending single-family zoning city-wide. But because of details around setbacks and code requirements, the results on the ground have not translated into meaningful housing construction in single-family zones.  

“Just take a 360-degree view of zoning, and talk to builders,” said Salim Furth, offering advice to city leaders. “Ask them, ‘we wrote these rules and can you build these things under the rules’; then revisit the rules, and don’t blame the builders for wanting go make money or stick with precuts they know they can build and market.”

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Furth admits that the Twin Cities has a leg up on most other cities, at least theoretically. The Metropolitan Council government coordinates the region’s planning efforts, meaning that there’s probably more multi-family housing in many Twin Cities’ suburbs than in other US cities. But because the region boasts the largest home ownership gaps, the end results remain grim.

The takeaway is that suburban leaders who care about racial divides in the Twin Cities need to take the lead on changing their regulations, opening up their cities to more people. That means allowing apartments to be built in more places, no matter what kinds of comments are made at public meetings. 

“There’s all these other things you can do, but it’s worth keeping the eye on the ball” said the Furth said. “Zoning is a key bottleneck all across the United States. Let’s put some energy into getting this right, and future generations who are trying to find home for everyone will have a much easier job of solving all the other problems.”


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