Martin Parelius Fourplex in Portland, Oregon by Finetooth licensed under Creative Commons.

Minneapolis may legalize construction of house-sized small apartment buildings — fourplexes — in its single-family detached neighborhoods. Their plan could become a nationwide model for solving the urban housing shortage.

Right now DC is amending its Comprehensive Plan, the document that will guide the city’s growth for decades to come. Could the District adopt this strategy from its northern brethren to address its housing shortage?

No vacancy in Minneapolis

According to City Council President Lisa Bender, more than 50% of Minneapolis residents are renters and over 40% of them live alone. Renter population has grown 13% since 2000 and households of color are more likely to be renters then white households, a Minnesota Housing Partnership (MHP) study shows.

Consistend with trends in cities accross the country, as of 2016 nearly 80% of renters paid more than 30% of their incomes on rent, a heavy burden according to federal affordable housing guidelines. Another 46% paid more than half their incomes, which is an extremely heavy burden.

One of the reasons why so much of families' incomes are being dedicated to rent is because of extremely low vacancy rates. MHP found that the vacancy rate in Minneapolis was 4.5% in 2017. That means there has been a 37% drop over the past decade in available rental units. These low vacancy rates for rental units effectively creates a housing shortage in the city.

Image by MHP report.

In addition, rental units have historically been concentrated in the center of the city. As it stands, only six neighborhoods house over half of the rental units in the entire city: Downtown, Loring Park, Uptown, Whittier, North Loop, and Marcy Holme. These neighborhoods have also seen the highest increases in rental prices.

Image by MHP report.

Increased number of renters, extremely low vacancy rates, and concentration of rental units all mean that the city's renting landscape is highly competitive and unaffordable. Property owners can be highly selective in tenant screening and more able to discriminate and/or increase rent.

Could fourplexes be part of the solution?

In order to combat housing scarcity in the city, Minneapolis is considering revising its zoning to allow for more four-unit residential buildings called “fourplexes.” Its comprehensive plan, drafted this spring, states: “Fourplexes no taller than 2 and ½ stories will be allowed in every residential area in Minneapolis.”

Developers would also be allowed to build larger apartment buildings on multiple lots in areas from Lowry Avenue in the north to 38th Street in the south. As it stands now, about two-thirds of the city are zoned for single-family homes. These allowances would mean a significant shift in the housing landscape.

Fourplexes are the cheapest and easiest way to create new housing for both tenants and developers. These small buildings are much like houses and are more economical per unit to create than more standard multi-lot apartment complexes.

New construction is almost always more expensive than existing housing. Partly that's because so little of it is allowed that developers must choose between luxury or affordable instead of building both, and also partly because so much new construction is forced into expensive-to-build high-rise buildings. Allowing fourplexes citywide solves both those problems: It legalizes enough supply for both luxury and affordable, and it legalizes much less expensive-to-construct buildings.

Fourplexes won’t solve all of the issues in Minneapolis housing market, but we should celebrate a turning away from exclusionary zoning and towards adding more affordable units.

Not everyone is a fan

While fourplexes would alleviate some of the pressure on the rental market, some neighborhood groups are outraged at the proposal. The group Minneapolis For Everyone (MFE) argues that this comprehensive plan will “bulldoze” residential neighborhoods:

“These changes would replace bungalows and duplexes with cheap and ugly modern buildings and destroy the charm and character of our neighborhoods. National corporations are increasingly owning these rental properties, replacing homeownership with market-rate rents and corporate profits.”

Some also believe fourplexes will make the city less affordable. The increased supply of housing on the market would likely drastically improve affordability, but some argue that new development would be costly and would therefore result in higher rent prices to cover new development costs.

Most groups organizing against the fourplex proposal do not disagree that Minneapolis needs more housing — the city clearly needs more affordable homes. However, those who are against fourplexes claim that it's a one-size fits-all solution that will allow corporate control of residential communities, since companies typically build and operate apartment buildings. Instead, they say more rental units can be created in already-designated areas downtown.

It’s important to note that homebuyers are already tearing down small single-family homes to replace them with bigger, more expensive single-family homes. Home values are increasing due to scarcity, and maintaining things as they are now will ensure that these houses are increasingly inhabited only by a wealthy few.

Could fourplexes work in DC?

DC is facing similar housing inequities. Sean Maiwald recently wrote about how wealthy, white homeowners use restrictive zoning to resist development in order to protect their home values, “often under the guise of ‘stability’ and ‘neighborhood character.'”

When large swaths of the city don't build any new homes while new residents continue to come in, lower-income neighborhoods are forced to absorb this growth. Buyers who are priced out of affluent neighborhoods where growth is effectively outlawed move to the nearest one where growth is allowed, driving up prices there, and in turn displacing low-income residents who can no longer afford to live in their neighborhood.

Even though the District is land-constrained, much of it is zoned for single low-rise, low-occupancy buildings. A DC Policy Center housing report suggests that small changes to residential neighborhoods' zoning restrictions would make a profound difference. For example, adding a single low-rise, multi-family building with 100 units in each of the eight studied residential neighborhoods would allow 800 families to access good schools, employment centers, and safe streets.

But what if instead of a 100-unit building per neighborhood, some single-family homes were converted into fourplexes? This could have the same or even greater impact while also maintaining the neighborhoods' appearance and integrity.

Do you think that DC should allow fourplexes in our zoned residential areas?

Emma Walker, born and raised in central New Jersey, is currently a student at American University studying Economics and Sociology. When Emma isn't interning at the GGWash office, she is attempting to improve her latte art at Little Red Fox where she works.