Read more articles by Betsy Gardner

By Betsy Gardner • July 29, 2019

 Among the typical questions when looking at a new home: gas or electric, when was the roof last repaired, could a team of oxen be driven fully around the perimeter of the home? 


The romantic notion of the single family home with a picket fence is deeply rooted in this country’s cultural history, from early settlers to Western pioneers to tidy subdivisions.Yet by the mid 1800s multi-family dwellings were increasing in urban areas as populations in cities boomed; in the late 1800s only the most affluent residents in New York City could still afford single family homes. Many urbanists, architects, and policymakers viewed this trend in horror, and rushed to preserve the American institution of single family houses from the “vicious, unhealthy, [and] debasing” dwellings that housed multiple families. Hence, the oxen test: in 1913 Otto Davis, a member of the Minneapolis Civic and Commerce Association, declared that a home is a “house in which one can drive a yoke of oxen around.” 


These assumptions were steeped in racism and classism. The push to declare homes as free-standing structures sitting on private land vastly favored white, traditionally land-owning males, and these influences would persist for decades, solidifying housing and zoning laws into biased systems of exclusion. A 2014 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that black Americans and immigrants were systematically excluded from achieving the economic benefits of living and owning homes in low density, purely residential zones. And since the only zones for black and immigrant residents were also industrial areas, there were likely adverse health effects from living in polluted locations. 


Even with the Fair Housing Act in 1968, discrimination and biases continued to determine who could — and couldn’t — live in certain neighborhoods. This has led to a host of inequities around things like assets, eviction, drinking water, and education. The Opportunity Atlas, developed by Raj Chetty at Harvard University, has shown the lasting impact that home location can have on children, with their success as an adult being directly tied to their neighborhood block, an impact that is particularly negatively felt by families of color. Thankfully, there has been increased attention to the issues surrounding homeownership and zoning in this country. Influenced by things like the Great Recession, the foreclosure crisis, and student loan debt, homeownership is declining and “alternative” methods of living are gaining momentum. 


So wouldn’t Davis be surprised to find that one of the most recent and comprehensive movements to eliminate single-family zoning happened in his own backyard? The city of Minneapolis is taking on racial and socioeconomic barriers to affordable housing by voting to eliminate single-family zoning in the new Minneapolis 2040 plan. This land use change was championed by Mayor Jacob Fry and the City Council. At a spring event at the Harvard Kennedy School, Mayor Fry stated that the zoning change was paramount because “in Minneapolis we have a 100-year history of very intentional segregation — a 100-year history of redlining and exclusive covenants that run with the land.” By zoning for greater density, Minneapolis aims to intentionally correct the damage wrought by such segregationist land policies. 


Minneapolis zoning map from NYT


Other cities, and some states, are taking note. The New York Times just released maps of residential land in ten major American cities to illustrate the various densities. They range from just 15 percent zoned for single-family homes in New York City to 94 percent in San Jose, California. In Minneapolis, 70 percent of the land is zoned exclusively for detached single-family homes; once the regional Metropolitan Council gives the expected final approval for the Minneapolis 2040 zoning changes, that number will be zero percent.  



Each map gives history and context to that city’s housing and land use. For example, Portland famously has regulations on the boundaries of urban growth, locking in the edges of the city to preserve the surrounding area from sprawl. However, many residents are feeling trapped between the defined city boundary and the strict residential zoning, only 23 percent of which allows multi-family homes. State legislators recently introduced a bill to end single-family zoning in cities with more than 10,000 residents; if passed, it would be the first state in the nation to do so. 

Portland zoning map from NYT


Plans like these aren’t without controversy; opponents of the Minneapolis bill alleged that the 2040 proposal would lead to the bulldozing of their neighborhoods. And in California, where a similar statewide bill to Oregon has been proposed, many objectors want the state to stay out of zoning regulations on the local level. Yet as Mayor Fry points out, the current zoning system is built on purposeful exclusion, and has led to cities that are “racially segregated, socioeconomically segregated, [and] age-demographically segregated.” 

Perhaps, in several years, the New York Times will be able to run new maps that show the resulting desegregation  — and improved quality of life — that these rezoning plans have accomplished. After all, if affluence, health, education, and poverty can be traced back to the neighborhoods where people grow up, every city and state has an obligation to use inclusive zoning to ensure a more equitable outcome for all residents, not just those with freestanding homes.