Seven months before Minneapolis became known as the city where George Floyd was flagrantly murdered by police, the Atlantic magazine published an article commending the Minneapolis City Council for becoming a pioneer in the country by doing “something long considered impossible in American politics: end[ing] single-family zoning in an entire city.”
This “could mark a major turning point nationwide,” the author wrote, because the loudest not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) voices tend to come from wealthy homeowners who often go to public meetings to thwart the construction of new housing.
The article notes: “Social scientists broadly agree that bans on multifamily housing are bad for housing affordability, bad for racial equality, and bad for the environment.”
Housing remains a crisis city-, state-, and nationwide. Headway is being made, but the gap remains wide because of decades of underinvestment and a history of racialized convenants that prevented marginalized communities from living in white neighborhoods.
Before the city measure passed, multi-family homes were banned in 70 percent of the residential land in Minneapolis. Similar zoning laws restrict neighborhoods in other cities. The Minneapolis 2040 plan will enable housing units in the city to potentially triple.
The Atlantic author wrote that the changed policy in Minneapolis is “so unusual that my colleagues at the Century Foundation and I undertook a detailed review of how and why reformers prevailed.”
One reason reform happened was that proponents of multi-family housing focused public discussion on who the victims of exclusionary zoning are, and how numerous they are. Another reason was that younger city council leaders, elected in 2017, recognized that housing was unaffordable for young people, policy was rooted in racist origins, and lack of affordability meant people were moving further away and increasing commuter gas emissions.
Opposition focused on narratives that were not true, the article indicated: “Red signs bearing the slogan ‘don’t bulldoze our neighborhood’ proliferated — even though no one was proposing to bulldoze anything.” A similar outcry a few years earlier opposed in-law apartments to be created alongside single-family homes, which some opponents indicated would become “houses of prostitution.”
In contrast, some yes-in-my-backyard (YIMBY) movements were led with the slogan of “neighbors for more neighbors,” especially promoting density with car-less mobility.
Atlantic author Richard Kahlenberg concluded with these words: “It is humiliating for local governments to tell people of modest means that they are not welcome in a certain community and that their children do not belong in its public schools. … If the victims of single-family zoning speak up, as they did in Minneapolis, they may begin to bury an anachronistic practice that has done so much harm for so many years.”
Self Interests vs. Community Needs
Debra Stein, who specialized in changing mindsets around controversial land-use projects around the country before she died in 2009, indicated that she started her public affairs career after a woman spit on her at a public hearing. “As I was wiping saliva off my arm, I said to myself, ‘I am going to figure out why this happened and never let it happen again.’”
She offered this explanation in an Affordable Housing Finance interview: “Years of traditional religious training have taught many Americans that we must help those in need. But the Protestant work ethic is also a strong moral tradition in America, emphasizing that individuals must pull themselves by their bootstraps to attain the material rewards of hard work. When wealth is seen as evidence of moral worth, residents fear that people who are less wealthy will be less desirable neighbors and more likely to engage in antisocial behavior, compared to higher-income neighbors.”
She added, “As American ethics about individualism and social responsibility evolve, it has become increasingly acceptable to put self interests above broader community needs. The Me Generation is simply not willing to tolerate minor impacts for the sake of the larger community, and feels less guilty about protecting its own self-interest, even at the expense of other people.”
Her research and books about the NIMBY mindset in America led her to advise people not to spend too much time and resources trying to placate anti-housing opponents, but to mobilize pro-housing supporters.
In one recent local example, the retiring Sisters of Notre Dame in southern Minnesota wanted to repurpose their extensive property at Tourtellotte Park in Mankato into an affordable housing community. With objections from neighbors who feared property values would go down — while crime rates, noise, and traffic would go up — that project was canceled.
Supportive housing for marginalized communities — extending beyond those in need of affordable housing to include those supported by in-house services and programs — has another layer of NIMBYism.
In 2014, Golden Valley’s city council rejected a day mental health facility for children after residents complained it would lead to security issues. In 2018, Forest Lake residents rejected a $20 million psychiatric residential treatment facility for children. One concern raised was that it could open a Pandora’s Box of development, including sex offender treatment.
Abderholden said in a Changemakers Alliance conversation: “The Golden Valley [rejection] was probably the worst of my experiences. They did not want ‘those’ kids near ‘their’ kids. A lot of it is just fear about people with mental illnesses or other types of disabilities.”
Not providing community supports does not make issues go away, of course. It just leaves them untreated.
A Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics report titled “The Cost of Mental Illness: Minnesota Facts and Figures,” based largely on 2017 data, estimated there are half a million Minnesotans living with mental illness, which can lead to a fivefold increase in substance use disorders. Many of the unmet needs of this population are attributable to the high cost of treatment.
The overall annual cost of incarcerating people with serious mental illness in state prisons in Minnesota exceeds $230 million.
In one public discussion, the Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections indicated it costs less to treat mental illness than it does to imprison someone, and estimated there is a $6 payback for every dollar invested in prevention, treatment, housing, and employment training — which reduces crime.
Georgia Jane Lyon, now working at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C., wrote a thesis in 2019 for her degree at Whitman College about NIMBY/YIMBY movements. She wrote about a Minneapolis neighborhood effort in the 1970s to preserve its community when developers were threatening to dismantle it. As quoted in “Defending Community: The Struggle for Alternative Redevelopment in Cedar-Riverside,” “When community members complained, private developers told them, ‘this land is too valuable to have you people living on it.’”
Breanne Rothstein, economic and housing director for Brooklyn Park, wrote a womenspress.com commentary indicating: “People have historically come up with unrealistic (at best) and racist (at worst) reasons to oppose the construction of new housing units. Instead of opposing projects and zoning changes in your neighborhood, be vocally supportive of all housing, and especially affordable rental housing, in your community.”
Editor’s Note: The print version of this story indicated that East Bethel became home to a residential treatment center for youth after Forest Lake residents rejected it. In reality, the Cambria Hills center opened in East Bethel in 2020, but closed in 2021 due to license violations and financial issues.
A Changemakers Alliance housing team is gathering around developing YIMBY movements with people statewide who can help counter resistance to supportive housing for marginalized communities. If you would like to join this team, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our first public discussion on the topic is scheduled for June 11. “Let’s Talk About Housing,” organized by Nelima Sitate Munene. Sign up at tinyurl.com/MWPHousing