The Mask Is Off: Minneapolis Declares War on Single Family Houses


In a recent article published in Housing Wire (and in many other places), it was told that Minneapolis will abolish single family housing as part of the Metropolitan Councils 2040 plan. Much of the reason seems to be based on the idea that people in single family homes are discriminating against minorities and the poor, who can only afford apartments, although of course many people of color own homes, or would like to.

Yet, it is not at all reasonable to assume that new high density multi-family housing will fulfill the expectations of the social engineering crowd. And at the same time, it may weaken the very strong community and neighborhood structure that has made Minneapolis such an appealing place.

When I moved to Minneapolis in 1983 from Dallas and Houston, (and originally from Detroit), I was amazed at the lack of blight. Living in the Detroit area, you can drive for hours south of 8 Mile Road and not see affluent well kept neighborhoods – just blighted areas that resembled leftovers from a war zone. Yet, drive for hours around Minneapolis – a city similar in age to Detroit, and you would be hard pressed to find any area that could be considered even remotely downtrodden.

Coming from Detroit and later from Houston, there was a racial undertone to both. Yes, things have improved over the decades but the divide still remains. This underlying racism was something I hated about living in Detroit, and to a lesser extent in Houston. In 1983, when I moved to Minneapolis, the racism seemed almost non-existent at the time, but back then the city was mostly white Nordic-Germanic of populous.

In Detroit, the wealthy flashed their success in their clothes, cars, and homes, and those that cannot afford such luxuries sometimes felt compelled their credit as a way of financing the appearance of being a ‘class above’. This too always bothered me. When I moved to Minneapolis, the person passing in an old Pontiac and conservatively dressed could be a janitor or CEO of a major corporation. Yes, they probably lived in a Lake Minnetonka Mansion, but did not likely flash their wealth as in other cities. This also was refreshing.

When we wrote the chapter in our book titled Prefurbia on redevelopment of blighted cities, we were going to take some local pictures but could not find a single area that could be described as blight. Instead, I used pictures that I took in Detroit!

Of course, the city has changed since I’ve moved here, it’s less ‘white’ and more racially mixed, but the areas of concentrated poverty are still very low for a major city.

Minneapolis’ problem is not that there are too many single family homes – it’s that the real estate prices are too high to justify low density redevelopment. Allow me to explain. If a developer wanted to re-develop a 10 acre area in Detroit, they would pay almost nothing for the land. Not so in Minneapolis. Because there is no such blight, even the land under the worst existing homes would cost at least $100,000 to buyout each existing home – possibly more. Assuming that the 10 acres in Detroit or Minneapolis would be in a tight ‘urban grid’ layout, about 40% of that 10 acres would be in the form of street and right-of-ways as well as easements. Assuming that in both cases, the right-of-ways and easements could be abandoned – much of that area could in theory be recaptured to create a more cohesive ‘neighborhood’. e can also assume the city grid would be at a density about 5 homes to the acre. So, 10 acres X 5 = 50 homes x $100,000 = 5 million dollars for the Minneapolis site vs. $5 for the blighted Detroit land.

In the Detroit situation, you can ‘in theory’ keep the overall density the same (50 single family homes) and apply advanced land planning models to have far less infrastructure consuming the land, and have a fantastic neighborhood without any raw land costs, leaving single family density financially feasible.

In Minneapolis the $5 million land cost is increased by demolition of the existing structures, all passed onto the next buyers or renters. So, at 5 homes per acre, that acre of land at best will be somewhere north of ½ million dollars per acre. Put another way, to maintain single family validity, if you are buying a $100,000 home (that would be in the worst neighborhoods), and 1/4th of a new home is typically a finished lot, at minimum you would need to replace that home with a $400,000 home. That would make no sense – not in downtrodden areas at least. These Minneapolis lots are small to begin with, so replacing single family with duplex won’t make much of a dent financially. Building code in Minneapolis won’t allow attached housing of the past where a thin common wall separated the adjacent unit. Today, the builder must construct what is essentially two exterior walls with airspace between adjacent units for duplex and townhomes, so why not separate the units and build somewhat high density single family instead? The only way to economically justify redevelopment in an area of high raw land cost would be high density vertical growth.

As a result, there might be justification of higher density redevelopment, but then there is the reality that the tens of thousands of apartments sprouting in the Minneapolis metro area are anything but ‘affordable’. Possibly because land is terribly overpriced here, or maybe because you cannot replicate the cheapness of older high density because of today’s building codes. Finding affordable rents in newly built apartments is elusive – unless part of subsidized programs.

But there is another more important issue – these multi-story apartments being built have absolutely no architectural uniqueness. When someone designs a single family home in a horizontal single family neighborhood, architectural character matters, but not nearly as much as a mid-rise apartment which takes on a vertical visual massing. There is a responsibility of any development going vertical to create landmarks – not repetitious mundaneness. Looking at every single apartment building rising in this city – they appear to be designed by the same person. In a way they are. They simply press a button in their Revitt, and ‘typicals’ appear to quickly design these monuments. Point the mouse and pick a unique color to give the building something different than the one sprouting down the street. Where did architectural talent go?

One architect friend said to me, this software is great – just replicate the unit, and then flip it on the other side of the hallway and you quickly create an apartment building – isn’t this stuff wonderful? Well, isn’t the architect being paid a hefty percentage of the construction costs?
So now we can have more repetitious apartments few can afford --- is this progress?

Lastly, there’s a larger concern. A person’s pride. Progressives, and even some Wall Street types, seem to think home ownership is outdated. Is an apartment corridor a proper place for kids to play vs. a private rear yard? Is the ‘working class’ supposed to live in apartments, take the bus, and be thrilled with their position in life, or hope to strive for more – the American way of living. When did Minneapolis become the third world city, relegating the working class to riding the bus (or light rail) and living in towers? Why have such an agenda? I’ve been dirt poor – more recently during the recession when our only luxury was the $5 Sunday morning movie. But we did not lose our home – a source of significant equity if we had to fall back on it. Renting an apartment for $2,000 a month on the fifth floor builds no equity for a typical four person family – having a single family home, even one in a cheap neighborhood at a minimum instills a sense of self-worth and builds at least some equity.

The 2040 plan makes some financial sense, but no social sense. You want racial equity – you want the diverse races to be in single family homes, not packed in like sardines in a mundane high priced mid-rise. American cities should be about aspiration, not forcing people to live like peons permanently. Isn’t the message in itself racist and opposed to our concept of upward mobility?

Rick Harrison is President of Rick Harrison Site Design Studio and Neighborhood Innovations, LLC. He is author of Prefurbia: Reinventing The Suburbs From Disdainable To Sustainable and creator of LandMentor. His websites are and

Photo: Via Flickr by edkohler, using CC License.