If not preemption, local governments need to step up and take the lead on zoning reform

This year, the biggest coalition in Minnesota’s history came together to support housing — specifically, zoning and land use — reform bills introduced in the legislature. Among other things, the bills (which I wrote about here), would have effectively preempted local rules by

  1. Requiring cities to legalize missing middle housing in single-family zoned areas. Missing middle housing includes townhomes, duplexes, and triplexes
  2. Requiring cities to increase density, especially in areas near transit.
  3. Abolishing minimum parking requirements in some areas
  4. Banning public hearings for development applications
  5. Banning localities from regulating architectural and aesthetic features
  6. Allowing multi-family housing in commercial zoned areas
  7. Reducing minimum lot sizes
  8. Allowing buildings up to 75 feet to be serviced by a single stairway. Currently, only buildings of up to about 40 feet can be serviced by a single stairway

Due to local government opposition, these bills are not moving forward. As Minnpost reports,

effective lobbying by city governments, especially in the suburbs, raised enough questions about the measures that they lacked enough votes to advance. Having the state require more density in single-family housing zones as well as making it harder for cities to block multifamily buildings in commercial zones was portrayed as a threat to local control.

If not preemption, then what?

As my colleague John Phelan has explained, preemption is indeed a double-edged sword. On one hand, these bills, as I wrote, presented a promising start for housing reform in Minnesota. On the other hand, by preempting zoning laws, the bills would centralize government control and, therefore, undermine local governance.

When it comes to housing, however, local governance has been part of the problem more than it has been the solution. Specifically, local zoning regulations, density restrictions, and excessive fees are some of the biggest barriers to housing development, making preemption an attractive option.

Something needs to change.

To preserve their autonomy while at the same time serving Minnesotans well, city governments need to step up and take the lead on zoning reform, making preemption unnecessary. Local control, while preferable, is hard to support when it continues to be a source of tyranny.