Zoning laws keep student rents high

The City Council needs to make lowering student housing costs a priority.

Christopher Meyer

The University of Minnesota is in a period of crisis. The costs of attending this institution have skyrocketed in recent years, with no end in sight. In the midst of such a crisis, policymakers at every level of government need to be doing everything within their power to alleviate students’ crushing financial burdens. Shamefully, officials on the local level have neglected this duty; students’ needs have barely even registered on local officials’ radar, much less received the top priority status they require.

The most important thing local officials can do to improve the situation is to pass policies that will bring down students’ housing costs. The housing supply in the University District is severely constrained by Minneapolis regulations. To address the problem, the city must enable the supply to expand.

The first step the city must take is to reform the maximum occupancy limit, a Minneapolis ordinance that restricts the number of people who can live together in a house. For areas that are zoned R4, R5 or R6, the limit is set at five unrelated adults per unit, while for areas zoned R1, R2 or R3 it is just three.

The critical problem with the ordinance as it stands is that the three-person limit currently applies to hundreds of houses that have four, five or six bedrooms. The primary reason the discrepancy is so large is because in the 1980s, large swathes of the Marcy-Holmes and Southeast Como neighborhoods (displayed on the bottom right) were downzoned from high-density areas to low-density areas.

This shift removed hundreds of bedrooms from the legal housing supply. There were only two possible results from this change: Students would either continue to occupy the bedrooms illegally, or the bedrooms were left vacant. In the first case, students are senselessly turned into criminals; in the second case, perfectly good bedrooms are left to waste.

Last November, MSA passed a resolution (of which I was the primary author) that called upon the Minneapolis City Council to reform the occupancy limit. The resolution was deliberately broad, calling on the City to adopt any policy that would make the limit correspond more sensibly to the size of the dwellings in question.

 

The UDA’s resolution

In January, the Housing Committee of the University District Alliance passed a resolution that attacked the MSA resolution. The Committee’s arguments are reflective of the  position many long-term residents have taken against efforts to reform the occupancy limit.

The UDA is an organization comprised of representatives from each neighborhood association, the various business associations in the area, the University and one representative each from MSA and GAPSA. The final clause of the resolution declares: “the University District Alliance will oppose any attempts to change the current occupancy codes.” Their resolution demonstrates their detachment from students’ needs.

High gas prices and the foreclosure crisis have caused more Americans to rent rather than buy property, increasing demand for housing in centrally located neighborhoods, like Marcy-Holmes. Opponents of changing the zoning laws fear that changes will allow the construction of apartment buildings that will go unoccupied when the foreclosure crisis subsides and fewer people rent, turning the neighborhood into a slum. But this fear is highly misguided. Gas prices are only likely to get higher over time, which means more and more people will move to centrally located cities to reduce their transportation costs. The Central Corridor light rail, in particular, is certain to ensure enduring interest in University District properties.

The resolution also asserts that the ordinance does not target students because it applies equally to all residents. This reminds me of a quote from Anatole France: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich and the poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” The maximum occupancy limit may indeed be neutral on its surface, but there can be no question that it has a hugely disproportionate impact on students because they are overwhelmingly renters and they are seldom related to their roommates.

The resolution also cites a 2003 fire in Southeast Como that killed three students  — the excuse the city used to crack down on enforcing the maximum occupancy ordinance. They evicted more than 70 students in the aftermath. But the fire had nothing to do with the number of students living in the home. The problem was that the building itself was in violation of multiple codes. Most notably, surviving residents reported dysfunctional fire alarms. Inspectors’ time would be far better used addressing things that actually affect safety rather than an ordinance that has nothing to do with it.

 

The solution

Councilman Cam Gordon has proposed to change the ordinance so that it would be based on the square-footage of the building. Another option would be to base the limit on the number of bedrooms in a building. A third option would be to implement a change over the entire University district that would set a uniform occupancy limit of five unrelated adults, regardless of the building’s size or zoning status.

Long-term residents have been strongly opposed to all of these options, dismissing every compromise student advocates have put forward, on the basis that these proposals would create too much complexity.

Given these objections, I believe the simplest solution may also be the most ambitious one: The city should restore the entirety of the Marcy-Holmes and Como neighborhoods to the high-density status they held before they were downzoned in the 1980s. This would solve the occupancy problem while avoiding the need to draft new legislation. Instead, the city would simply need to apply existing law to a new area. This would do more than just solve the occupancy limit; it would substantially expand the housing supply by allowing developers to build high-density developments in these areas.

 

Not just for students

It’s not just students who will benefit from this. Environmentalists should enthusiastically support policies that enable more students to live close to the University. Students who live within walking distance of their classes won’t need to consume as much gasoline as those who must commute from further away. Many will choose to save money by leaving their cars at home or selling them altogether. Moreover, one needn’t be a tree hugger to appreciate the wastefulness of leaving hundreds of perfectly good bedrooms unoccupied. Before we spend money on new buildings, we should make more effective use of the buildings that are already there.

Local businesses should support the change because with more people living nearby, they will have more potential customers to appeal to. Furthermore, if students are able to spend less money on their housing and transportation costs, they will have more left over to spend elsewhere. Students who choose to give up their cars will also be much more likely to shop at locations nearby rather than traveling out to big box stores in the suburbs.

The city of Minneapolis should support the change because it will increase the city’s tax base. Local businesses will generate more sales tax revenue, and higher property values will generate more property tax revenue. On the opposite side of the ledger, students cost the city very little. Our educations are heavily subsidized, but those subsidies are funded at the state and federal level, not the city level.

Residents concerned about crime should support the change because one of the most critical factors for reducing crime rates is having “eyes on the street.”

Libertarians and conservatives should support the change because it reinforces their values. The problem in this situation is overly burdensome government regulations, and the solution is closer adherence to free-market principles.

Unions should support the change because it will create jobs in the construction sector. The housing crash was devastating to construction workers; this is a huge opportunity for them.

 

A winning strategy

At first glance, this issue may seem daunting. Students have been trying to change the status quo for decades, but they have failed every time. However, if we learn from their mistakes, we can succeed this time.

A strategic flaw in  Gordon’s previous proposals is that they would have changed the occupancy limit for the entire city. That would mean  all 13 councilmembers would have constituents who are directly affected by the change, making it far more challenging to reach a majority. In contrast, if we limit our proposal to the University district, only two councilmembers would have constituents who are directly affected: Gordon and Diane Hofstede. The others could be persuaded by the benefits the change would have for the city.

Our generation is getting more creative about the way we organize around political issues. Recent movements provide models for how students can use innovative political tactics. The fight over the Stop Online Piracy Act demonstrated that bombarding politicians with phone calls and emails can be extremely effective. The Occupy Wall Street movement provides another model: The next time the city tries to evict students, they should practice civil disobedience and resist eviction. That may incur some personal risk but if the cops pepper-spray you, the student community will rally and come to your aid.

The normal approach to getting a city policy changed is to bring the issue to the neighborhood associations, get their support and then bring it before the city Council. Student housing advocates should continue trying to persuade the long-term neighborhood residents, but if they do not succeed, they must circumvent them and bring their case to city councilmembers directly. They must seek support from organizations like the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, the Sierra Club, Transit for Livable Communities and the Building and Construction Trades Council. If that still doesn’t work, they must introduce resolutions to be added to party platforms for the 2013 municipal election and run primary challenges against city politicians who obstruct the effort.

If this strategy doesn’t work, we can put pressure on city politicians in the 2013 municipal election. We can submit resolutions in every precinct for every party and force politicians to take a stated position.

Mayor R.T. Rybak comes to the University looking for votes every election season. We’ve done a lot for him — when we need his assistance, will he be there for us?

The issues that long-term residents have brought up have primarily been concerns about aesthetics and livability. These are not illegitimate issues but they pale in comparison to the importance of alleviating students’ crushing financial burdens. Their concerns are the luxury problems of the privileged; ours are about just getting by. When the two are in conflict, the students’ must prevail.