See more of the story

Opinion editor's note: Star Tribune Opinion publishes a mix of national and local commentaries online and in print each day. To contribute, click here.


Even as Minnetonka publicly extols the need for more affordable housing, exclusionary zoning appears alive and well in the city. At a recent meeting, planning commissioners there voted to deny the very thing Minnesota and Minnetonka need — more affordable homes.

Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, Homes within Reach Community Land Trust and the Mills Church are handing the city of Minnetonka, on a veritable silver platter, Mills Church Townhomes. This project would add 10 perpetually affordable townhomes to Minnetonka. By "handing," I mean Habitat and its partners have worked in good faith with city staff for four years, including countless people hours and $80,000 in hard costs working and reworking (down from 12 to 10 townhomes, and various site modifications) to get the project poised for city approval. It was only days before the April 18 Planning Commission meeting that city staff notified Habitat and its partners that it would not be recommending that the project move forward.

At issue, per city staff, is that the Mills Church Townhomes would require upzoning from low density, which allows a maximum of four housing units per acre, to medium density, which allows up to 12 units per acre, as the project entails building 4.6 housing units per acre. Some of the commissioners, as well as some people who spoke out against the proposed development, spoke of the "slippery slope" — if we rezone this parcel from low to medium density, who's to say that over time the density would not go up to 12 housing units? This question was answered several times — the 99-year land lease required by the Community Land Trust would prevent this from happening. The development would stay at 4.6 housing units per acre for at least 99 years. A slippery slope it is not.

Proposed state legislation seeks to reduce local control of some zoning codes in order to make room for more housing and to curtail zoning practices that have historically been used to exclude low-income families and people of color from wealthier neighborhoods (known as exclusionary zoning). Seventy-four percent of all housing in the Twin Cities area is zoned single-family only, and most cities seem to want to keep it that way. Minnesota needs new housing — it's estimated that we are over 100,000 units short. Allowing for more housing units per lot could go a long way to increasing housing affordability. When you can build four homes on a lot as opposed to only one, then (all else being equal) the housing naturally becomes more affordable. Land is a huge driver of housing costs.

Allowing for the building of more homes seems like a worthy goal for the public good when our state is in a housing crisis. Right? Not according to Minnetonka's city staff or planning commissioners.

Noticeably missing from the Planning Commission's discussion: How can Minnetonka help with the housing crisis? How can we do our part? How do we welcome all into our community, including those that may not look like us, or may be in a different economic bracket?

The April 18 planning commission meeting lasted five hours, with the majority of public comments supporting the proposal for the Mills Church Townhomes. Yet, Minnetonka's six planning commissioners all voted no to the proposal. Before voting, each one said things along the lines of "we understand the need, but … ." The last commissioner to vote reiterated Minnetonka's commitment to affordable housing. As he looked earnestly at city staff and his fellow commissioners, he said, "I mean, just look at the countless hours we have spent discussing affordable housing."

Many of us were hoping at least one of the planning commissioners would break away from the pack mentality and lead. None did. Despite the room being packed with more in support of the proposal — many wearing T-shirts and stickers saying "LOVE MAKES ROOM" — the planning commission unanimously supported exclusionary zoning practices. The City Council is expected to make a final decision when it meets at 6:30 May 6 at 14600 Minnetonka Blvd.

Paige Kahle, of St. Paul, is a broker-owner, Realtor and housing activist.