Evan Ramstad
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The Legislature a few weeks ago punted on the zoning density bills that looked like they'd create an exciting jolt to Minnesota's housing market.

Municipal leaders fought the bills, which would reduce their control over what gets built in their towns and cities. The bills would have also ended single-family zoning in towns above 10,000 in population. As well, neighbors would no longer be able to stop neighbors from building extra dwellings, formally called accessory dwelling units, or converting single-family houses into duplexes or more.

Change has to happen, however — and it has in Rochester, which shows a way forward for other cities and towns across the state.

The entire country needs more homes of all kinds. While there are many reasons behind the shortage, including material costs, labor constraints and high interest rates, too many city councils and planners prevent household construction with one-off decisions. Each rejection may seem like no big deal, but collectively they hurt economic growth and make it harder for people to get homes.

This was a hot topic at the American Planning Association's national conference, a four-day event that finished Tuesday at the Minneapolis Convention Center. At panel discussions I attended on the housing shortage and zoning reform, city leaders and planners heard again and again that they have to get out of their own way. Those were literally the words of the APA's leader.

"Think about the things you know you do that don't make sense," Angela Brooks, APA's president, said on Saturday. Brooks, an affordable housing executive in Chicago, described cities and planners who cling to old processes that create unneeded delays for residents and developers. "I really encourage you to think about how you can get out of the way," she said.

Corey Woods, the mayor of fast-growing Tempe, Ariz., told the planners that city leaders sometimes have to defy the will of residents. "There are a lot of people who don't want you to build anymore. But that means for people moving into a community, they are not going to have the ability to live in accessible housing," Woods said.

"We as elected leaders have an obligation to step up," he said, adding the housing shortage "isn't an issue. It's a crisis."

Judging by op-eds from executives and members of the League of Minnesota Cities in recent weeks, there are some raw feelings around the state at the suggestion that municipal leaders and elected officials are hurting the greater good. They don't like being asked to give up power.

I encourage them all to visit Rochester, which last year began operating with a new zoning code. Minnesota's third-largest city (population 122,000) has virtually eliminated public hearings on developments and new construction. Instead, it requires developers and builders to meet directly with neighbors. The code also assures homeowners and neighborhoods that they wouldn't face radical change.

Creating that balance took six years, help from a forward-thinking consulting firm and hundreds of public meetings, often with small groups of neighbors.

"We had to move slow to move fast," Ryan Yetzer, Rochester's deputy director for community development, said in a presentation that attracted a couple hundred planners at the convention.

Rochester was dealing with a 533-page code written in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was so out of step with what the city had become that virtually every construction project needed special approvals and time-consuming negotiations.

"The code didn't work. It was just a series of workarounds," Yetzer said.

Meanwhile, the city's biggest employer, Mayo Clinic, was always evolving and expanding. The Destination Medical Center concept emerged in the early 2010s and state legislators committed taxpayer money to help. City officials couldn't sit still.

"That whole initiative was underway and so there was a sense of trying to grow and particularly trying to grow in a fiscally sustainable way," Yetzer told me after his presentation.

The city eliminated all but one of its special construction districts. It simplified rules on aesthetics and parking. Too many things were built with more parking than needed, the city's planners realized.

Rochester retained single-family zoning, but it now allows any residential homeowner to build a backyard dwelling. And more than 2,000 multifamily units have been approved by right, meaning the builder could go forward with no special appearances before the City Council or other negotiation. Not all are built, but it's a start to the city's goal of adding 14,000 households by the end of the decade.

The city has done much of what legislators focused on housing are thinking that all Minnesota communities should do with zoning and building regulations. However, no other city in Minnesota is under the pressure that Rochester feels from Mayo, which itself is pressured by demand for health care.

Everywhere else, residents show up at city council and planning meetings to stop things from being built. No one waves a sign in a city council meeting that says, "Build more!"