Legislature advances climate-friendly housing reforms

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Predicting the outcome of a Legislative session is never an exact science, but one result looks pretty likely this session: the Legislature will pass policy changes that encourage increased housing density across Minnesota. Ranging from zoning reforms to eliminating minimum requirements for parking, these reforms are intended to help spur the growth of more housing units in already-developed communities.

MEP supports these bipartisan efforts – as do a wide variety of environmental organizations, faith groups, business interests, and housing advocates across the political spectrum. These bills would support climate action and conservation just as they support people in need of housing. By and large, denser housing is far healthier for the planet than its opposite number: sprawl.

At the building level, apartments, townhomes, and smaller single family homes consume less energy for heating and cooling than larger, spread-out homes. At the neighborhood level, dense housing located near amenities like shopping centers, transit, and jobs, generates far less plastic and carbon pollution from transportation than sprawling neighborhoods consisting of only single-family homes. The result is that suburban areas emit on average four times as much climate pollution as the urban areas they surround. 

And sprawl in the suburbs and exurbs necessarily comes at the expense of nature. Expanding outward instead of upward requires the excavation of forests, prairies, and other resources to construct buildings, roads, and parking lots.

That’s not to say that building upward doesn’t have any environmental consequences – issues like concrete production and light pollution present their own challenges. But it is far better to make housing available in urban areas, where commerce and jobs can be found, than on the distant edges of a cityscape.

The proposed reforms

A keystone issue for the reformers is reducing the wide array of restrictions that cities are allowed to place on housing construction. Municipal governments in Minnesota have differing restrictions on permitted densities on residential lots, parking requirements, and aesthetics. Many also restrict the construction of housing near commercial areas, incentivizing residents to drive rather than walk, bike, or take transit.

Rep. Larry Kraft (DFL-St. Louis Park) and Sen. Nicole Mitchell (DFL-Woodbury) have put forward HF4009/SF 3964 – the “missing middle” bill – which would increase the minimum density of housing allowed in many developed residential areas. It especially encourages the construction of all-electric, highly energy-efficient apartments. A related bill, HF 4010/SF 3980 from Rep. Liish Kozlowski (DFL-Duluth) and Senator Susan Pha (DFL-Brooklyn Park), would allow multifamily housing to be built in commercial zones.

Both bills have language that would prevent cities from requiring buildings to have more than one off-street parking space per residential housing unit. HF 4009/SF 3964 goes even further, eliminating all off-street parking requirements within half a mile from a major transit stop.

While these reforms mirror efforts by cities like Saint Paul to allow increased density and incentivize transit use, some cities and organizations have come out against the changes, arguing that cities should have full control over their housing stock. MEP has long supported the power of communities to enact local environmental protections, namely measures that are more protective. But requiring only single-family homes in a neighborhood or mandating extra parking lot space at apartment buildings doesn’t fit the bill – these restrictions result in greater environmental damage, not less.

The recognition that housing density is – all else being equal – good for the environment is behind another Legislative push: ensuring that Metro-area cities’ comprehensive plans can encourage density without running afoul of bedrock environmental laws. The Minneapolis 2040 Plan, which is bogged down in litigation, is the inspiration for HF 4028/SF 4183, from Minneapolis DFLers Rep. Sydney Jordan and Sen. Omar Fateh.

That bill would clarify that greater housing density in a city’s comprehensive plan is beneficial to the climate and not considered “likely to cause pollution, impairment, or destruction” under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act, or MERA. It would not prevent all litigation against Twin Cities-area comprehensive plans on environmental grounds, but could prevent anti-density uses of MERA.

MEP supports the bill because it defuses part of the 2040 Plan dispute without offering a carve-out that could weaken MERA. MEP opposed such a carve-out last session, and it fortunately did not become law.

Building a sustainable path forward

Minnesota is a changing state, and it’s going to change even more quickly in the coming years. Climate change is likely to spark mass human migration to cooler, wetter areas of the U.S. like Minnesota, increasing an already-high demand for affordable housing. By building that housing in already-developed areas, we can reduce our climate emissions and preserve the natural areas and ecosystems that are vital to our existence.

It’s worth clearly pointing out that the Legislature’s package of density reforms don’t force anyone to move, or take transit, or construct a new duplex or apartment building. But they’ll help make it far easier for Minnesotans to choose the climate friendly option, to invest in highly effective climate action. Housing reform may not be a silver bullet for climate change, but it’s a huge step in the right direction to achieve a sustainable future. We look forward to the Legislature passing these good ideas into law.

For previous columns, visit mepartnership.org/category/blog/. If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author by replying to this email.

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