Housing Policy

Judge Rules Minneapolis' Zoning Reforms Are Getting Too Much Housing Built

Plus: Political campaigns will have to disclose if they use AI in their ads, the effort to rehabilitate rent control rumbles on, and more...


Environmentalists have managed to reverse America's leading "yes in my backyard" (YIMBY) success story. A Minnesota judge ruled this week that Minneapolis must halt the implementation of a wide range of zoning reforms until it performs an environmental analysis of the increased home construction and urban density they allow.

"The record supports the inescapable conclusion that [the city's zoning changes] would have such potential for significant environmental effects that it is likely to affect the environment materially adversely, causing irreparable harm," wrote Hennepin County Judge Joseph R. Klein in a Tuesday decision.

Changes the city will now have to pump the brakes on include its first-in-the-nation abolition of single-family-only zoning, the ending of minimum parking requirements for new residential buildings, and the legalization of larger apartment buildings in more areas of the city.

These were passed by the Minneapolis City Council back in December 2018 as part of its lengthy Minneapolis 2040 comprehensive plan, which had the express purpose of boosting housing supply in order to bring housing prices down.

That potential for additional housing construction was a bug, not a feature, for a number of the city's environmentalist organizations. Shortly before the approval of the Minneapolis 2040 plan, they sued the city on the grounds it had failed to study the environmental impacts of more people and more homes as required by the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act (MEPA).

Plaintiffs include Smart Growth Minneapolis and Minnesota Citizens for the Protection of Migratory Birds.

That case has been winding through the courts ever since. Klein had previously ruled in favor of the plaintiffs back in June 2022, rejecting an argument from the city that comprehensive plan updates like Minneapolis 2040 were exempt from state environmental review requirements.

The city was allowed to keep approving projects under the more permissive Minneapolis 2040 rules while it appealed that decision. In December 2022, a state appeals court also agreed with plaintiffs that Minneapolis' zoning changes triggered MEPA.

They sent the case back to Klein to decide whether a freeze on implementing the plan's housing changes was necessary. His Tuesday decision approved that freeze.

While the lawsuit has been ongoing, Minneapolis has seen a small boom in new home construction. Developers have taken advantage of the new, more liberal zoning rules to build newly legal apartment buildings with less parking than was previously required. (The city's legalization of triplexes and duplexes has had a more modest impact.)

Bloomberg reported recently that the city has managed to tame rising housing costs, while rents and home prices continue to rise in neighboring St. Paul and other cities across the Midwest.

Klein's Tuesday decision notes that "that since the Minneapolis 2040 Plan took effect on January 1, 2020, there has been a significant increase in total approved building height, linear feet, gross area footprint, and impermeable surface coverage."

But the success of the plan at increasing housing production and density is also its legal undoing. All this new floor space is likely to increase traffic (including pedestrian traffic), decrease air quality, increase light and glare from buildings, and increase shadows from new buildings.

Those are all environmental impacts that need to be studied under MEPA, reasoned Klein. Until that's done, new home construction under the Minneapolis 2040 rules must now stop.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported in May that the city had preemptively started work on an environmental review of its comprehensive plan while the lawsuit was still pending.

"We think the Court's ruling is wrong and we will be appealing," said the Minneapolis City Attorney's Office in a statement to Reason.

Klein's ruling, while quite plausibly right on the merits of MEPA's requirements, is certainly a setback for Minneapolis landowners who now have fewer options for developing their properties. It could at least be a productive teaching moment.

Minneapolis's 2040 plan legalized more housing production on paper, which then led to more homes in fact, and lower housing costs as a result. That's a vindication of the general YIMBY mantra that housing affordability comes through increased housing supply.

If the Minneapolis 2040 plan's reversal sees home construction fall and prices rise, that'll just be more proof of concept of that narrative.


Come November, political ads on Google will have to disclose whether they're using artificial intelligence. Politico reports:

Google's latest rule update—which also applies to YouTube video ads—requires all verified advertisers to prominently disclose whether their ads contain "synthetic content that inauthentically depicts real or realistic-looking people or events." The company mandates the disclosure be "clear and conspicuous" on the video, image or audio content. Such disclosure language could be "this video content was synthetically generated," or "this audio was computer generated," the company said.

A disclosure wouldn't be required if AI tools were used in editing techniques, like resizing or cropping, or in background edits that don't create realistic interpretations of actual events.


Minneapolis environmentalists aren't the only ones trying to make their local housing supply problem worse. Activists in nearby Michigan are agitating for rent control. Michigan Radio reports:

Hundreds of people gathered at the state Capitol Tuesday to demand rent control and other measures to reduce the cost of rent.

William Walker is a Lansing community activist. He says the rapidly rising cost to rent in many Michigan cities, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, is forcing people out of their homes and apartments.

"It is forcing them out of their communities. It's breaking up families. It is just devastating," said Walker.

Michigan lawmakers are readying a bill that would end the state's ban on localities adopting rent control.

It's part of a trend.

Massachusetts legislators are also trying to put an initiative on the ballot that would end that state's preemption of local rent control measures. Meanwhile, the Biden administration is soliciting comments on whether it should impose rent control on properties with a Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac–backed mortgage.

It's all part and parcel of an ongoing effort by policy makers, academics, and activists to rehabilitate the once rock-bottom reputation of rent control. I've argued before (at length) that any honest assessment of rent control's effects finds that it reduces the supply and/or quality of housing.


• The New Yorker covers the efforts of the Cetacean Translation Initiative, or CETI, an effort by researchers to use artificial intelligence to talk to whales.

• Mexico's Supreme Court declared all criminal penalties on abortion unconstitutional and is requiring the country's federal health service to offer abortions on request.

• The San Francisco Chronicle reports that former Fox News host Steve Hilton is launching a ballot initiative campaign to significantly pare back who can sue to stop new housing under the state's notorious environmental review law. His proposed ballot initiative would also cap impact fees charged to developers.

• This was officially the world's hottest summer.

• Republicans pounce…on returning mask mandates in schools.

• A federal judge has ordered Texas to remove floating border barricades it had installed in the Rio Grande.