Sunday, April 10, 2016

Moving Houses Can Make Minneapolis "Greener" Than a Plastic Bag Ban

A house on Broadway and Ilion that may be torn down as development comes along.

And the vacant lot immediately across the alley from this house, which is not part of the proposed development.
Four and a half years ago, I was at a Hawthorne environment committee meeting, and the icebreaker was to say our name and the "greenest" thing we did that day.  "I picked up trash around Farview Park," or "I recycled a pop bottle" were common introductions.  When it was my turn, I said, "My name is Jeff, and today I had an offer accepted to purchase and rehab a home that would have otherwise been demolished."  I think I won that round.

On April 1st, the Minneapolis City Council wasn't playing a joke when they adopted a ban on plastic bags that are ubiquitous at most retailers.  They received a fair amount of criticism for taking up the issue in the immediate aftermath of the decision not to prosecute the officers involved in the shooting of Jamar Clark.  Personally, I found the timing to be a bit tone-deaf, but I don't mind an elected body that can focus on more than one hot-button issue at a time.

But if they ban plastic bags, how will I be able to use plastic bags to pick up the plastic bags that accumulate in my yar--ohhhh.

I'm not entirely opposed to a plastic bag ban.  I do use them occasionally, but would just be more conscious of taking tote bags with me if I must.  But there are two main issues I have with this proposal...
...and the first is tied more to socioeconomic equity than to housing.

If plastic bags aren't banned entirely, then a token surcharge would be added on--five cents per bag.  CM Cano was correct in her assertion that we've survived for a long time without plastic bags.  But I wonder if she knows how much even a small increase could impact a low-income family's ability to afford their food.  

I was married and helped raise my ex-wife's children.  I've been in that situation of doing the advanced grocery shopping trigonometry - balancing the multiple variables of how much food the family needs, how much money is in the bank account, how much each item costs, whether there's enough gas in the tank to get to and from work until the next payday, and if the coupons in hand will help it all even out at the register.  And I can tell you that if I had to add in a calculation of a cost per grocery bag on top of all that, it would have meant either some bounced checks or switching out fresh produce for Hamburger Helper a few (more) times a month.

When you're poor enough, the difference of a few dollars a month is going to have a real impact on your budget.  And it seems fundamentally hypocritical that as a city our council is willing to tell poor families to figure out how to stretch their food budget just a little bit further.  Or a small business has to bear extra costs from the styrofoam ban, making the odds of success for a start-up that much slimmer.  And yet if you're rich enough, you can buy a house in southwest, tear it down because you want a McMansion, and put tons of debris into a landfill out of personal preference.  A developer buying up existing housing for demolition and construction of luxury condos in Uptown doesn't raise the ire of our council; the bag lady on social security better figure out how her ancestors got by without plastic though.

We're a green city, after all.

What would it look like if we treated houses with the same consideration as we do plastic and styrofoam?  I think we're getting there with the city's Vacant House Recycling Program, but we're not going far enough.  It's past time to give serious weight to moving houses whenever possible.

The first opposition that comes up around moving a house is that it doesn't make financial sense - at least in north Minneapolis.  And that's true, to a point.  But then again, demolition, holding land, and building new construction homes in north Minneapolis doesn't make financial sense either.  That process comes with a heavy subsidy, and even the subsidized process has trouble attracting investors.  When either route comes at a cost, we subsidize what we value.

The first thing I would do to encourage moving houses is to make the permit process for that completely free.  From the initial permit to the final code compliance, if you're moving a house in Minneapolis, and we value environmentally sustainable initiatives, then making that huge of an impact shouldn't cost a dime.  Would the several hundred to a grand or so in savings make a difference?  Maybe not, but it would send a strong signal and may get developers and property owners to at least consider a different option.

As much as I don't want added bureaucracy, it might make sense to require some level of reporting about whether a house could be moved for every demolition permit requested.  Demolition permits already address a number of factors, so why not require a sentence or two pertaining to the feasibility of a house move on every demolition?  That would at least force applicants to consider the option, and when it's viable then preservationists might have another avenue to appeal and save a home.

And yes, there should be times when a development proposal or a demolition is halted in its tracks because not enough of an effort was made to move the houses.  In retrospect, we should have done that with the gorgeous homes that were lost to the MPS building's parking lot.  I'm not sure that line in the sand exists for any current northside developments, although the cute bungalow behind the Capri is a home that ought to be saved and moved if at all possible.

But to get there, we as a city need a better understanding of what goes into moving a home and when doing so is feasible.  If we're truly going to be a "green" city, we need to start valuing the environmental benefits of saving homes by moving them, and stop chasing the trendy bans that get us on the "hipper-than-thou" lists of trendy metropolitan areas.  

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