Sunday, November 30, 2014

Two Housing Buzzwords Minneapolis Staff Should Stop Using

And one word that should be more than a buzzword.

Does the above photo make your head hurt?  Good, we both feel the same way.  But for me, the words of the day are "functionally obsolete" and "demands of the current housing market."  If you hear the words of the day, scream real loud.

These two phrases are bandied about by Minneapolis city staffers when they erroneously believe that housing in our community needs to be demolished instead of rehabbed.  And they should be stricken from any future use on the grounds that they are employed neither objectively nor by people with professional experience in the sale of real estate.  I'd go so far as to say they are redundant as well.

First, what "functional obsolescence" means... that a feature or design of a home is not what matches other properties around it or what people are buying in that general area.  So a two-bedroom, one-bathroom home in a part of town where similar homes have been torn down and replaced with four-bedroom, two bathroom homes could be considered "functionally obsolete" even if the house is perfectly livable.

"Functionally obsolete" has also been used to describe floor plans, closet sizes, kitchens, and a variety of other home features.  Sometimes the term is accurate.  Outdated wiring, for example, can be functionally obsolete and pose a hazard to the safety of those within the home.  Too often, however, "functionally obsolete" is used as an easy way to recommend demolition of a property before any serious effort has gone into attempts to restore it or market it to those who would do so.

In the context of "functionally obsolete," compare what's happening in southwest Minneapolis or Edina to demolitions in north Minneapolis.  Personally, I'm not a big fan of the mini-mansions on undersized lots going up in place of otherwise viable homes.  But at least in those cases, you could classify the smaller homes as functionally obsolete due to the private market creating demand for a specific kind of house in a certain area.  Over north, however, we have more vacant lots than we know what to do with, we have too many vacant homes, and we have people in need of housing.  Both younger individuals and retirees often look for homes that are smaller with fewer bedrooms and bathrooms.  Yet these very styles of houses are deemed obsolete and torn down.

Which brings us to the next term, that the house "doesn't meet the demands of the current housing market."  I have to wonder if the city staffers who use this phrase are licensed realtors.  If so, how many houses in north Minneapolis have they sold in the past twelve months?  If they are not, and I assume that is the case, then what is their professional certificaiton that allows them to objectively make such a statement?  What does the city do to market their houses before determining that they do not in fact meet the demands of the housing market?

Last I checked, smaller homes with significant rehab were selling pretty quickly and getting decent press coverage in north Minneapolis.  And if we are so worried about creating houses that have different floor plans, open kitchens, bigger closets, and other modern amenities that could be considered the "demands of the current housing market," there are over 400 vacant lots in north already, most of which are owned by the city or county.  Take your pick.

(And then leave the older homes to people like me, who are just fine with their perceived drawbacks.  We'll cover the demands of the current housing market too.)

And there is a third reason to throw out these two catch phrases, and that's so that another favorite city buzzword can actually be put into action:  Equity.

Many of the homes deemed functionally obsolete or not meeting the current demands of the housing market are smaller houses, containing perhaps one or two bedrooms and one bathroom.  Now I look all around my home in north Minneapolis and I see Gateway Lofts already built.  Common Bond apartments are under construction around the corner.  Broadway Flats will be built across the street from me.  And Devean George's apartment building will go up at Penn and Golden Valley.  And to be perfectly clear, I am generally supportive of these projects.

How many bedrooms will most of these units have, and how many bathrooms?  If you guessed "mostly one- or two-bedroom units" and "one bathroom," congratulations you win the equity no-prize of the day.

So let's get this straight:  It is somehow okay to heavily subsidize the construction of hundreds of one- or two-bedroom, one-bathroom housing units in my community for people to *rent.*  But when little to no subsidy is required to give people in the same income level in the same community the chance to *own* a home that functions in a similar way, suddenly that's considered functionally obsolete.

There's another word for such tactics when they are employed in communities of color:  Redlining.

I understand that home ownership isn't for everyone, and that the funding used to construct apartment units is often very different than (what little) public money would be needed to get these homes rehabbed.  But even well-intentioned policies that have a disparate racial impact can be the basis for lawsuits or other corrective action.  If we're destroying opportunities for ownership while creating very similar opportunities for rental, that does seem fundamentally unjust.

Just this week, the mayor proposed creating two positions at the city to implement "equity," right down to monitoring where certain products are purchased.  But when it comes to actively creating equitable opportunities for home ownership in my community, it looks like the city is going backwards.


  1. If our City Staff thinks that using tax payer dollars to destroy the current homes and build another house for an additional $250-350K on that same lot meets the demands of the current housing market in the same neighborhoods where they are intentionally consolidating poverty they need their heads examined.

    Or, maybe we the Tax Payers should have our heads examined for perpetuating a glutted bureaucracy of bureaucrats who have totally lost touch with what "values" are important to those homesteaders that are willing to live in the dysfunctional hell they have created!

  2. By the way, there's a lot more comments over on the Minnpost column (they picked up this post).

  3. Trying to change the city's policies and approach is one thing but I honestly think what we need, the most, are home rehabbers with enough jack to buy and rehab the houses that need buying and rehabbing.

  4. So you want 26th and knox and 27th and oliver to stay boarded forever? No one in their right mind would rehab thoses unless the money is given to those fake nonprofits to buy for a dollar and rehabbed for free using our tax base. No, the best idea is to demo them and sell the lots to the neighbor for very little to reduce costs of lawn and snow care. This is how Detroit got bad, let them sit for a rehab until crime increases and neighbors flee to make more boarded homes. Visit 18 and newton to see a couple more disasters.

  5. Not forever. Just until they're rehabbed.

    Please clarify what you mean by "fake nonprofits."

    I'd have no problem with our tax base being used to subsidize rehab when necessary. Our tax base already subsidizes the demolition. And a dollar house program is EXACTLY what the city should be doing, except with private developers in the mix as well as the non-profits.

    These are buildable lots. The city does not and will not sell buildable lots to neighbors to be used as extensions of lawns, not when north Minneapolis has been bleeding density since the last census and we need more people living here if we want to attract more businesses. Even if these properties do get torn down, they'll remain vacant lots until new construction comes along. Which, by the way, will need heavy taxpayer subsidy in north Minneapolis for the foreseeable future.

    Last I heard, Detroit had maybe one or two other problems BESIDES house preservation that led to its decline.


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