How well are zoning changes working across the country? Minneapolis, Tulsa and Buffalo provide proof 

Minneapolis, Tulsa, and Buffalo highlighted on a map
Minneapolis (MN), Tulsa (OK), and Buffalo (NY) highlighted on a map of the United States.

Zoning laws across the country have been used to divide communities along racial lines, incomes, and housing opportunity. The invisible barriers that have divided cities across the country are being readjusted, restructured, and dismantled to open opportunities for more housing and address other needs of communities.  

Many cities, including Cincinnati and Dayton, are considering and incrementally working on, respectfully, reforms to their own zoning laws. Other cities such as Minneapolis (MN), Tulsa (OK) and Buffalo (NY) are farther along and have been the frontrunners for zoning reform.  

There are many facets of zoning, but  this article focuses on the effects of single-family-only zoning, what these three cities did about it, what effects the changes have caused, and what Southwest Ohio can learn from these changes. 

Minneapolis 

Minneapolis, as well as the entire state of Minnesota, is facing a housing crisis. In response, Minneapolis city planners executed a bold decision in 2018 to address the crisis; Minneapolis became the first major city to eliminate single-family-only zoning city-wide. The city did so by passing the 2040 Comprehensive Plan.  

Planning Director of Minneapolis, Meg McMahan, shares the main impetus for the reform was to provide housing to the people most affected by the restrictiveness of the zoning laws.  “Minneapolis is one of the most segregated communities in the United States. And what we were seeing was a really significant shrinking of places in the community over the course of years, where families of color could afford to live,” said McMahan. 

Overall, Minneapolis’ zoning reform has been effective. However, regarding the elimination of single-family-only zoning, it hasn’t been as catalytic as city leaders hoped. “We’ve been pretty underwhelmed at the number of triplexes that have been built as a result of our code changes because I think developers have not quite figured out how to make those financially feasible yet.” said McMahan.  

One reason is Minneapolis’ building codes have restricted developers. Although developers can create triplexes and duplexes, they must still abide by the parameters of a single-family home in terms of lot and building size. 

Minneapolis releases its comprehensive plan every ten years so it will revisit their building codes between now and then. In the meantime, the city is currently dealing with a lawsuit from a newly found environmental group that had issue with the potential increase in density that the reform will bring. The lawsuit is preventing the city from implementing certain aspects of the 2040 plan. 

Tulsa 

Tulsa, Oklahoma, has a fraught history because of the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921. What is often forgotten about that time is the aftermath of policies, highway construction and rezoning that prevented the progress in communities affected by the massacre. Now city planners are working to incorporate some zoning changes to remedy some of the historic ills.  

Tulsa started to address zoning reform in 2019 through a housing study with consultants, developers, and neighborhood residents. Principal planner for Tulsa, Nathan Foster, shared that their community, like many other cities, was used to single-family-only zoning. 

“We have a lot of single-family home builders, and that’s what they do. We also have large-scale apartment builders that do major complexes with 200-plus units. What we don’t have are a lot of developers in the market of building a six-unit building to begin managing and moving forward with rental units,” said Foster. 

As a result of the housing study, Tulsa implemented the Neighborhood Infill Overlay The overlay allows for various residential housing types while maintaining the size and character of the surrounding communities. The overlay also allows developers to know exactly where and what they can develop in the areas the overlay accounts for which speeds up the process in getting permits and other approvals.  

Like Minneapolis, the changes to single-family-only zones didn’t result in much change. “The amount of multifamily units we’ve seen has been a little bit slower. I think we’ve probably seen two to three projects come out of the ground that were maybe four or six units.” said Foster.  

Developers and planners say that these zoning changes to single-family-only zones need time to mature. Foster shared that even though the growth has been slow, changing the zoning allowed for certain barriers to be removed. “And so now that we’ve removed that barrier, we’re starting to uncover what are the next items that may cover that issue.” 

Buffalo 

Since 2010, Buffalo has worked on its zoning reform known as the Green Code. It was officially adopted in 2017 city-wide. During those seven years, the city had 242 public meetings ranging from a small group of neighbors from a block club to meetings in high school auditoriums of about 400 people. Senior planner in Buffalo, Chris Hawley, said the changes have created an influx of mixed-use projects in the area.  

“There are still some regulatory barriers we’d like to revisit. Within, residential zones in particular. But there are no density restrictions any longer, along our mixed-use zones, our neighborhood centers, and within our downtown. And that’s where we’re seeing the bulk of our new investment,” said Hawley. 

Buffalo’s approach to zoning relied heavily on getting the American Institute of Architects. In 2007 they received a $10,000 grant from the AIA which allows city planners to expand new zoning ideas. Hawley says having credible partners like AIA was positively embraced by the development field in Buffalo. 

“And I think it was actually one event with Mayor Byron Brown (who came into office in 2006 and is still mayor today) with the AIA and we pitched the idea of a total zoning rewrite. And if we didn’t have the AIA at the table–all the people who work with the development community on a on a daily basis–we wouldn’t have succeeded,” said Hawley. 

Despite the success, Hawley admits that it will take time for the finance system and for the conventional developer to catch up and produce more different types of housing in Buffalo. 

Takeaways from Minneapolis, Tulsa and Buffalo 

  1. Building codes 
    Minneapolis’ building codes became an issue for developers. Despite being able to make multi-family units, developers felt constricted having to abide by the parameters of single-family housing when it comes to scale and lot size.  
  1. Involving Community 
    All three cities were committed to meeting with developers and residents in order to see what they wanted in the area. This allowed for dialogue that helped brace for the conflicting opinions regarding zoning reform.  
  1. City-wide approach vs Neighborhood Approach 
    Both Minneapolis and Buffalo took a city-wide zoning reform. Both city planners we interviewed detailed that they felt that was the best approach for their cities. Foster from Tulsa shared the incorporating the zoning changes by neighborhood was a bet 
  1. Parking 
    All three city planners shared that the most effective zoning change was in changing parking requirements. Cincinnati is considering that in the Connected Communities plan the city is proposing. Brick by Brick will be taking a closer look at that aspect of the zoning reforms in a future episode. 

These three cities show zoning reform is a long process, and it isn’t an immediate remedy to correcting the barriers of the previous law. Andrea Brennan, President and CEO of Greater Minnesota Housing Fund, says zoning reform is meant to “eliminate barriers” and not be “prescriptive.” As Southwest Ohio cities like Cincinnati examine their zoning laws, the reform will take time to eliminate the barriers that currently exist. Patience will be key. And since the aim is to encourage more housing (and density) near neighborhood business districts and transit corridors, collaboration between the city, housing producers, and neighborhood leaders will also be vital to our local success.  

For more information on Connected Communities and Zoning Reform click here.


Hernz Laguerre Jr. – Multi-Media Journalist

Hernz is a Haitian American who was born and raised in Spring Valley, NY. He attended school at S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, where he learned to hone his skills as a storyteller. After graduating with his Bachelors in Broadcast and Digital Journalism and his Masters in Television Radio and Film, he went on to a career in media as a producer, reporter and freelance videographer for companies like ESPN and Court TV. He eventually moved to Detroit, where he worked as a Multimedia Journalist for The Detroit News and then the NPR affiliate, WDET, before starting his work with the Brick by Brick team at CET and ThinkTV. Hernz aims to produce stories that tell the bigger picture while doing his due diligence to educate and inform the public about the solutions-focused work being done in the Cincinnati and Dayton areas.