Where’s the latest YIMBY candidate making waves? Los Angeles? New York? DC, perhaps? Try Maplewood, Minnesota.
The cry to build more housing is justifiably focused on the global hubs of commerce and innovation. Yet as these cities become harder to build in, expect more people (and employers) to show interest in the Heartland metros. Maplewood, a close-in suburb of the Twin Cities which features the headquarters for the 3M consortium, is primed to benefit, if it acts correctly. That’s what is motivating Tyler Hamilton to run for city council, the primary of which is August 14th.
Hamilton, 21, wants to radically reform the zoning code of Maplewood, which he referred to in a phone interview with me as archaic. The young candidate’s sweeping urbanist platform would consolidate the city’s zoning classifications to seven, to enable more dynamism in construction and use of existing housing. His proposed changes would, for instance, allow for accessory dwelling units to be added to homes. Hamilton also wishes to drastically slash parking minimums, floor-area ratios, and height limits The aspirational City Councilman is tailoring his approach to focus on the issues specifically facing Maplewood.
Like many suburbs, Maplewood has a big-box retail problem. The Maplewood Mall, long an anchor of the town’s commercial activity, is floundering, with its anchor store shutting down – and, according to Hamilton, creating a ripple effect. Hamilton has made it a priority to “[save] the Maplewood Mall,” but he doesn’t mean propping up the dying model with tax credits or other subsidies. Rather, his proposed reforms would allow for new development on the mall’s wide parking lots. Better transit is likewise a priority of the Hamilton campaign. The candidate would push to reconfigure the city’s bus network, prioritizing more frequent service and adding routes that go around the city, not just to the downtown area.
Tyler Hamilton reports a mixed reception to his ideas among his would-be constituents, and overall, paints a picture of general unawareness of the value of urbanist ideas. He doesn’t consider any of the incumbent City Council members inept. Rather, his campaign’s objective is to inject new thinking into a city government which needs to take a look at how zoning holds their community back. His hope is to focus the Council’s efforts on housing and transportation, which he calls the “bread and butter” of local government, and help the community take necessary steps to improving its fiscal prospects.
We’ll know on Tuesday whether Hamilton’s grassroots approach has attracted enough attention; the primaries are held then, and the candidates ranking high enough will proceed to the general election in November. Regardless of outcome, the campaign demonstrates that YIMBY sentiment is not limited to coastal cities. Indeed, the Twin Cities may be staring down an affordability crisis of their own; in Minneapolis, Zillow pegs home prices at 8.4% higher than in 2017. For his part, Hamilton was motivated to enter politics in part from a steep rent increase which priced him out of his apartment. As more such cases occur, expect housing to become a front-and-center issue in municipal politics in suburbs just as much as it is in America’s major cities.
Combatting Exclusionary Zoning with Federal Funds
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) has introduced legislation that, if passed, could have major ramifications for local land use policy. The proposed Housing, Opportunity, Mobility, and Equity Act would make receiving federal funds contingent upon whether cities address their housing supply and affordability issues. Put simply, municipalities which take federal money for housing development would have to liberalize zoning to allow for more housing to be built. Having just been introduced, it’s unclear whether the bill will succeed; it’s certainly going to face similar challenges as California's SB827. The use of such a carrot-and-stick measure from the federal level will provoke overreach concerns as well. We’ll be following developments around this proposed legislation.