I spend a lot of time on streets.mn focusing on issues in Minneapolis, sometimes St Paul, and even region- or state-wide topics. For the most, part, it’s either hyperlocal discussions about a particular project or policy, or generic discussions about infrastructure costs or housing or policy.
I came across this tweet and the ensuing back and forth via my brother-in-law:
It should come as no surprise, but a pro-compact development, deregulated land use, and bike/walk/bus person like myself saw all sorts of red flags in the “forest for the trees” category of identifying root causes of suburban affordability and thus proposed solutions. But I’ve been meaning to write a post on my hometown for a while now, and this was a good catalyst.
I grew up in Lakeville, MN, a suburb about 25-30 miles and a river crossing from the downtowns of Minneapolis or St Paul. It’s got a decent early 1900s downtown and has at least a part of 3 recreational lakes inside its borders (including one I lived on growing up). It’s got all the things third/fourth-ring suburbs are known for in this country – good schools, cheap developable farmland, free parking, and land uses separated with surgical precision. In 2009, I purchased my first house on the back of heavy government subsidies in a mid-80s subdivision.
I still visit regularly as my parents and sister/brother-in-law own homes in Lakeville, so I’m aware of general comings and goings. But I don’t really have a dog in the local policy fight other than how Lakeville fits into our extremely large but sparsely populated region.
Please don’t take the words I’m going to write too harshly because Lakeville was a fine place to grow up with great people (many of whom I’m still friends with). Believe me when I say this post has no hint of smug urbanity judging a suburban lifestyle choice, but here it is:
Lakeville, like many affluent suburbs, has many serious problems and needs to be fixed.
Housing and Transportation Costs
Housing and transportation comprise anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of most American household pre-tax annual income. As the top two buckets of spending for most households, they’re both the best way to better low- and middle-income household lives, but also the easiest way to price a huge chunk of our population out of entire cities.
Considering suburbs are touted as the solution to housing affordability owing to pro-forma structures built on cheap farmland, Lakeville has almost no low-income and relatively few lower-middle class households compared to Minneapolis and the Minneapolis-St Paul metropolitan area:
I’ll spend more time talking about zoning codes in my solutions follow-up, but current restrictions on lot sizes and home style really limit the type of housing available. If you want to rent or buy a home in Lakeville, your options are severely limited to detached single family homes:
…with the end result being more homes at prices out of reach of middle-class households:
…with few options to rent for those who can’t afford to obtain a mortgage (or don’t want to or can’t afford to maintain a home themselves):
What few renters exist in Lakeville struggle affording the rent at the low and middle ranges of the income ladder, with a lower share of them paying less than 30% of gross income on rent in these two income ranges:
What few zoning districts the city does allow multi-family construction in are often placed against an interstate or major road – out of sight and mind for single family dwellers. It’s also exactly the type of place most people don’t want to live and will never be leveraged into a walkable or bikeable place. This is a good segue to Lakeville’s transportation issues…
While people could theoretically access work, shopping, school, and other daily needs without a car in Lakeville, practically this isn’t possible. Large home lots, separated housing and commercial uses, and giant parking drive up typical trip distances to the point where biking or walking aren’t practical. And local transit simply doesn’t exist. Compound that with a high-speed arterial grid with few safe crossing points and an incomplete sidewalk network and you basically require every resident to own a car to get around town.
Unlike some inner-ring suburbs, Lakeville also lacks a strong job base to make living near where you work (lowering average trip distances) tough. Less than 13% of working Lakeville residents commute to a job inside Lakeville. In Minneapolis, that figure is over 44%. Lakeville has a job:resident ratio of 0.22, while Minneapolis’ ratio is closer to 1, at 0.76. Put another way, Lakeville is designed as a city where people live to commute somewhere else, almost always by car.
This has serious cost implications for an average household. I discussed this in theory here and here, finding that a middle class suburban family driving to suburban job centers paying $2.50/gallon pays upwards of $3,000 more a year on total transportation costs. If you bump up travel distances and gas prices, the gap widens considerably.
This is supported by research as well; the Housing + Transportation Affordability Index finds households owning more cars and driving longer distances spend more of their income on transportation. When compared to Minneapolis (a city where many people still drive!), Lakeville residents spend between 4 and 7% more on transportation, with the average household spending 5% more:
Their methodology estimates the average Lakeville household spends about $4,000 more a year than a Minneapolis equivalent. Arguments that increasing the gas tax would hurt typical suburban families fall flat in my opinion when you factor how much each family is spending just to own and operate multiple cars in the first place.
To be sure, we must be careful when using cost as a percent of household income for both housing and transportation; residual income is a better (but not widely used) metric. But outcomes matter, and right now Lakeville is primarily a city for wealthy homeowners who can afford a car and are legally and physically able to operate it.
Finally, Lakeville (along with many other suburbs) isn’t doing its part in adding affordable housing. Between 2011 and 2013, literally zero affordable units were built in Lakeville, despite a continued boom in market-rate housing. City planning staff only sees “non-profits or civic-minded developers” as the routes to adding new affordable units, ignoring multiple paths the city could take to directly fund or require by policy affordable units as the city grows.
Back to the mayor’s point about suburban homelessness – if Lakeville had the type of housing and transportation infrastructure in place to meet a wider range of incomes, perhaps families who fall into hard times wouldn’t be forced out of their homes or cities. Shelters and food shelves are good, but they’re not addressing the key underlying problem that is zero housing or transportation flexibility for families in the first place.
I’ll keep this section short. Largely for reasons stated above in the housing and transportation affordability section, Lakeville is a city almost completely devoid of racial diversity:
In this county, even in this progressive, economically successful region, being black likely means being poor. A long history of racist housing policies, white flight, job sprawl, and bundling education quality with housing has severely limited opportunities and wealth creation for many people of color. How many black families in Minneapolis or St Paul or even other suburbs with lagging school districts would jump at the opportunity to live in Lakeville if they could afford it?
We can disagree on the impact that segregating oneself in basically every facet of your daily life from different races has on our ability to empathize with others, or its relationship to Lakeville’s history of racial issues. And I’m not saying Lakeville is going to solve America’s racial issues on its own. But when less than 2% of your population is black, in a region with 8% black residents, people should at least admit that there’s an underlying problem.
I’ve written about this before, but car-dependent suburbs like Lakeville, especially ones that interface with developing rural areas with high-speed roads, are extremely dangerous. Especially for young drivers; Lakeville is in a stuck pattern of teenagers dying with regular frequency. It’s easy to shrug these deaths and injuries off as a result of people driving drunk or speeding or texting while driving. But this is human nature; getting distracted, driving at unsafe speeds dictated by street or road designs, to drive home after drinking because the ample free parking at bars and no alternative modes leads to predictable outcomes.
I’m not saying Minneapolis in its current state is a model of traffic safety. As you can see, our streets are still built in such a way that pedestrians and cyclists become the victims, even as drivers have a much lower fatality rate. We’re working on it. But in general, more compact cities with calm streets with a variety of modes to choose from are far safer than suburbs designed like Lakeville.
I care deeply about our region and cities within it remaining affordable, equitable places to live. I want families of all backgrounds to have access to good education and job opportunities, as well as recreational and cultural amenities. I don’t think someone should have to live and work in a select few neighborhoods of our core cities to make transit and biking a viable option for getting to work or other daily needs.
If you’ve made it this far and don’t think any of the things I’ve outlined above are problems that need solving, great! You saved yourself reading another blog post. If you’re wondering how to even start tackling some of these problems, tune in next time.