How Minneapolis Plans To Tackle Racial Inequity And Climate Through Housing Racial discrimination shaped the map of Minneapolis. Community groups are calling on the city to follow through on a new land use plan designed to address housing disparities and climate change.
NPR logo

Minneapolis Has A Bold Plan To Tackle Racial Inequity. Now It Has To Follow Through

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Minneapolis Has A Bold Plan To Tackle Racial Inequity. Now It Has To Follow Through

Minneapolis Has A Bold Plan To Tackle Racial Inequity. Now It Has To Follow Through

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Protesters around the country have been calling attention to how racial inequality is etched into the zoning of American cities. Minneapolis actually passed a plan to try and tackle that. In January, it became the first major U.S. city to eliminate single-family zoning. The idea is to create more housing near transit and jobs. Here's NPR's Lauren Sommer.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: When Kirsten Delegard's grandparents bought a house in south Minneapolis in 1941, they signed the property's deed, a piece of paper with the address, sale info and this line.

KIRSTEN DELEGARD: No person or persons other than of the Caucasian race shall be permitted to occupy said premises or any part thereof.

SOMMER: It's what's known as a racial covenant, language that barred anyone who isn't white from owning that property, and tens of thousands of homes had them in Minneapolis. Delegard is a historian who is documenting these covenants with the Mapping Prejudice project at the University of Minnesota libraries. Land developers first started using them in 1910.

DELEGARD: It becomes absolutely standard operating practice, when a new piece of land is divided into lots, to insert these restrictions to make sure that that land is reserved for the exclusive use of white people in perpetuity.

SOMMER: Racial covenants were banned in Minnesota in 1953, but their legacy is still written on the landscape. For one, those neighborhoods are still mostly white. And...

DELEGARD: Those houses with racial covenants are today, 50 years after the free - Fair Housing Act, are still worth 15% more.

SOMMER: White residents are also three times more likely to own their homes than black residents in Minneapolis. Delegard says it shows how the wealth gap can endure for generations.

DELEGARD: We have to know our history if we're going to find any way out of this. It can't be something that people relegate and say, well, that's in the past; that has nothing to do with me.

SOMMER: Because, she says, a century later, Minneapolis still had rules in place that locked in those land patterns - the city's zoning code. Around the time racial covenants were banned, the city zoned those neighborhoods for only single-family homes, which means the buildings and people stayed mostly the same. Delegard shared her team's work with Minneapolis city officials, like Heather Worthington. At the time, she was the city's director of long-range planning.

HEATHER WORTHINGTON: And a very compelling picture started to emerge about how Minneapolis grew between about 1900 and 2000 in terms of being a very heavily racially segregated city but also being a very intentionally segregated city.

SOMMER: The city began a massive rezoning effort, also thinking about something else that's deeply connected to the city's layout - climate change. Where you live affects how much you drive, whether you take public transit and how much energy you use.

WORTHINGTON: Climate change has a disparate impact on people of color, which is not surprising because they live in areas of cities that typically have suffered from a lack of investment.

SOMMER: So the city proposed this - eliminate single-family zoning. Those lots could have up to three units now. Housing should be even denser around public transit and jobs, getting people out of their cars. The plan divided the community.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Good evening, everyone.

SOMMER: Residents filled city council meetings. It was the NIMBYs - Not in My Backyard...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Upzoning the entire city is truly shocking

SOMMER: ...Against the YIMBYs - Yes in My Backyard.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Climate change is the issue of our time.

SOMMER: In the end, the plan passed. But that doesn't mean things on the ground have changed, says Owen Duckworth of the Alliance, a racial justice and housing coalition in the Twin Cities.

OWEN DUCKWORTH: There's a lot of sort of - we saw it being really kind of self-congratulatory press, both locally and nationally. And I think that was quite frustrating.

SOMMER: He says the city still has a lot to do to ensure new housing is affordable housing.

DUCKWORTH: You know, people are saying we need rent control. We need some tools to actually hold developers accountable to building stuff that's needed. We need city resources to, like, build affordable housing and maintain affordable housing. I could go on.

SOMMER: And preparing for climate change will take more than just building denser housing, says Shannon Smith Jones. She's executive director of Hope Community, a Minneapolis housing and community group.

SHANNON SMITH JONES: If you looked historically, you would see the restrictive covenants along those green spaces. And so, historically, we haven't had the ability to live in very beautiful, nice green spaces that are healthy.

SOMMER: The more concrete a neighborhood has, the hotter it gets in the summer, especially in a warming climate. Because of that, neighborhoods home to Minneapolis' Black communities can be 10 degrees hotter than other neighborhoods. Smith Jones says now is the time to do something about that.

SMITH JONES: What does the rebuild look like? What does it look like in the wake of this? When all of the fanfare dies down, when all the media goes away, we're still here. And so yes, I think communities and housing and all of that needs to be hyperfocused on.

SOMMER: And that opportunity exists not just in Minneapolis, she says. Climate change and racial inequity are woven together on the maps of every city across the country.

Lauren Sommer, NPR News.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.