Over the past decade, many cities across the country have faced an acute housing dilemma. As housing markets in urban areas increase in value, rents and mortgage payments have become too high for many low-income residents. City homeowners support affordable housing in theory, but fear higher crime and loss of property value if low-income housing is built in their neighborhood.
In 2003, city officials in Minneapolis estimated that 26,000 units of affordable housing must be constructed within the following 20 years to meet demand, but strong neighborhood politics made it very difficult for construction to go forward. The first step the city took towards progress was to unite the agencies that controlled urban planning, economic development, and housing under one roof, as the Department of Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED). With all major stakeholders within the municipal government working together, the city was able to develop a coherent, consistent plan for the city's growth pattern.
The CPED identified urban "corridors" as the most promising sites for overall development. Located mainly along defunct streetcar paths, the corridors have historically defined borders between neighborhoods. Today, they generally are home to large chain stores and rows of defunct small businesses. They are riddled with what developers called "missing teeth," or empty buildings and lots, which made the corridors feel deserted and even unsafe.
Launched in 2003, the city's Corridor Housing Initiative (CHI) works to identify suitable corridors and then develop them in a sensitive and forward-looking manner. CHI employees make presentations about possible projects to a large number of private developers, but wait for neighborhoods to approve or propose development in adjoining corridors. Because neighborhoods opt into development, the usual political barriers to housing development are greatly reduced.
The corridors provide many advantages as sites for new development and the creation of new housing. New businesses and apartment buildings replace unsightly structures and unused space as well as build neighborhood cohesion. Located on the seam between two neighborhoods, the corridors can draw support from both adjoining areas, without threatening to place high-density housing developments in the center of either. Buses already run along most corridors..
Unlike many previous development strategies, CHI does not dictate decisions to the local community, but works with them to improve urban housing. The program seeks to bring ordinary citizens into the development process, inviting them to attend planning meetings to help identify which neighborhoods to target and to suggest ways to develop without disruption. The program seeks to integrate development into older neighborhoods by replicating the look and feel of existing buildings.
As of 2005, the CHI has produced more than 300 new housing units, and production is expected to accelerate over the next few years. By bringing in new businesses and creating housing units for all income levels in previously neglected areas, the program provides a promising model for housing development in major cities across the country.