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Can we blame millennials for the cost of living in Minneapolis?

Carlos Gonzales, Star Tribune

Carlos Gonzales, Star Tribune

When they’re not busy killing diamonds, or Applebee's, or whatever else someone is writing a mournful think piece about, millennials are also the driving force behind local housing markets.

A report on mortgage requests through LendingTree found that a lot of them are shopping for houses right here in the Twin Cities. On a list of the 50 largest United States metro areas, Minneapolis came out on top as the most popular with 23- to 38-year-olds, who made up over 56 percent of the city’s home-buying requests in 2019.

Around these parts, the average down payment was just under $32,000, and the average requested loan amount was around $220,000. Rounding out the top five destinations were Buffalo, San Jose, Denver, and Salt Lake City.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that these figures represent mortgage requests, not actual purchases, and there’s reason to believe the data on the latter might not be so rosy. We as a nation are in the grip of a massively complex affordable housing crisis, which began on the coasts and has crept slowly but surely inward.

In fact, several cities in LendingTree's top 10 were in the relatively affordable Midwest, where the crisis has not yet reached its peak. That’s not to say we’re not feeling the burn. The average vacancy rate in the seven-county metro is about 2.3 percent, and average monthly cost of rent has shot to an “unprecedented” $1,254, according to the Star Tribune.

Adam Conover, the nerdy comedian behind the hit show/podcast Adam Ruins Everything, has been examining and re-examining this problem for years. So much so that in a recent episode of his new podcast, Factually, Conover attempted to sum up the entire ineffable mess in a single breath.

Housing prices are up, wages aren't, and 38 million American households spend more than a third of their income on rent. And, like “just about everything bad in American history,” it’s hitting people of color the hardest due to discriminatory policies like redlining and single-family zoning.

Conover ended his summary with a feeble gasp. “Okay, I’m impressed that I did that, but now we’re all depressed,” he said.

He’s right: It is a daunting problem. Here in the Twin Cities, we’re feeling it more than we otherwise might, precisely because we’ve become more appealing to millennials, among others. For the first time in 50 years, the population of Minneapolis is growing again, and we’re poised to reach half a million by 2040.

But we have also been coming up with some pretty creative ways to cope, such as the Minneapolis 2040 Plan. Conover invited the city's director of long-range planning, Heather Worthington, on the show to discuss the city's efforts at length.

The 2040 Plan is a sprawling document with a number of measures to address housing, climate change, racial inequality, public safety, transit, and more. But the single feature that’s made it famous nationwide is its measure to effectively up-zone the entire city. The goal is to increase the city’s housing supply by allowing more flexible usage and denser populations in areas that used to be for single-family homes only. More housing means cheaper housing, the thinking goes, which means a more diverse population can afford to live here.

Conover asked Worthington just how Minneapolis managed to pull this off. Usually, in city planning debates, the residents who have the most input are the ones who already have homes, and money, and who benefit directly from rising property values.

Worthington had plenty of good things to say about the efforts of our elected officials, but her main point was a bit more depressing than that.

“Things have to get pretty bad before we do good things to solve them,” she said. Many of Minneapolis’ neighborhoods are still racially segregated in the same way they were in the 1900s, when it was still legal to do so explicitly. Consequently, the education and economic gaps between white and non-white residents is staggering.

“We have had, and have, the deepest racial disparities in the nation here. And I think that’s embarrassing for people,” Worthington said. “I think Minnesotans look at that and say, ‘That’s not okay with us.’”

We’re still in the early stages of the 2040 Plan, so we don’t know yet how successful it will be, but the rest of the home-starved nation is looking on expectantly. If Minneapolis can really make this work, maybe there’s hope for the rest of us.