Uptown stop on housing advocate’s book tour hits close to home

Author of ‘Generation Priced-Out’ speaks at Magers & Quinn

Randy Shaw
Randy Shaw at Magers & Quinn

At every stop on his book tour, Randy Shaw makes an example of Minneapolis as he discusses upzoning and neighborhood battles over proposed multifamily housing, but on March 14 he found himself speaking to Minneapolitans about their own city.

“I’m glad I can talk about Minneapolis in Minneapolis,” he said at Magers & Quinn in Uptown, where he was promoting his new book “Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America.”

Shaw, the director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic in San Francisco, has been a leading voice for affordable housing and density for decades. His book tackles the contradiction that cities with progressive reputations like San Francisco and Seattle have the biggest affordable housing problems in America. While much attention is put on developers and gentrification, Shaw identifies older, entrenched homeowners as a source of opposition to making cities more affordable.

“They recycle organics at their home,” Shaw said. “They drive a Prius, so they don’t have a problem opposing new apartments.”

When the Oakland Ghost Ship fire of 2016 killed 36 people in a warehouse that had been converted into a shared living space, Shaw was inspired to answer the question: Why are so many people priced out of America’s cities?

The book examines the trend in cities such as Austin, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, and also includes a short, initially unplanned, section on Minneapolis. In each city, he found that neighborhood groups dominated by homeowners had disproportionate power and influence.

Shaw said he was drawn to Minneapolis by a 2016 video compiled by local journalist John Edwards, who documents a wide range of community issues on his website and Twitter account Wedge Live. The video showed a group of Lowry Hill East residents voicing opposition to a proposed 10-unit apartment building at 28th & Bryant.

After watching people complain about the influx of “Bender boxes” to the neighborhood, he tracked down and interviewed City Council President Lisa Bender (Ward 10).

“I was just riveted,” Shaw said. “You had the minority of homeowners in a renter neighborhood demanding they don’t add any more renters to their neighborhood, so I thought
I had to get into this Minneapolis stuff.”

Bender, who sat in the audience during Shaw’s presentation, credited the work of groups like Neighbors for More Neighbors in speaking out about housing access and renters’ rights in the city.

“To say, ‘I’m a renter, and I live here and I care about this community’ is a really brave thing to do,” Bender said during a Q & A session following the talk.

Shaw praised the provisions passed in the Minneapolis 2040 plan, which will zone the entire city for at least triplex housing when it goes into effect. He said Minneapolis environmental groups’ pro-climate arguments for zoning density have made a big difference.

Critics of the 2040 plan say that upzoning will change neighborhood character and give a greenlight to developers to buy up single-family homes, tear them down and build new apartments.

But Shaw sees the plan, and the passage of housing bonds in cities like Austin, Texas and Portland, as part of a generation shift among power structures in American cities, with younger politicians pushing back against traditionally empowered groups.

There’s room to grow after upzoning, Shaw told the crowd, starting with boosting renter rights in the city.

“Even Minneapolis can learn from things other cities have done,” he said.

Minneapolis is working on developing a “renter’s bill of rights” and on March 15 passed a “renter-first housing policy,” which will require city departments to “view their work through a renter-centric lens” and boost early-intervention and safety-net programs to keep renters in their homes. Shaw said he planned to attend the meeting before a tour stop in St. Paul.

While his book documents local movements for housing, Shaw said much of the crisis stems from a lack of federal funding for housing, which has fallen since the 1980s.

Although he said he’s seen little success in 40 years of work on housing issues, he’s excited by a new cohort of local politicians and by the response he’s received from readers.

“Everywhere I go there’s great enthusiasm for the message,” he said.