A Conversation with Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey

May 14, 2024

By Anthony Flint, May 14, 2024


Consider Minnesota, a place that has pioneered many things: Scotch tape, the first toaster, the Mall of America. Add to that one more: taking the lead in zoning reform for more affordable housing.

Minneapolis was the first city in the country to abolish single-family-only zoning, which means a duplex or a triplex or any kind of greater density is allowed now on residential parcels. The idea is to increase supply with more affordable varieties of housing, rather than just the single-family home, which of course tends to be more expensive.

Dozens of cities across the country followed suit, in a quest for more density and multifamily housing in places where the single-family home has been dominant.

Is it working? For this episode of the Land Matters podcast, we sat down with the mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey, to talk about that and more, including bike and bus lanes, regional governance, value capture for urban infill redevelopment, return to work, and the city’s infamous skyways system.

The City of Lakes was the site of the American Planning Association’s National Planning Conference this year, and a delegation from the Lincoln Institute was there.

Frey is an unabashed transplant. He grew up in northern Virginia and went to the College of William and Mary on a track scholarship, and after graduating with a degree in government, he started running professionally while attending law school at Villanova in Philadelphia. That’s when he came to Minneapolis to run the Twin Cities Marathon and, as he tells it, fell in love with the city. The day after graduating, he drove the 1,200 miles west to Minneapolis, his chosen home.

He started as an employment and civil rights attorney, became an active community organizer, served on the City Council and was elected mayor in 2017. He saw the single-family-only zoning ban through in 2019, then was promptly faced with COVID and the police murder of George Floyd in 2020. He was reelected in 2021 and has continued to address police and race relations, and indeed race and equity became a bigger part of the story of the lack of affordable housing, as he talked about how exclusive zoning has driven segregation.

“For years, we were operating under these fairly prescriptive zoning ordinances, that explicitly said, we’re going to keep the Blacks and the Jews over in one portion of the city,” Frey said. “During the Civil Rights Act, that became illegal to do explicitly. We then started to do the same stuff implicitly through the zoning code, making it so that unless you could own a huge home on a huge parcel, you couldn’t live in huge swaths of the city. We wanted to push back on that.”

At APA, Jacob Fry joined two other “Mayor’s Desk” interviewees—Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Pureval and Paige Cognetti, mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania—for a standing-room-only panel discussion of what’s working and what’s not in legacy cities trying to make a comeback from population loss and disinvestment.

A lightly edited version of this interview will be available online and ultimately in print in Land Lines magazine as the latest installment of Mayor’s Desk, the series of Q&As with mayors from around the world—now also available as a book compilation, Mayor’s Desk: 20 Conversations with Local Leaders Solving Global Problems.



Anthony Flint is a senior fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, host of the Land Matters podcast, and a contributing editor of Land Lines.

Lead image: Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey speaks with members of the press. Credit: Office of Mayor Frey.

Further Reading

House passes legislation to halt 2040 Plan lawsuit (Minneapolis Reformer)

Zoning Reform Is Working in Minneapolis (Planetizen)

Minneapolis Land Use Reforms Offer a Blueprint for Housing Affordability (Pew Charitable Trusts)

Influential Minneapolis Housing Shift Links Affordability, Equity (Land Lines)

Minneapolis’ Lake Street Kmart is gone. Here’s what could come next (Minneapolis Star Tribune)

Opinion: Direct elections the best way for the Metropolitan Council to live up to its nation-leading potential (Minneapolis Post)

The Twin Cities Skyways Face an Uncertain Future (Governing)