Loosen zoning regulations to allow for more multi-family dwellings in St. Paul? Six views.

In St. Paul’s neighborhoods, most streets are lined by single-family homes. In fact, 72% of the city’s residential land mass is zoned single-family, and much of the rest is zoned for sizable multi-unit apartment buildings.

Some see ample opportunity to court more duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes, the “missing middle” or “neighborhood scale” housing that makes up about 11% of the city’s housing stock.

A raft of proposed changes to the city’s zoning code would condense at least six of the city’s residential zoning districts into three districts — H1, H2 and H3 — with the goal of both simplifying zoning and allowing more density.

Developers would still have the opportunity to build single-family homes, but no street would be zoned exclusively for single-family housing. An H1 district, for instance, would allow a maximum of three units on an interior lot, or a maximum of four units on corner lots, with up to 40% lot coverage.

In addition, developers could add another two units through a special density bonus. The bonus would be unlocked either by providing affordable “workforce housing” — housing aimed at residents earning no more than 80% area median income — or by including at least one or two principal units that span at least three bedrooms.

Other changes would allow more mother-in-law apartments, or accessory dwelling units, as well as cottage-style layouts.

Single-family zoning

Proponents say single-family zoning has always been quietly intended, and sometimes explicitly intended, to keep out renters, students, the poor or recent immigrants and racial minorities, and allowing a wider range of housing types on every residential street will better accommodate modern living situations, including an uptick in both multi-generational families and renters living alone.

However, some critics have winced at the prospect of putting more housing density next to single-family homes whose major selling points include ample front, side and back yards, as well as on-street parking.

Others note that while Minneapolis ended single-family zoning in 2019, it didn’t change housing patterns. Developers have been slow to abandon their two mainstays — building single-family homes or large apartment buildings.

Meanwhile, there’s some fear that with zoning rules relaxed, investors will have greater incentive to scoop up cheap single-family homes in low-income, high-minority neighborhoods like Frogtown and North Minneapolis just to tear them down and build higher-end triplexes. New construction tends to be pricey construction.

The St. Paul Planning Commission held a public hearing on the proposed “missing middle” zoning changes on April 14. After further review by the commission, the zoning changes and an associated study are likely to come before the city council in June for final approval.

Views on zoning changes

Here are a few thoughts on “missing middle” zoning:

Michael Williams, a Rice Street resident, first-generation homebuyer and self-described emerging developer, is building a duplex on Johnson Parkway following certifications and other guidance he received through the city’s “Inspiring Communities” program. Williams and former Harding High School classmate Donovan Adesoro have developed 15 duplexes in the Houston, Texas, area and hope zoning changes will allow them to pursue more projects in St. Paul:

“I’m in favor. I’m excited. It definitely will allow locals like myself more opportunity. Right now, we’re locked into occasionally doing a duplex when it’s a city program. Rezoning will allow us to unlock more options.”

Jeff Chermak, a longtime resident of Desnoyer Park, owns multiple duplexes in St. Paul. He sees zoning reform as an important first step toward “neighborhood scale” or “human scale” housing production, but it’s been his experience that lenders are hesitant to back such projects, which were far more common in St. Paul (and nationally) before single-family zoning became the standard in the mid-1970s. He expects few such projects to move forward in the near future either way:

“You’re still going to run into the banks. Financing is an integral component of construction. You have to be able to go to the bank and have them understand what you want to build, and they’re just not used to seeing these projects. They’re used to single-family and they’re used to large multi-family. The project has to have comparables in the marketplace, so it has to be able to appraise for you to get financing or for a potential buyer to get financing. There’s a disconnect in the marketplace. When somebody says this is going to open the floodgates, it’s absolutely not. People are going to have a hard time finding anybody to finance these projects, but this is a first step. Maybe in 10 years, there will be market comparables. … The biggest problem is it’s so expensive to build right now.”

Gaius Nelson is an architect, former member of the St. Paul Planning Commission and former chair of the commission’s zoning committee. He lives in the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood. During a recent hearing before the commission, he expressed some doubts that the proposed zoning changes will increase affordability. In fact, developers looking to make a profit could become even more incentivized to acquire relatively cheap older housing, tear it down and build pricier new units:

“Just because you build new housing doesn’t mean it’s going to be affordable. … We’re going to have some unintended consequences. (It) could lead to less affordable housing. … When a smaller house is demolished, we ought to have a ‘no net loss’ of affordable housing policy in this city. … In Mac-Groveland, developers are still going to build $500,000 single-family housing.”

Emily Hamilton, who holds a doctorate in economics, is a senior research fellow and director of the Urbanity Project at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Virginia. She’s written extensively about “missing middle” housing and why some zoning reforms fail to produce expected housing growth because of other restrictions, such as floor area ratios, the measurement of the building’s floor area relative to the overall lot size, or square foot minimums per unit:

“One thing we’ve seen in Minneapolis and other municipalities is that they’ve delivered an underwhelming amount of housing relative to the amount of attention they’ve received. Minneapolis and Portland, Ore., only allow small structures to be built. … They have these relatively small caps. It’s important to allow more units to be built as well as more square footage.

“Minneapolis allowed more units, but that’s constrained by the floor area ratio of 0.5 in its most common single-family zone. On a 5,000 square foot lot in Minneapolis, you can build a 2,500 square foot (residence), or go up to 0.6 for a triplex. That’s a relatively small amount of space for a triplex, and in many cases it’s not cost effective for a home builder to buy a lot that already has a single-family residence on it and tear it down to build a triplex. We’d be seeing more of that if they allowed those triplexes to be bigger.”

David Schultz, a professor of political science at Hamline University, believes allowing developers to cram more housing on smaller lots will make more money for the housing industry while doing little to help the poor. In fact, it could hurt them. He said as much in an April 16 blog, email thread and phone interview:

“This proposal is naive and bad public policy. … There is little to no evidence that elimination of single-family zoning abates segregation or reduces housing prices. In fact … the evidence suggests it encourages real estate speculation and gentrification. One is not seeing single-family property being broken up to create low-income or affordable housing.”

“I cannot think of too many other areas of social policy where progressives believe less regulation is good and that letting market forces operate will produce equitable solutions. … Left to their own devices, developers will build high-end housing for the rich and not units for low- to moderate-income people because the former is more profitable.”

“The move toward eliminating single-family zoning helps fuel gentrification. For most of us in our life, the greatest source of our wealth is going to be the equity in our home. If you want to hold onto the middle class in cities, you’ve got to make it possible for them to buy a house.”

Karen Allen, a board member with Sustain St. Paul — a nonprofit that advocates for abundant housing, sustainable land-use and low-carbon transportation — rents out a duplex she owns in the Summit-University neighborhood. She lives in the Midway:

“My duplex has enough space to be a triplex. It’s got a third floor that is large enough for someone to live in. Right now, it can’t be that. We could be retrofitting available space that is currently restricted for an arbitrary reason. There’s a ton of homes that their basements could be retrofitted with an egress window. Many of those spaces could be retrofitted to become apartments for people who want to stay in their home but need extra income. The zoning code, with these changes that the staff is proposing, makes the supply of housing more flexible. The development plan we have now, where almost 75% of the city is zoned single-family, is not how the city was born.”

Related Articles