College neighbors fear the change will allow overcrowding in off-campus housing.

Up to six unrelated adults and any number of minor children in their care may now live in a single dwelling in Saint Paul as a result of City Council action on March 10. Months of debate came to an end that day as the council changed the definition of “family” for purposes of the zoning code.

The change was praised by advocates who contend that the city’s longstanding definition of family is antiquated and out of step with the increasingly multicultural makeup of Saint Paul and the growth of extended families and intergenerational living. In fact, the word “family” is now replaced in the zoning code with “household.”

“This is a significant step toward equity,” said Ward 4 City Council member Mitra Jalali. She and other council members said it will have a positive impact on the city’s housing shortage.

The change generated strong opposition in the Merriam Park and Macalester-Groveland neighborhoods near the University of Saint Thomas. Residents there are concerned that setting aside the longtime limit of four unrelated adults in a dwelling will encourage more students to crowd into off-campus housing. Portions of the two neighborhoods are governed by a student housing zoning overlay district, which was set up almost a decade ago to limit the number of single-family homes and duplexes that can be rented to college students.

Citing the many dormitory-like apartment buildings now springing up around Saint Thomas, McDonald said, “this suggests that the only beneficiaries of this change will be remote landlords who might realize a 50 percent increase in rent. That will create a favorable condition to convert more single-family homes to student housing and destroy the balance we enjoy today.”

The West Summit Neighborhood Advisory Committee (WSNAC) asked the City Council to exempt registered student rental dwellings in the overlay district from the occupancy change for at least 18 months to allow data to be gathered on student safety, rental rates, the number of affected properties and quality-of-life issues. WSNAC also wanted to know how the city’s Department of Safety and Inspections would monitor the impact of the occupancy change in a neighborhood where over-occupancy is already a problem in off-campus housing.

Jalali, who represents much of the area around Saint Thomas, said she understands the concerns of neighbors. However, she said, other regulations are in place to limit the occupancy of a dwelling. For example, local and state fire codes and building codes limit dwellings to one resident for every 150 to 200 square feet. Jalali added that the effects of the ordinance change will be reviewed after six months and one year. She promised to work with university officials and neighbors on enforcement issues.

 

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Dozens of comments were submitted to the City Council about the change to the occupancy limits. Most of them focused on student housing. Neighbors described overcrowded apartments, deteriorated housing and off-campus parties that attracted hundreds of students.

“It’s about balance,” said Merriam Park resident Michael McDonald. Citing the many dormitory-like apartment buildings now springing up around Saint Thomas, McDonald said “this suggests that the only beneficiaries of this change will be remote landlords who might realize a 50 percent increase in rent. That will create a favorable condition to convert more single-family homes to student housing and destroy the balance we enjoy today.”

Since 1975 Saint Paul’s zoning code has defined family as one or two persons or parents “with their direct lineal descendants and adopted or legally cared-for children (and domestic employees thereof) together with not more than two persons not so related, living together in the whole or part of a dwelling comprising a single housekeeping unit.”

“I’m glad we’re replacing the term ‘family’ with ‘household’ throughout this ordinance,” said Ward 2 City Council member Rebecca Noecker. “I don’t think it’s the city’s place to determine what a family is.”

The Twin Cities Fair Housing Implementation Council found the definition at risk of being discriminatory or arbitrary in 2017 and recommended that Saint Paul redefine “family” to more closely correlate to neutral maximum-occupancy restrictions found in safety and building codes.

“Our city has for far too long employed a discriminatory definition of family in its zoning code,” said Macalester-Groveland resident Brian Martinson. “The time is now to rid ourselves of this outmoded definition in favor of the more inclusive definition being proposed.”

“I’m glad we’re replacing the term ‘family’ with ‘household’ throughout this ordinance,” said Ward 2 City Council member Rebecca Noecker. “I don’t think it’s the city’s place to determine what a family is.”

— Jane McClure

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