Proposal aims to ease shortages of housing and affordable housing.

A new city planning department study recommends that Saint Paul expand its stock of one-unit to four-unit dwellings by making it easier to divide single-family properties and to construct smaller homes, new homes on smaller lots and small homes in clusters. The study will be reviewed by the city’s Planning Commission in a public hearing at 8:30 a.m. Friday, October 15.

Saint Paul’s current zoning code may be contributing to the current housing shortage and the shortage of affordable housing locally, a city staff report states. According to the study, 48 percent of the land in the city is zoned for detached single-family homes. The zoning code, which was adopted in 1975, creates a separation between single-family and multifamily housing. For example, before 1975, duplexes were allowed citywide. Now they are restricted to fewer areas.

“Small-scale multifamily housing, including duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes, have begun to disappear from the city,” the staff report states. “From 2000-2017, the number of housing units in duplexes decreased by 17 percent and the number in triplexes and fourplexes decreased by 11 percent.” During those same years, the number of detached single-family homes increased by 2 percent and the number of attached single-family homes (homes that share a common wall) increased by 29 percent. Meanwhile, the number of homes in multifamily buildings with 50 or more units increased by 40 percent.

In 2017, single-family homes made up 54 percent of the city’s housing units; duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes made up 11 percent; and multifamily housing with five or more units made up 35 percent.

   

The new study is being released against a backdrop of a severe housing shortage in the Twin Cities and the anticipation of significant population growth. The rental vacancy rate in Saint Paul in 2019 averaged 4.4 percent. A vacancy rate under 5 percent is generally regarded as full occupancy.

The study recommends that Saint Paul adopt the zoning changes in two phases. If all goes as planned, the first phase could be approved by the City Council in late 2021 or early 2022 with the second phase following later in 2022.

New rules would allow smaller homes on smaller lots

The first phase would focus on reducing restrictions that prevent home construction on small lots. These include requirements that address the placement of windows and doors, the dimensions of single-family homes, the minimum width of buildings and the minimum distance between principal structures. The guidelines that are followed when converting a single-family home to a duplex or triplex would also be revised or eliminated.

 

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Changes to the lot size and building size requirements for accessory dwelling units (ADUs) constructed on a single-family lot are also proposed. The city legalized ADUs about a decade ago, but very few have been built. One change that could come in the second phase is the owner-occupancy requirement for ADUs, according to city planner Michael Wade, who is leading the study. Only an owner-occupied property can add an ADU currently, either in an existing house, the backyard of that house or above its garage.

The second phase could also include a package of zoning amendments to support a greater range of one-, two-, three- and four-unit dwellings on property that is currently zoned for single-family homes, duplexes and townhouses. Regulations regarding lot and building size could be changed along with setback requirements.

A way to provide more homes and more affordable homes

The new study is being released against a backdrop of a severe housing shortage in the Twin Cities and the anticipation of significant population growth. The rental vacancy rate in Saint Paul in 2019 averaged 4.4 percent. A vacancy rate under 5 percent is generally regarded as full occupancy. In 2020, the average rental vacancy rate increased to 6 percent. However, that may have been a result of the pandemic.

According to the study, about 22.5 percent of the city’s renter households are paying between 30 and 50 percent of their income on housing. Thirty percent of income is considered to be the threshold for “cost-burdened.” An additional 25 percent of renter household are “severely cost-burdened,” paying 50 percent or more of their income on housing.

About 12.5 percent of owner-occupied households are considered to be cost-burdened and 7.7 percent are considered to be severely cost-burdened.

The study was commissioned in 2018 by a City Council resolution. The zoning changes recommended by the study are similar to the zoning changes Minneapolis made in 2019 to allow duplexes and triplexes on properties previously reserved for single-family homes.

— Jane McClure

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