Proposal would ‘reverse the historic exclusivity’ of single-family zones.

Saint Paul residents have one more chance to comment on a package of zoning changes that will open the door to more housing in residential neighborhoods on properties that are zoned for one to four dwellings. The City Council will hold a public hearing on the zoning changes on January 12.

The zoning amendments would make it easier to build smaller houses and cluster-style houses and new houses on smaller lots. The minimum distance between principal structures would be reduced along with the minimum widths of buildings.

The guidelines for converting a single-family home to a duplex or triplex would also be revised. Yet another change would increase from four to six the maximum number of students who could live in a registered student rental home.

What could prove to be the most controversial aspect is a last-minute amendment to allow accessory dwelling units on properties
that are not owner-occupied.

Only one person, architect and Ramsey Hill resident Peter Carlsen, has raised concerns about the changes. “Increasing the number of housing units may be a worthy goal, but that density comes with a cost,” Carlsen said. “The zoning code is an agreement between property owners. It protects us from our neighbors and keeps us from creating a hardship for each other. We need to be careful how we change it.”

Support for the changes has come from the Macalester-Groveland Community Council and the group Sustain Saint Paul. The Summit Hill Association has expressed support for most of the changes but has asked for amendments to make the ordinance language clearer.

ADUs for absentee landlords?

What could prove to be the most controversial aspect to the zoning changes is a last-minute amendment recommended by the Saint Paul Planning Commission to allow accessory dwelling units (ADUs) on properties that are not owner-occupied. The owner-occupancy requirement has been in place for ADUs citywide since 2018 and since 2016 when ADUs were first allowed along the light-rail Green Line. Proponents see the change as promoting more housing. Opponents contend it could be exploited by absentee landlords and lead to blighted, overcrowded neighborhoods.

City staff had suggested that the removal of the owner-occupancy requirement be considered at a later date when a second and possibly more controversial set of zoning changes will be considered. However, at a public hearing in October, 20 of the 21 letters received called for the owner-occupancy requirement to be eliminated. 

Removing a barrier to more ADUs

Terri Thao, a former planning commissioner from the East Side, called the owner-occupancy requirement “horribly discriminatory. I understand the original intent was to prevent bad actors from taking advantage of potential renters or providing substandard housing. However, we already have several thousand non-owner occupied units in Saint Paul, the majority of which are properly managed. It is only the bad ones that receive the attention. We should not be making public policy for these few.”

“My concern is, if we remove the language around owner-occupancy, we run the risk of having slumlords,” said planning commissioner Stephen Moore. Moore lives in Dayton’s Bluff where there are many older homes on smaller lots. He raised concerns about too much density and parking congestion in his neighborhood.

A city staff report maintained that the owner-occupancy requirement “is seen as a major barrier to ADU construction in Saint Paul. Its removal has been promoted nationally as an opportunity to gent­ly increase neighborhood-scale housing in—as well as reverse the historic exclusivity of—single-family-only neighborhoods.”

— Jane McClure

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