A new strategy to address Saint Paul’s housing shortage by making it easier for property owners to add one- to four-unit dwellings in single-family neighborhoods attracted more than 50 people to a virtual meeting on February 1. Hosted by the city’s Department of Planning and Economic Development, the Macalester-Groveland Community Council and the Highland District Council, it was the first in a series of public meetings to gather comments on proposed changes to the city’s zoning code.

The zoning changes will be drafted this spring and summer before being released for public comment. The city’s goal is to see the new provisions adopted by the City Council before the end of the year following a review and recommendation by the Saint Paul Planning Commission.

The city’s intent is to promote new housing that is similar in scale to single-family housing, according to Emma Siegworth, the lead city planner for the zoning study. That includes duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, detached single-family homes, attached single-family homes such as townhomes and twin homes, accessory dwellings and cluster or cottage developments.

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Second phase of effort to revise single-family zoning

This is the second phase of an effort to ease the restrictions in single-family zones. Last month, the City Council approved a package of zoning changes that make it easier to add accessory dwellings on a single-family lot, to construct smaller and narrower houses, and to build houses closer to the property line. Registered student dwellings near the University of Saint Thomas campus in Merriam Park and Macalester-Groveland may now house up to six residents rather than just four.

The additional housing is needed to accommodate the city’s growing population, according to city officials. In 2019, rental vacancy rates averaged 4.4 percent, which is below the 5 percent minimum vacancy rate considered to be a healthy rental market, according to Siegworth. A low vacancy rate tends to drive rental costs up, and about 47 percent of the people renting homes in Saint Paul spend 30 percent or more of their household income on rent. Thirty percent is the threshold for what economists consider “cost-burdened.”

Another factor in the desire for new housing options is the 64 percent of Saint Paul households that include just one or two individuals. A large single-family home may not be the best option for these households, Siegworth said. City officials would also like to promote new ways for several generations in the same family to share housing.

A desire to replenish city’s stock of duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes

Single-family homes make up about 54 percent of the city’s housing stock. Multifamily buildings with five or more units make up another 35 percent. Duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes make up the remaining 11 percent. 

One concern for city planners is the declining number of duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes in Saint Paul. From 2000-2017, the number of duplexes in the city decreased by 17 percent and the number of triplexes and fourplexes decreased by 11 percent. City staff are not sure why. In some instances, especially in Merriam Park, Snelling-Hamline and Macalester-Groveland, these smaller rental buildings have been torn down to make way for large apartment buildings.

Building new duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes can be difficult under current zoning regulations, which is why the changes are being sought. The zoning of 48 percent of the real estate in Saint Paul does not allow new duplexes, triplexes or fourplexes.

The people taking part in the February 1 meeting were generally in support of the addition of new housing in single-family zones and changing longstanding city regulations to do so. Much interest was shown in converting large single-family homes to more than one dwelling. Another popular sentiment was to ensure that neighborhoods did not lose their feeling of openness by sacrificing green space or filling yards with new building from lot line to lot line.

Two more public meetings on the issue are scheduled, both of them virtual. The first session from 6:30-8 p.m. Thursday, February 10, will be hosted by the Hamline-Midway Coalition, Como Community Council and North End Neighborhood Organization. The second meeting from 6:30-8 p.m. Wednesday, March 2, will be hosted by the Dayton’s Bluff Community Council.

To register for the meeting links, visit engagestpaul.org/1to4housingstudy. Additional information and a survey on the proposed changes may also be found at that website.

— Jane McClure

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