More 2-, 3- and 4-unit dwellings are sought.

The Saint Paul Planning Commission will hold a public hearing at 8:30 a.m. Friday, April 14, on zoning changes that would make it easier to convert large single-family homes to duplexes or triplexes and to add accessory dwellings next to single-family homes. The citywide changes attempt to address the housing shortage in Saint Paul while being sensitive to preserving the character of neighborhoods.

The changes are included in a 163-page zoning study aimed at increasing density with “neighborhood-scale housing.” In addition to duplexes, triplexes and four-plexes, the study encourages the building of townhouses, cluster-style developments, accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and so-called tiny houses in the city’s single-family, two-family and townhouse zoning districts. These are the so-called “missing middle” of housing between single-family dwellings and large apartment buildings.

According to the study, 36.1 percent of the households in Saint Paul are one-person, 28.6 percent have two people, 13.4 percent have three, and 21.6 percent have four or more.

A growing number of people living alone

The idea is to change the zoning code to allow a greater mix of housing types in residential neighborhoods, according to Emma Brown, lead city planner in the zoning study that was requested by the City Council in 2018.

Brown and her colleagues have been following the trends in people’s living habits, according to Brown. One trend is having several generations in a family living together. Another is the rapidly growing number of people living alone.

According to the study, 36.1 percent of the households in Saint Paul are one-person, 28.6 percent have two people, 13.4 percent have three, and 21.6 percent have four or more.

Most of city’s growth is in large apartment buildings

About 70 percent of the residential property in Saint Paul is zoned for single-family housing. Between 2000 and 2017, the number of single-family detached units in the city increased from 58,489 to 59,859. That represents about 50 percent of the housing units in town. Attached single-family units, namely condos, increased from 4,039 to 5,228. The number of units in large apartment buildings (20 or more units) increased from 22,083 to 28,509, making up 31 percent of the city’s housing units.

Eleven percent of the city’s housing units are in duplexes, triplexes and four-plexes. The number of units in these buildings and in smaller apartment buildings decreased slightly between 2017 and 2020.

Zoning changes would encourage density

To provide for an increase in the density of neighborhood-scale housing, the zoning study proposes a sweeping set of changes to lot size, lot coverage, building setback and other zoning requirements. These changes would make it easier to develop townhouse and cluster developments where housing units are grouped around a shared courtyard or community center. The cluster developments also may include tiny houses.

Making housing more affordable

Other trends shaping the proposed zoning changes are economic. Housing affordability is a growing problem, Brown said. So are stagnant wages that are not keeping up with inflation. The rising cost of single-family homes is another factor. Saint Paul no longer has much in the way of starter homes for first-time home buyers.

The median sale price of a single-family home in Saint Paul is now $287,000. According to the study, that is out of reach for a four-person household making under 80 percent of the area median income of $117,300.

The rental vacancy rate in Saint Paul currently stands at 6.67 percent. A vacancy rate of 5 percent is considered the benchmark for a healthy rental market. Although there is a higher number of vacant units now, none of them are affordable to households making less than $35,000 per year or 47 percent of the area median income, according to the zoning study, .

One of the goals of the study is to provide incentives for building new affordable housing and preserving existing housing that is affordable at all income levels. The study aims to address racial, social and economic disparities in housing and to create infrastructure to stabilize housing for all. It intends to encourage the re-use and discourage the demolition of existing housing.

Helping homeowners and small-scale developers add new housing is another goal, as is making the zoning code easier to understand. Seven types of low-density residential zoning would be reduced to four.

Webinars held on zoning study

The city’s Department of Planning and Economic Development will host two webinars on the 1-4 Unit Housing Study from noon-1:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 28, and from 6-7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 30. Each webinar will include an informational presentation and an opportunity for viewers to ask questions. For more information, visit The Zoom link for the webinars will be available at that website on the day of the webinar.

Written comments on the proposed zoning changes may be submitted until noon Thursday, April 13, by mail to 1 to 4 Unit Housing Study, 25 W. Fourth St., Suite 1400, Saint Paul, MN 55102, or by email to

The Planning Commission is expected to forward its recommendations on the proposed zoning code changes to the City Council for a public hearing sometime this summer.

— Jane McClure


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