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St. Paul could soon eliminate what planners are calling "single-family-only" zoning — meaning that duplexes, fourplexes and townhomes would be allowed throughout the city.

The change is one of many proposed by the city's Planning and Economic Development Department, which is leading a major overhaul of the zoning code. The City Council is accepting written comments on the proposal and will host a public hearing at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday.

You're wondering what's on the table, and what it means for residents? Here's a breakdown:

What is zoning?

Most cities and townships, and some counties, have zoning ordinances that control how land can be used — part of a larger, long-term plan for orderly growth and change. In the United States, zoning typically divides land into residential, commercial, industrial or other uses, and often has additional rules regarding lot and building size, parking or secondary structures.

Why do St. Paul planners want to change the zoning code?

Under current laws, nearly half the land in St. Paul can only be used for single-family homes. In a 538-page memo on their proposed changes, city planners say this is problem for a variety of reasons.

Like many cities, St. Paul is facing a housing shortage that's fueled spikes in home prices and rents. The city has largely been built out, leaving limited land for new development. So planners are proposing to allow more density in the neighborhoods that already exist.

Researchers have shown that single-family zoning districts historically have perpetuated segregation by race and class, and likely are part of the reason the Twin Cities have some of the nation's worst disparities in income, wealth and homeownership between white residents and residents of color. In the early 1900s, after the U.S. Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional to use zoning to expressly prohibit people of color from living in certain neighborhoods, cities realized they could use single-family zoning to the same effect.

Additionally, St. Paul officials want to give residents more choices when it comes to housing. Some residents may prefer a duplex for a lower-maintenance lifestyle, or a townhome to downsize.

What happens if the changes are approved?

St. Paul planners emphasize that their proposal would still allows new single-family homes. Their main focus is creating more flexibility for what urban policy experts call "neighborhood-scale" or "missing middle housing," such as duplexes, townhomes and carriage houses.

This category of housing contains multiple units but is seen as compatible, in size and appearance, with stand-alone single-family homes, according to the city's memo. In practice, this could look something like splitting an existing single-family lot in two or adding an accessory dwelling unit in a backyard.

An important note: Allowing this type of housing doesn't mean it will be built. City planners say the code changes are mostly geared toward long-term housing goals. They aim to promote the reuse of existing homes and development in lots and backyards, said City Planner Emma Brown, the lead author of the proposed amendments.

"A zoning change just opens up the possibility for other development," Brown said. "But land use — that doesn't change overnight."

How would my neighborhood's zoning change?

It depends on where you live. The proposed amendments would condense the city's seven low-density residential zoning districts into three, with new standards regulating lot area, building heights, setbacks and lot coverage. The new districts would be:

  • H1 residential: Up to four units on a lot.
  • H2 residential: Up to five units on a lot. Applies to land near transit corridors and neighborhood nodes.
  • RL large lot residential: Up to two units on a lot. City planners noted that this district is used only in a small portion of St. Paul's Highwood area, a hilly part of the Mississippi River bluff on the East Side that isn't consistently served by city sewer or water services.

In H1 and H2 districts, properties could have up to six units by meeting requirements for what the city is calling a "density bonus." Properties are eligible for these additional units if they contain at least three bedrooms, keep rents affordable for someone making 60% of the area median income (AMI), are occupied by an owner making 80% AMI or convert an existing residential structure.

What other changes are being proposed?

The city would update dimension standards and other requirements so someone could feasibly build the type of housing the new zoning districts would permit. For instance, planners heard from community and industry experts that setback and per-unit lot area minimums often limit a property owner's options — so they want to reduce both standards to allow more flexibility.

The amendments would build upon minor code tweaks the City Council approved last year to facilitate development of accessory dwelling units (ADUs), smaller secondary housing units that occupy the same lot as a single-family home. St. Paul would allow each single-family dwelling to have up to two ADUs.

The proposal also tackles standards for cluster developments, which are groups of multiple one- to four-unit dwellings on one lot, with a shared common space like a courtyard.

Have other cities passed policies like this?

Yes. Minneapolis drew national attention in 2018 when it became the first city in the nation to loosen single-family zoning rules. St. Paul planners also studied subsequent state laws passed in Oregon and California, and drew particular inspiration from changes to zoning code in Portland, Ore., that passed in 2021.

In Minneapolis, the changes have been slow to catch on, and some property owners have had to seek variances to fit duplexes or triplexes on a lot that formerly held a single-family home — a process that can be costly, timely and uncertain. The city recently made some updates to its zoning code standards.

Minneapolis' policy — part of the city's 2040 Comprehensive Plan — has also been mired in court for five years, due to a lawsuit filed by environmentalists arguing the plan would pollute natural resources. Recent decisions handed down against Minneapolis said the city should have conducted an environmental review of its 2040 Plan. Last month, the city appealed a district court order to halt implementation of the plan.

When asked whether St. Paul has concerns about similar lawsuits, Planning Director Luis Pereira said he could not comment on the specifics of Minneapolis' legal challenges.

"The facts of that are completely different because theirs is about their comprehensive plan; this is about a zoning study," Pereira said. "We did look closely at both the city and regional and site-specific impacts of the development."

When would these changes be implemented?

After months of debate and fine-tuning, the Planning Commission voted to recommend the changes to the City Council in August. Following the City Council's public hearing on the proposal Wednesday, it could take a final vote on the matter as soon as next week. If the council approves the changes, city officials likely would update some their processes to reflect the new laws.

City planners acknowledged that financing and building code requirements can create challenges for small-scale projects, which may not be viable for large developers looking to make a market rate return of 15% or more, according to the memo. If the changes pass, staffers said they would look for ways to engage small-scale developers and homeowners, who could use the additional units to house a relative or earn extra income.

"We know construction costs are very expensive," Pereira said. "So will this encourage some folks across the city to consider investing in an additional unit on their property, or converting what they have now? We expect this to continue to evolve as the market changes, as preferences change, as the population ages, as the population gets more diverse."

More information on the proposed changes is available on the city's website.

This story has been updated to reflect changes made by the Planning Commission.