In Praise of Housing Diversity


I live in the apartment in the background.

I live in an old neighborhood, by Minnesota Standards. The West Side dates back to the territorial era, the flats were settled back then and a few homes were built up on the bluff, though the “city” remained distant from booming 19th century Saint Paul until at least the 1870s when the toll was finally taken off the Wabasha Bridge.

But because of the age and the relative lack of modern day real estate pressure, the housing stock on the streets around my apartment are extremely diverse.

The craziest example is across the street from where I live. Here are two buildings that are next to each other on West George Street (according to Zestimate):

The first is a huge Victorian mansion that’s been turned into a B&B: 4,600 square feet.


Right next to it is a tiny post-war home: 925 square feet.


They’re right next to each other.

(Note that they’re not that disparate in property value, but in age and size, the gap couldn’t be wider.)

That’s an extreme example, but smaller examples are everywhere in my neighborhood, cases of run-down duplexes next to lovingly restored 2500 sq. ft. Victorians next to 40s ranch homes next to a 1915  3-story six-plex next to two 900 sq. ft. 1910’s era workers houses next to a set of four 1890’s row houses. That’s par for the course for the neighborhood.

And it’s one of the reasons why the West Side offers such a porous sense of idenity. There’s no one group that dominates the neighborhood, no one class or type of housing. Things are really mixed up, and it’s kind of wonderful.

I often wish that other neighborhoods had a similar kind of housing diversity, because it can be a tremendous asset towards building cultural, economic, and ethnic tolerance. My criticism of suburbia isn’t personal, it’s not related to the people that live there. It’s all about the way the built environment functions to isolate people from each other and minimize the kinds of social and physical relationships we can have with each other and our surrounding world.

levittown PA

Levittown of course. (The PA one.)

And one of the biggest problems is the lack of housing diversity. On almost any suburban street or neighborhood, the majority of the homes fall within the same prince point range. It makes sense because for most of these neighborhoods, all the homes were built within a few years of each other. This kind of homogeneity probably plateaued and peaked in the 60s through the 90s, but even in the newest suburban developments, the ones that include town homes or 2- or 3-story apartments, the buildings remain remarkably monotonous and segregated.

(Again, that’s not necessarily anyone’s fault, but it’s an effect of how they were built.)


The “transect” for the Congress for New Urbanism.

My recent Minnpost column about the “Missing Middle” gets at the need for fine-grained diversity in Minneapolis’ relatively diverse neighborhoods, how we need to embrace Jane Jacobs’ mantra of thinking small. We need to be able to build buildings that are unlike each other, embrace the kinds of stylistic and functional friction that generate new ideas and new relationships. These frissions are what make cities great, and while it’s not always heaven to live next to an apartment building, this kind of juxtaposition forms the origin of open-ness.

We need diverse neighborhoods. We need diverse homes. We need places that embrace all ages of people, all ages of buildings, at all incomes. It’s so lovely when it works.

[Examples of “juxta-houses”, which is what I call homes or buildings that are quite different in age or size, but next to each other.]

juxta-houses-3 juxta-houses-4 juxta-houses-5 juxta-houses-6 juxta-houses-7 juxta-houses-8 juxta-houses-10 juxta-houses-11[One of these is from the West 7th neighborhood, but the rest are from the West Side of Saint Paul.]

12 thoughts on “In Praise of Housing Diversity

  1. Steve

    Bill, be thankful you don’t live in the Wedge, where your praise of housing diversity would make you a target on this site as a NIMBY hater of increased density. Your photos demonstrate perfectly (in your neighborhood) the housing variety that serves different household types, ages and incomes. What the structures all have in common is that their massing does not detract from the quiet enjoyment of their neighbors.

    Your “Missing Middle” piece missed the mark for me because the new examples you used (in Uptown) miss this critical point – while the older “missing middle” structures you show were built at scales that didn’t overshadow existing buildings, the examples you featured built (or planned) in the last two years, are, in my view, out of scale with their neighbors. As such, they are not “missing middle” developments that fit with the existing built environment, nor do they increase housing diversity. Examples exist along the Greenway that increased housing choices in the ‘hood, but you didn’t show those. Instead you showed projects that replaced affordable housing with luxury apartments with (at least at 24th and Colfax) perhaps the highest per foot rents in the metro.

    The real challenge of infill development is what message it communicates to the remaining neighbors: Do we value your presence, or do we desire that your buildings be torn down to make way for more expensive and less diverse housing? Your two posts suggest you support the first viewpoint in your neighborhood but the second in mine.

    Call me up and I’ll walk you around the Wedge sometime to show you how housing diversity is under attack and how the neighborhood has worked for decades to preserve and enhance that diversity.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      Can you provide some examples of missing middle housing in the Wedge that serves different needs but doesn’t detract from neighbor’s enjoyment?

      The Wedge has plenty of walkups that are 2.5 stories, no taller than most single family homes in the area, and these were strongly opposed, with a re-zoning specifically preventing them from being built past the 70s. Bill’s very first photo shows a 3 (?3.5?) story apartment building right next to a single family home, exactly the type of chaotic, out-of-context development most people in this country oppose, even in Minneapolis and St Paul.

      I understand there’s a tension caused by the rents in new buildings vs the rents of the units they replaced. It’s a complex topic, and the pro-housing-growth crowd (myself included) obviously sees the long-term effects as positive while those concerned rightfully worry about the short-term effects. We need a middle ground of policies to address the latter.

      But I have observed (and your comment highlights this) that many people opposed to structures larger than duplexes or triplexes that look like SFHs care more about form and perceived impacts to neighbors than affordability or dislocation. It’s helpful to remember that 58% of Wedge residents live in buildings with 5 or more units – the type of structure that disrespects neighbors. And that there are places all over the world – in first world countries – where 5+ story buildings peacefully coexist right next to single family homes in much greater rates than even Minneapolis and St Paul’s densest neighborhoods. What makes us so great as a people that we can’t tolerate the lack of transition while others can?

  2. cobo Rodreges

    Lack of housing diversity is mostly due to a change in how neighborhoods are created.

    It used to be that a city would build a street grid and then sell individual lots. Each lot would be developed independently.

    But now usually a large block of land is purchased and built up by a single developer who builds all the houses.

    The lack of variety is due to the fact that scale and uniformity lowers per house costs substantially (20 %- 30 %) through scale and other types of efficiency. All of the houses might share one or two blueprints and the might only differ by the color of siding.

    The buyers get a better brand new house for a lower price then they could have gotten under the old system (even if the neighborhood lacks character)

    Some people like the uniformity and will sometimes form HOAs with rules that prevent any changes, and sometimes they don’t, and things will gradually change over time. Usually the developer is gone at this point, and involved a new project somewhere else.

    Cities tend to like it when a single company builds up a new subdivision since the company will pay for the new roads, sewer, power lines, etc. Depending on annexation the city potentially gets new property tax revenue without having to spend much if any money building infrastructure.

    Its doubtful that we’ll ever see newer developments with any housing diversity again. But some might change as they age.

  3. Anonymous

    Housing variety is something that I always liked about Snelling Hamline (where I grew up). Big duplexes, little duplexes, big apartments, small apartments, big houses, small houses. There’s some patterns to where they’re located, but I’d say that it’s pretty diverse all things considered. No rowhouses, though, that I can think of. Also, I don’t know whether this is good for housing affordability and such. I would say that housing diversity could, quite possibly, play a role in creating more mixed income neighborhoods. Location may be the most important factor in cost, but square footage also has a small impact.

  4. Emily Metcalfe

    The street I lived on in Falcon Heights was unusual this way for a modern suburban street. The lots were developed individually over time. Houses were built from the 1940s until the 1980s. Several underwent substantial additions or remodels. There was also an apartment building. It contrasted with the streets behind it, which were clearly planned, one section built out in the 50s and the second in the 80s.

  5. Renee

    I grew up on one of the blocks pictured and these homes are very familiar to me. Looking at these pictures, I know these homes hold families that are Hmong, white, Mexican, African-American, single parents, retirees, toddlers, gay people, straight people – and that very literally is all on one block. There have been a handful of times over the years (my parents have been there 50 years) that it wasn’t precisely the safest place to live, but between a number of stable homeowners and decent landlords, it’s generally a nice, quiet neighborhood. Never attached any of that to the diversity in housing stock, so thanks for that perspective.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      Thanks for your story. I feel the same way about the neighborhood. I like that it’s so diverse, and think its unusual history and geography are a big reason why.

  6. Tom Tako

    Not to be a nit picker but I believe that the apartment you live in is in West St Paul. To a West Sider this used to be a big deal. Great article however.

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