St. Paul City Council to Consider (Actually) Allowing ADUs, Tiny Homes, and Smaller Homes Citywide

Next Wednesday, the St. Paul City Council will hear first readings of changes to several of its housing policies that, if enacted, promise to expand the housing supply by making it more feasible to build “tiny homes” and cluster developments in the city.

These changes are coming forward as part of Phase 1 of the city’s 1-4 Unit Study (city staff are already working on the sequel), and this is your own personal policy brief to help you understand why the changes matter, what they actually are, and how they might impact housing in St. Paul. 

First, why do these changes matter?

The shortest answer is that these changes will expand the kinds of housing that can be built in St Paul. For example, if you look at the beautiful sea of yellow (one home allowed per lot) and tan (two homes allowed per lot) in the zoning map below, what you’re actually seeing is very very restrictive local laws. In a neighborhood like Midway, where I live, it’s actually really hard to add homes for those who need them except on the most significant corridors like Snelling or University. And really, every neighborhood in St. Paul is like this. Only a few stretches here and there (recently re-zoned Marshall Avenue where tons of homes are being added, for instance) are really zoned to encourage new neighbors to move in and support our local businesses, send their children to our neighborhood schools, and just generally bring new perspectives to our community. 

St. Paul zoning map

The longer answer is that these changes are kind of just making options that are technically legal now actually feasible – or at least more feasible. People can technically build Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), tiny homes (legally defined as homes 400 square feet and smaller), and other non-traditional small homes (over 400 square feet, etc.); it’s just really weird/hard/nearly impossible to find a project that can jump through the many oddly shaped hoops of current policy. So, why do these changes matter? They’re putting into real life action the housing goals (offering a wide range of housing choices for its diverse residents) that the City of St. Paul has already committed to numerous times. 

Second, what specific changes are being proposed?

The first set of changes being proposed would update St. Paul’s fairly recent (in zoning code terms) ADU ordinance that was updated to allow ADUs citywide in 2018. The biggest changes are to remove the requirement that an ADU can only be built on a lot where the owner lives in the existing home and the requirement that only lots that are 5000 square feet can host an ADU. Both of these provisions were pretty clearly put in place to very heavily limit the universe of possible ADUs. Many single-family residential lots throughout the city are just smaller than the 5k threshold, for example. So, removing the minimum lot size is pretty darn significant.

And in fact, because the owner occupancy requirement was seen as fairly political, city staff actually did not include removing it in their initial suggested changes for Phase 1. But public comment was strongly and overwhelmingly in favor of removing it and staff updated their recommendation to the Planning Commission to include its removal – which passed slate of proposed changes with only two dissenting votes, forwarding the proposal to the council. This is a huge credit to department staff. It is not easy to recommend something if you think you might get yelled at for it (planning staff basically only gets yelled at, no one has spoken to them in human speaking tones yet this millenia) and it’s even harder to change a recommendation while the policy is already being considered. 

Other changes are less flashy but could possibly have even greater impact, such as removing the 22-foot minimum building width in the city’s building design standards. This rule was originally put in place to prevent mobile homes from being sited in the city and also essentially set a minimum building size at 484 square feet. There is also no longer a requirement of only one principle residential building per lot, which will allow cluster developments (more than one residential building on the same lot) in more places and in more circumstances. Think of that random empty lot you’ve walked/biked by that used to have a single home on it. Now imagine it has two or three nice small homes on it instead. That is now not fully bonkers to imagine. 

One change that could be viewed as actually increasing regulation on these non-traditional homes is the clarification that any permanent home be built on a foundation. Under current rules for tiny homes (Appendix Q of the state building code), other forms of insulating and protecting utility connections were technically allowed, though never implemented in St. Paul or even Minnesota (that we know of). So the new rules are theoretically more stringent/narrow but may not actually be limiting a real-world option for this climate. 

Finally, how will these changes impact housing in St. Paul?

The core impact these changes will have is to widen – even just slightly – the possibility for ADUs, tiny homes, and smaller homes in general to be added throughout residential areas across St. Paul. The changes proposed for Phase 1 have been described by planning staff as the low hanging fruit that staff themselves have already discussed internally multiple times. They aren’t meant to be earth shattering changes. And really, adding one ADU or tiny home here and there was never going to lead to a tidal wave of housing creation immediately – even if these new policies had been in place to begin with. 

The point of having a more permissive housing policy in place is that it allows the creativity of families, architects, and housing developers (public, affordable, market) to be unleashed. If 10 families in a neighborhood are legitimately able to add an ADU to their lot thanks to these changes, it won’t just add 10 homes to St Paul, it will provide 10 more examples of how those homes have to be designed, financed, permitted, and sold. It gives city staff 10 more chances to sort through if utilities for a new ADU can be tied into the existing home or if a cluster of three smaller homes can all share utilities to reduce costs. It gives neighbors 10 real life examples to see as they walk to the store that can start to make the concept feel less scary. 

Housing is expensive. We need a lot more of it. We need more of it to be affordable. And, aside from waiting to get life changing federal investment in public and affordable housing, we can and should make more creative housing solutions even more possible in St. Paul. 

TAKE-A-WAYS:

About Matt Privratsky

Matt Privratsky lives in Midway with his wife Rochelle and their two dogs Monaco and Pounce. He walks, bikes, and takes transit for as many trips as he possibly can. You can also find him covering all things Minnesota women's soccer at Equal Time Soccer.

11 thoughts on “St. Paul City Council to Consider (Actually) Allowing ADUs, Tiny Homes, and Smaller Homes Citywide

  1. Brad Engelmann

    Hi fellas. I’m genuinely interested if you can cite a few peer-reviewed studies that demonstrate ADUs materially add density to urban environments. Back when I worked on this issue several years ago there was not evidence at that time. This seems like a concept that in theory would be great but in practice does very little to address our housing needs. Do you have data on how many of the ones in Minneapolis are housing units? Anecdotally I continue to hear many of them are vacation rentals so lodging not housing. And Matt I’ve continue to tell your boss that we should increase density in St Paul but policy seems to make that more difficult, mostly with the rent control ordinance but also selectively blocking projects because of perceived displacement (e.g. Lexington). Your linkout there to Marshall isn’t ADUs or small houses–it’s apartments which I think most people support. Or how about condos? Apartments and condos are bang for buck density–units to really make a dent in our housing needs. Prospective investors and developers are going to have a hard time justifying projects here until the rent control is sorted out and in the meantime you might lose thousands of units which will set the city back in time and units. Please focus on resolving the rent control situation so we can get these apartment projects moving. You could also work with the state to ease regulations on condos so developers would be more likely to do those projects–right now there’s too much risk. I like the idea or removing red tape and regulation involving housing; it doesn’t seem like ADUs is the place we should be spending time.

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  2. Zack Giffin

    Requiring all ADU’s to be on permanent foundations is a huge mistake because it means property owners have to pay the upfront cost of constructing the ADU. If you allow homes on non permanent foundations, it means one person can own a tiny home and another can rent out their backyard. Both people enjoy the dignity of owning their homes and the ability to build equity. By eliminating the requirement to be on a permanent foundation it changes ADU laws from being a nice way for already affluent people to create vacation rentals, into a housing solution that is attainable to the people who need it most. It’s all about dividing the upfront cost and it means that many property owners who otherwise could not afford to, can participate.

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  3. Mark Thieroff

    I’m not sure where the peer-review part would come in, but if you want some examples of numbers, you can check out Seattle’s recent ADU annual report here: http://www.seattle.gov/Documents/Departments/OPCD/OngoingInitiatives/EncouragingBackyardCottages/OPCD_ADUAnnualReport2021.pdf (over 500 units permitted in 2020), or you could check out the recent study of ADU construction in CA that a group in Berkley put together, here: https://www.aducalifornia.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Implementing-the-Backyard-Revolution.pdf

    I’ve never understood the focus on whether and to what extent ADUs can make a material contribution to a city’s overall density. They are individual units, so of course their contribution to density will be limited. But even if only a couple were built on my block, that’s still a couple of new households, and a couple of new neighbors, and potentially a couple of additional customers for our neighborhood businesses, and maybe a couple of more people using the bus that serves the neighborhood. Your average homeowner can’t do much to “address our housing needs” but they can create an additional unit of housing on their own lot if they want to.

    Regarding the short-term rental issue, I am not aware of actual numbers for Minneapolis or St. Paul (and it sounds like you aren’t either) but Seattle tracks this and has determined that 11 percent of ADUs in that city are used as short-term rentals. See the report linked above.

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  4. Brad Engelmann

    Thanks Mark for those. I skimmed them both. Can we focus on the math in terms of how many units we’re adding and what our goal is? The project at Lexington and University that Mitra and other councilmembers voted against has 288 units. How many ADUs have been built in MSP? I know you spent a lot of time on ADUs and I’ve seen you still do. Just like you don’t understand why I don’t think this is a priority, I don’t understand why you think it is, even though I admire your passion for it. It seems to me if we want to do our best to solve the problem we want volume so when we’re talking development don’t we want larger projects and more of them? We spent all this money on the Green Line and we have transit corridors suitable throughout the city; the city did a nice job mapping out nodes we can develop including Raymond/University. I don’t understand why we ever spent literally years talking about ADUs when, what, 20 have been built since then? I think our city staff have other things they can do than this; there are so many things we need to do here. Looking at the report from CA they’re saying it costs about $200,000 to build an ADU; actually less than that. I don’t know how that’s possible. If you hire a reputable contractor here in MSP to build a 600 ft ADU in your back yard it’s going to cost a lot more than that–and then how long to recoup your investment? It just doesn’t make sense which is why none have been built. I have family in southwest MPLS and there a few going up there but those are not affordable by any stretch–rent–if they are for rent which many are not (vacation). I don’t know–keep on this if you want but geez, we have parking lots here along University and Territorial where we could put 200 units in one project and that would help a lot more people than finding ways to build ADUs across the city. On top of all that, even though you want them, I don’t think your neighbors or most single family homeowners in St Paul are going to want a 25 foot building three feet off their line overlooking their backyard–you now can but I don’t think you’ll make friends with your neighbors.

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    1. Monte Castleman

      Yes. I’m not opposed to the concept of allowing ADUs (and not living in St. Paul it’s none of my business anyway), but even “a couple per block” strikes me as wildly unrealistic. You have to have people that are interested in sharing their property, yet it can’t just be renting out a basement or spare bedroom. And have somewhere north of $100,000 and the time wherewithal to plan and build one. Granted this is just one year, but in Seattle, where the average price of a house is more than double here, the 500 ADUs permitted are spread out of what Google tells me are 133,000 detached houses.

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      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        As you note, I don’t think we’ll ever see a large number of add-on ADUs. But we can and are seeing them as part of a tear-down rebuild or inclusion in a new garage build.

        That will never be a couple per block, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth allowing. There is no tradeoff between allowing ADUs and allowing more larger structures.

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  5. Amy Gage

    Thanks, Matt, for this helpful background. I offer not a quantitative study but a qualitative observation: My neighbors, who own one of the many large houses on Marshall in Merriam Park, recently tore down their two-car garage to build an ADU for her parents. It’s a charming little structure, and the older couple seems content there. What a positive example of returning to the multi-generational living that was common before the mid-20th century, when the Nuclear (!) Family became a marker of success and old people started getting segregated into institutional, antiseptic housing. I like living in a city that sees the value of community and communal living.

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  6. Yami

    I like much of the content, but not the snark. You have a lot of smart things to say. Say them smartly. Be more professional, and nicer. Please.

    Reply

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