How Housing Development Creates a Collective-Action Problem, in St. Paul and Beyond

The Twin Cities area has a housing problem. The city’s population grew by 333,000 from 2010 to 2020, while the area built only 126,894 units of housing over the same timespan. Metro-area vacancy rates fell to 4.62 percent in 2020, the lowest vacancy rate in the country among metropolitan areas with over 1 million residents. This housing squeeze has made housing expensive: 45 percent of Twin Cities renters are rent burdened.

But the Twin Cities is not the only place with a housing shortage. Much of the United States is feeling the pressure of tight housing markets. As a report from the Council of Economic Advisers shows, housing growth has not kept pace with population growth, especially since the Great Recession, and nationwide rental vacancy rates are lower than they’ve been in decades.

Housing production is too low nationwide (Council of Economic Advisers).

Across the country, we know that regulations are a big part of the problem. As economists have shown, housing regulations have driven a huge wedge between the cost of housing and the prices paid by homeowners or renters. By pushing prices up in desirable neighborhoods, regulations maintain economic and racial segregation within cities.

The same effect plays out between cities, making our productive cities the most expensive ones and keeping workers out of high-productivity cities where they can earn the most. Strict land use regulations increase income inequality and strangle growth across the United States.

In light of the immense problems created by excessive housing shortages and regulations, we must understand the political reasons why they came about. These housing shortages are, in part, owed to local residents’ control of housing development in their neighborhoods. At multiple points along the approval process of a development or rezoning, neighborhood residents are able to protest, delay and deny increases in the amount of housing units in their neighborhood. 

Throughout national media, this group of housing-blocking residents has earned the name “NIMBYs” (Not in My Backyard) and often been depicted as a biased and exclusionary group.  Wealthy homeowners are understood to knowingly block opportunities for poorer and more racially diverse residents to move into their neighborhoods, making dwellings scarce in order to make the wealthy people’s homes more valuable. 

Strict low-density zoning was designed to segregate and exclude. In The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein describes how American low-density zoning came about. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1917 that neighborhoods could not explicitly zone areas by race, localities turned to density restrictions that would make all but the most expensive homes illegal to build. For example, Rothstein describes how St. Louis, Missouri adopted what was technically a race-neutral zoning code in 1919, but only after the city’s planning engineer had declared his intent to prevent “colored people” from moving into “colored residential districts.”

The Twin Cities used racial covenants to keep neighborhoods white for many years, and in Macalester Groveland — where I live — people burned two crosses on the lawn of Black St. Paul residents William and Nellie Francis when they moved into the neighborhood in 1925. 

A clear thread can be drawn between past racist, exclusionary policies and current ones. But I find this theory of anti-development — call it the “nefarious” theory of NIMBYism — to be incomplete. Destructive racial and class biases drive some of the opposition to new housing construction; that is true. White homeowners have shown and continue to show a willingness to fight against poorer or non-white newcomers.

But development also has real and concentrated costs. In the short term, construction can be a nuisance, and in the long term, denser neighborhoods bring increased demands on infrastructure and publicly provided goods. The benefits of new housing development are largely diffuse and non-excludable — anyone can take advantage of lower cost of living. Because the benefits for local residents don’t align with the broader social benefits, we should always expect an undersupply of housing when political structures favor local decision-making. This collective-action problem can help to explain the housing crisis, both in the Twin Cities and nationwide.

Understanding Collective Action

This explanation begins with a theory that economist and political scientist Mancur Olson advanced in the 1960s. To be clear, I don’t use this theoretical framework to defend people blocking housing. My goal is to positively describe one reason for widespread housing opposition, before jumping into normative implications.

Collective-action problems arise when a good has concentrated costs (one person or group pays for the good) and diffuse benefits (many people who don’t pay for the good can still benefit). A common example of a collective-action problem is reducing carbon emissions: Any one state, country or corporation that elects to restrict its emissions receives only a tiny fraction of the benefits of doing so — although the benefit of their contribution to reduced greenhouse gasses will be enjoyed by all inhabitants of earth. Even though most actors are aware of the need for climate action, none can coordinate a sufficient response.

Housing development also fits this description. New construction can create immediate, short-term drawbacks — construction creates loud noises, blocks roads and parking, and leaves dust everywhere. That’s unpleasant for nearby residents. More impactful than the short-term costs of construction, however, are the longer-term impacts that could be broadly described as “congestion costs.”

More people in a neighborhood means more use of the same publicly provided goods:

  • Roads are busier.
  • Parking is harder to find.
  • More people means more pressure on septic infrastructure.
  • Schools are more crowded, and so on.

Homes are also a unique asset. Land use economist William Fischel has argued that homeowners rationally fear for their property values, because the investment in a house makes up nearly the entirety of many people’s savings portfolios. When changes might threaten their property values, homeowners will act risk-averse. Even if the expected impact of a development on property values is minimal, homeowners will be concerned about any small chance of decline in their property values.

But while the costs of housing development are concentrated, the benefits of density are spread across an area much larger than a neighborhood. A concentrated amount of housing construction can keep prices marginal, putting housing costs within reach for many. In addition, having more people in a city will grow the absolute size of a local economy and tax base, and can increase the area’s productivity and wages via agglomeration effects. However, these benefits are spread over a metropolitan area. One development’s potential contribution to economic growth or lower rents will not be meaningful to any single resident.

Crucially, the diffuse nature of the benefits of housing development creates no natural constituency that favors developments on a case-by-case basis. Renters or homebuyers who might eventually want a home in that neighborhood won’t think to participate in that neighborhood’s political process — and as outsiders, they may not be able to. These potential renters and homebuyers will also have a difficult time collectively organizing compared with homeowners who live in the affected neighborhood. For a single development, individual incentives don’t line up with the optimal social outcome. Local residents will reject an increase in density and no one will oppose them (if you like thinking about these things as an economist would, see the model in this working paper).

This misalignment of incentives matters only when paired with political institutions that prioritize the concerns of nearby residents. Neighborhood-level planning grants local decision-makers the approval over — or, at least, a voice in — land use regulations and discretionary development. This allows decision making to be “captured” by the narrow interest group of affected neighbors.

A Case Study in St. Paul

In performing this case study, I’m inspired by and indebted to the researchers Katherine Levine Einstein, David M. Glick and Maxwell Palmer. Their excellent book, Neighborhood Defenders, contains detailed data collection and analysis of public meetings in the Boston area.

This case study examines a neighborhood council meeting at the Macalester-Groveland Community Council’s (MGCC) Housing and Land Use Committee (HLU). (I am a board member on this council and serve on this committee.)

According to MGCC’s website, the HLU conducts public meetings and approves motions to recommend approval or denial on land use decisions. Any members of the public may attend and comment, but only committee members (those who have expressed an interest in joining the committee and attended the two previous consecutive meetings) can vote. The HLU’s decisions are not binding; such decisions are voted on by other city bodies, including the Planning Commission, Board of Zoning Appeals and City Council. However, the City of St. Paul’s 17 district councils vote on nearly all developments that require variances, conditional use permits or rezoning and then send recommendations to decision makers at the city level. These district council recommendations hold sway both for appointed technocrats who rely on localized knowledge and for elected officials who are sensitive to this core constituency. 

The meeting at hand took place in March 2021. A couple had recently bought a large lot on Mount Curve Boulevard and were seeking a variance to split the land into two lots. The property had originally been platted as two separate lots in 1917, before St. Paul had a zoning code, but then became one property. One of the original plots had a full, single-family detached house, while the other had no structures on it — so the variance was presumably, although not explicitly, for the purpose of building a second house to sell. Under the R-4 zoning of this area, the minimum lot size was 5,000 square feet, but splitting these two lots would create two 4,336-square-foot lots. In order to split the lots, the owners would need a variance.

Highlighted in red is the lot that property owners wanted to split into two.

Neighborhood members of HLU strongly opposed this variance request. Multiple members of the public attended and commented who were not regular HLU attendees but were residents of the same street as the proposed variance. This meeting helps to demonstrate the ways that housing acts as a public action problem.

Their comments show an aversion to the concentrated costs of development. Some comments demonstrated fear of change on their street: “I have lived over 80 years on Mount Curve Boulevard,” said one neighbor, “and because of that, I feel that I should be heard for my reason in not wanting to have a building put up on the empty lot next to me, because the fence that belongs to this 400 Mount Curve is right up against my back steps as it is. I feel that a building will impact my property and so therefore I am against having a building put up close to my house.” 

These residents saw change as threatening their property values. One neighbor expressed concern that the developers were looking to develop a house similar to those on nearby Cretin Avenue, saying that there’s “nothing wrong with Cretin Avenue, but it’s a busy street, the home values are less than Mount Curve. Mount Curve is its own neighborhood.”

Some comments described potential infrastructure costs from the development. Three different residents mentioned concerns about drainage and standing water in the alley behind the development. Another resident warned that “this seems to be a really significant change and there really isn’t any previously existing construction.” These comments display the concentrated costs of development, both in the short-term inconveniences of construction and the longer term “congestion costs” on infrastructure. 

More subtly, some comments hinted at how little the diffuse benefits of housing development are felt at the local level. “I don’t see how this benefits the neighborhood, and I’m inclined to vote against it,” one commenter said. Another said, “I’m not sure how it is our place to change someone’s neighborhood when the people living on the street are not in favor of it.” The list of costs was long, and most residents saw no meaningful benefit in allowing this new housing. From their perspective, this is reasonable. As current homeowners, these residents have little reason for concern about inadequate housing supply. Even if they were concerned, one new house will do little to solve the Twin Cities’ supply shortage and its attendant problems, and any economic benefits that it does create will be spread across the metro area. 

However, the potential beneficiaries of new housing development were not in attendance. These include homebuyers and renters who stand to benefit from increased housing supply, which would reduce costs. 

The Macalester-Groveland neighborhood in St. Paul is populated largely by white homeowners. Photo courtesy of Edina Realty

Ultimately, the HLU recommended denial of the variance, and the property owners do not appear to have brought their request to the Board of Zoning Appeals.

By itself, the decision-making process described above may seem insignificant. Any single project being denied is hardly impactful on housing supply, and mundane concerns about infrastructure are reasonable reasons to oppose development. Yet in the aggregate, a planning process that follows the wishes of these residents is not functional. 

This is, essentially, the insight of Mancur Olson and the reason why development’s collective-action problem matters. Of course, homebuyers and renters across the city are less likely to show up to specific district council meetings in neighborhoods where they do not live. They may not even know these meetings are occurring, and their public comment will hold less sway than those of voting committee members if they don’t live in the area. But small groups of the most impacted homeowners care deeply about new development and will take steps to prevent it. The result is a devastating mismatch between the optimal outcome and reality.

This suggests that higher local levels of control over development and zoning decisions will tend to worsen exclusion. The more locally that decision-making occurs, the smaller the proportion of the diffuse benefits that residents receive, making them more opposed. This may be surprising: Prima facie, letting local residents control development in their own neighborhoods can seem democratic and just. But such an assumption falls into what urban studies scholar Mark Purcell calls the “local trap,” misguidedly equating greater local control with a more democratic or just system. As Purcell argues, local control is not inherently better than other scales of political control; this is dependent on other social, political and economic factors. 

Purcell’s argument requires us to differentiate between different contexts of local control. Small groups of adversely affected homeowners blocking nearby development are not the same as groups of low-income renters blocking expensive development that they fear will increase their rents. As Einstein, Glick and Palmer argue in Neighborhood Defenders, low-income communities and communities of color have long been removed from democratic decisions about housing and land use, and it is unjust to attempt to strip them of local control.

However, development decisions like those in Mac-Groveland are dominated by a wealthy group of homeowners with the time to participate in public meetings. In the MGCC 2021 internal demographic survey, 89.5 percent of respondents were white and 91.9 percent were homeowners. Meetings for specific developments can be even more skewed toward narrowly affected homeowners, while the potential beneficiaries of developments are unable to participate in decisions in neighborhoods where they do not yet live. In many instances, local control has failed to justify its democratic superiority.

Offering a Way Out

One way to “reduce local control” is to make more projects approved by right — that is, to allow more housing to be built without requiring approval from neighbors. If projects can be built by right, then the incentive structures that lead to systematic blocking of housing development will not matter, for they can simply be surpassed. Developers used to come to the Macalester-Groveland Community Council requesting variances to build fewer parking spots than were mandated under the city’s minimum parking requirements. Now that the city has abolished those requirements, developers who want to construct less parking can do so without requesting approval. Similarly, if most parts of Mac-Grove didn’t have 5,000-square-foot minimum lot sizes, the property owners from this case study wouldn’t have needed to request a variance, and affected homeowners wouldn’t have been able to block the development. Pairing the removal of these regulations with complementary non-market policies could greatly improve our housing situation.

Law Professors Roderick Hills Jr. and David Schleicher have proposed a “zoning budget” to address housing’s collective-action problems. While local control under-provides housing, mayoral or citywide control over development sacrifices some of the place-specific knowledge that local control can offer, and may lead to housing in unnecessarily harmful places. To harness local residents’ knowledge advantage for positive ends, states and cities could implement “fair share” laws, where smaller localities have control over development but must meet numerical targets of housing construction. These targets would be decided at a city or statewide scale. In such a plan, the dispersed beneficiaries of new housing could coordinate more easily, collectively deciding on housing targets that adequately consider the benefits of housing. For incumbent residents, the most harmful developments can be avoided without stifling too much development.

Massachusetts’ Chapter 40B operates in this vein, allowing affordable housing developers to preempt local land use regulations or decisions if jurisdictions are failing to meet a target of affordable housing development. 

Although the federal government can’t implement strict “fair share” laws or change zoning codes, the feds could wield fiscal carrots and sticks to better align residents’ incentives. If housing opposition can be explained, in part, by the mismatch between development’s concentrated costs and diffuse benefits, then compensating local residents for this mismatch could bring us closer to a socially optimal outcome. For example, U.S. Senator Cory Booker has proposed using the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program as a tool to encourage localities to increase their housing supply. The CDBG offers grants for localities to spend on local projects, and the federal government could withhold these funds from areas that do not meet targets in constructing new housing units. The Fair Housing Act could also be wielded to incentivize development: As the journalist Jerusalem Demsas has suggested, the Department of Housing and Urban Development could sue localities that don’t build subsidized and public housing, under a doctrine from the Fair Housing Act.

The current distribution of control over housing construction is not working. Local residents who bear concentrated costs in developing housing will hope to block housing construction, and it is hard to coordinate and build political power around the dispersed beneficiaries. Combine this dynamic with local control over land use decisions, and the result is too little housing. As long as these residents have such power, all of us will feel the effect.

Photo at top of story courtesy of Edina Realty

About Zak Yudhishthu

Zak is a student at Macalester College studying economics and music. He's interested in all kinds of urban politics and policy, and is the student representative for the Macalester-Groveland Neighborhood Council.

30 thoughts on “How Housing Development Creates a Collective-Action Problem, in St. Paul and Beyond

  1. Bill Mantis

    Regardless of the exact economic and/or sociological dynamics behind it, no major metropolitan area in the world seems to have figured out how to supply a sufficient amount of affordable housing to meet the demand. “Market failure”, in other words, appears to be the rule rather than the exception. Or am I mistaken? Can anyone think of an exception?

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      In the world? That’s ridiculous. Most cities in Japan, and many in Europe, manage to build enough to provide affordable housing while subsidizing it for those who cannot afford market rates. Here’s a good explainer of how this works in Tokyo, which is the largest city in the world while having strong renter protections and remaining affordable:

    2. zyudhishthu

      Certainly, most major metros in the world are expensive — the things that make cities nice to live in will always get capitalized into land values (unless we tax that away). But that doesn’t mean they have problems like the Twin Cities and certainly not like the US coastal metros. Take homelessness rates — the topline number is a pretty good indicator of how many people get systematically pushed out of the housing market. This post shows that there are sizable cities in the US with much healthier, if imperfect, housing markets: . Between countries, there are also countries with huge metros but almost no homelessness: . As Bill said, Japan is exceptionally good — their homelessness rate is functionally zero. So I don’t think a shortage of affordable housing is a given — we have the tools to address it.

    1. zyudhishthu

      Because vacancy rates are a percentage, and even if the Twin Cities have thousands of vacant units, they still makes for a very small percentage of the overall housing stock.

      1. Sheldon Gitis

        In a metro area with maybe a half-million renters, how many 10s of thousands of vacant apartments do you need before the vacancy rate is considered high rather than low?

        The “low” vacancy rates appear to be concocted to maintain exorbitant rents and to justify public subsidies for enormously-expensive, ugly, big box apartment buildings sitting on top of parking garages next to freeways. There’s no shortage of such buildings, and no shortage of vacant apartments in such buildings.

  2. Brad Engelmann

    Plenty of things to discuss here. As you pointed out, if you don’t need a variance and meet zoning requirements, you can pretty much do whatever you want. St Paul did rezone a significant chunk of the city, notably along the Green Line to free up use and make it easier to build. Some zoning is common sense–you generally don’t want a single family home next to an industrial building. Your case study is a good one in the sense of neighborhood character, those two words which are often scoffed at by some. When I say character, there is a look and feel to existing neighborhoods and if you start splitting lots into 4,000, 3,000 square feet or whatever you think is right, the look and feel changes. These established neighborhoods have character to them and that usually means single family homes on similarly sized lots. The neighborhood has value in part because of its existing look and feel and the investments people have made there. So when you or others say we should cram units just about anywhere, that significantly changes the neighborhood. The city did a nice job identifying nodes where it makes sense to add density–why not build that up? Your case study would add one unit. You could add hundreds or thousands of units in these nodes where the zoning is already set up for that. Not everyone wants to live in the dense environments and understandably those neighborhoods protect the look and feel they have. Also while the district councils have input, if the projects generally meet the spirit of the city’s comprehensive plan, the city will approve variance requests–not always but generally so. Perhaps Bill Lindeke can comment on that since he’s on or was on the planning commission. The district councils don’t have much power and their decisions are routinely overruled or ignored. The power for decisions on development is with city officials, as in career staff and then input from the planning commission and sometimes councilmembers if for some reason they want to get involved, usually political. This seems like a good process since in practice it does remove NIMBYism and leaves decisions to people who have had city planning training and work on these projects everyday. Each variance request goes through staff review and they make recommendations and those recommendations are almost always followed.

    1. zyudhishthu

      Thanks for the comment Brad.

      Lots I agree with here. In the second half of this, you discuss how the DCs are ultimately somewhat limited in their power, as the city officials will often go against them. I agree that this tends to be a good thing, because they can mitigate the degree to which institutions are captured by a narrowly impacted group of residents. With the case study, I mainly meant to demonstrate how the concentrated costs, diffuse benefits dynamic plays out for local institutions — even though in St. Paul’s case, they have less power than other cities’ neighborhood groups.

      With regards to the first half of your comment, it’s certainly a good thing that we’ve zoned for more density on the nodes. I live in a dorm near both Snelling and Grand, and I’m happy to see density being built here, especially in a rather exclusive neighborhood such as Mac-Grove. Additionally, I understand that residents really value the feel of their neighborhood, and that the feel of their neighborhood is something that will change with more density. “Neighborhood character” is an oft-maligned term that can be used to couch racial and class prejudices, but one of (what I’d hoped would be) by most essential points of this article is that there’s a real, honest concern about change underlying that concern. When you wrote that if we “cram units just about anywhere, that significantly changes the neighborhood,” well — that’s really similar to what I argued in my article!

      Where I believe we differ, however, is on the policy implications of that truth. I believe that you’re suggesting we could preserve our single-family neighborhoods and mostly build along the nodes. But what if that’s not enough? What if more students want to live near Macalester, St. Thomas, Hamline, and the other colleges in my area? What if the Twin Cities continue to see the successful growth in jobs that we’ve seen in the last decade? I think my most important argument is that we can’t just accept the attitude of “I’m going to bear the costs of this development, therefore it can never happen near me.” That is an attitude that will lead us to stagnation and really hurt future generations. We should instead carefully think about those costs — and we both agree that there are non-negligible costs — and weigh them against the benefits of development to a city or metro area. With this lens, I think it’s inevitable that we will sometimes build more housing in single-family neighborhoods, and we will be better off for it.

      1. Janne

        Whether it’s possible to build enough homes on corridors and in nodes is one part of the question. There’s also a question of justice, and who gets to live in what kind of neighborhood. Some people want to live steps from a bus stop. Other people prefer quieter side streets.

        Traffic noise and traffic pollution, and the fear of traffic violence impose health costs on the residents living on busy streets. If we add new homes only in those locations, we are accepting that existing residents and wealthier folks are the only people who can have access to a home on those quieter side streets.

        Looking closely at neighborhoods that appear to be single family neighborhoods, especially in Minneapolis and St. Paul, reveals many duplexes and triplexes, attic apartments, and sometimes 8-unit or 12-unit buildings. They are part of the current neighborhood. Adding a few more of them won’t change anything about the experience of living there. They add meaningful numbers of homes for more families, and for adapting to today’s smaller family sizes, or someone’s desire to care for aging relatives nearby.

        Every part of our region has a role to play in making space for our growing population.

        1. zyudhishthu

          Totally with you, Janne. I’m reminded of this Slate article making a similar point: . It’s not just to only put our affordable housing on busy streets. Last summer, some of my student friends lived in a duplex in Union Park, which allowed them to get a great location on a side street, but for a better price. It was a perfect option for them. Lots of people need those kinds of options, and more.

        2. Brad Engelmann

          We are all entitled to our opinions. I would love a vacation home in Palm Springs. I can’t afford it. No one is entitled to live anywhere. It is private property and subject to building codes and zoning. Otherwise, anyone is free to purchase property for sale. This is America and the system we have. We have elections every two and four years that would change things as you have suggested.

          1. zyudhishthu

            It’s true that we can’t always get what we want! But again, I’d encourage you to think more about the normative implications of different instances in which people don’t get what they want. If you and I can’t buy a second home in Palm Springs, well, that’s probably okay. But sometimes, what people want is to not be homeless. A home is something I think people should be entitled to — but our housing crisis keeps people out of that. Sometimes, what people want is an affordable apartment that won’t shorten their life because it’s located on Snelling Avenue, and there’s extensive noise and air pollution. Again, I think that’s something people should be entitled to. So to me, it’s not a sufficient argument to say that “no one is entitled to live anywhere,” because these kinds of distinctions matter.

            And indeed, people are currently working to change the zoning code in St. Paul this year and allow for more housing. I think we will succeed.

            1. Brad Engelmann

              Yep, sorry to be blunt to you and the other person here but it’s a philosophical difference of opinion. I believe in a free market system to allocate resources and for individuals to make choices to improve themselves. There are things we can do to support subsidized housing and to an extent and under certain circumstances I support public resources for that. But it has a limit. I would love to swap my house for one on lake Minnetonka. Just like apparently you want to move from Snelling to Tangletown. You quoted the Rolling Stones. I agree with that.

              1. zyudhishthu

                I hope you see that what I’m advocating for is in some ways a market-friendly policy (although I believe it should be very healthily supplemented by subsidy and stability policies from the gov’t). What’s not at all free-market friendly, however, is to say private developers will never be allowed to build density in our single-family neighborhoods.

                  1. Zak Yudhishthu Post author

                    Good cities have good rent control policies because renter stability is important. And like all policies — including policies to increase density, as I’ve described in the above article — rent control has tradeoffs. It’s early in the process and so I can’t give a real assessment, but if development really is coming to a halt in St. Paul, that’s not good, and it’s going to make things difficult for newcomers as St. Paul continues to grow. In that case, we should amend the policy to find the right balance between renter stability and enabling new construction.

                    But I make no pledge to the free market. We should take advantage of markets’ ability to produce things and direct capital towards demand. That includes building more density in areas with housing shortages. But when markets are insufficient, which I think applies to renter stability, government has a role to play.

    2. David F.

      I found this particular case study to be frustrating. The split lots would be the same size as the seven lots adjacent to it to the south. That’s not going to change the character of the neighborhood. 41’ lots are not uncommon in St. Paul. One of my childhood homes in MacGrove had a 40’ lot. It’s just a weird quirk that these lots are less deep (100’) than the rest of the city (125’) because Mount Curve is not part of the standard “grid”. You can’t tell how shallow a back yard is from the street. The new resident would be just as affluent as the other residents on that side of the street. All the neighbors’ property values would be fine.

      It’s only one lot, so it’s not by itself a huge deal, but it’s a bit annoying.

    3. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      Personally, I think the “nodes” are arbitrary and not that important, and would rather see consistent upzoning throughout St. Paul, anywhere within a half mile of transit, which is almost everywhere.

      1. Brad Engelmann

        So you want to put triplexes and fourplexes throughout say, Highland, Mac-Grove, Summit Hill, and St Anthony Park?

        1. steveinmn

          Why not? There are triplexes and even 8-10 unit apartment buildings throughout Crocus Hill, Cathedral Hill, Midway, and, to a lesser degree, neighborhoods like West 7th, Union Park, and Dayton’s Bluff. They’ve co-existed with the other homes in those neighborhoods to the point where no one thinks twice about it and I don’t see a concentrated effort to drum them into non-conformance. Stuffing a fourplex on a 50×150 lot will change the “character” of a neighborhood but placing one on a 100×150 lot and zoning to allow some space between them would allow increased density without looking like a neighborhood of McMansions.

          I’ve seen pictures of St. Paul from the late 19th Century. If people could live 200 years there undoubtedly would be property owners today complaining that the single-family house being built on the end of their acreage is too damn close and is changing the “character” of the neighborhood. When someone buys property, they are not guaranteed any condition except the one that exists at the time of the purchase. While I think there should be general zoning restrictions (proportion of building to lot size, zoning to separate heavy industrial from residential, etc.), and while I think residential construction is subject to a stifling aray of regulation from non-political stakeholders (fire marshall, etc.), St. Paul has not existed in amber from its earliest days. It has grown without being as tightly managed, and often into the very neighborhoods that current residents want to preserve without (more) change. If that “I’ve got mine and I don’t want it to change” policy does not change, St. Paul as people know it will die. That’s not good for property values either.

          1. Brad Engelmann

            It’s whatever the community wants, in this case St Paul. It’s interesting to me because if I lived in Falcon Heights, Roseville, Maplewood, Mendota, or anywhere other than Minneapolis, this wouldn’t come up. Like nobody would even think to mention or suggest that we build a fourplex next to a rambler on a traditionally single family lot. But I know that’s what some in St Paul want. I’m not sure a majority of people want it, but I guess we’ll find out when you try to ram that through. ADUs were not supported by a majority of St Anthony Park residents but activists here pushed it through the district council; the city would have done what they wanted anyhow but it’s an example of zoning change. Sure there are pockets of St Paul neighborhoods and some neighborhoods have many of the units you’re describing, but I think you also know that the largest part(s) of these neighborhoods don’t have many apartment buildings sprinkled in (I think fourplexes are apartment buildings). But again, if that’s what you want and you think it’s not going to significantly change things, okay. I respectfully disagree. Allowing fourplexes throughout the neighborhoods I referenced is going to significantly change the look and feel of them. It may take 40 years but if every fourth or fifth lot is a fourplex in the heart of Mac Groveland, it will be significantly different and I think the people choosing to live there will have made different choices about living there compared to people buying homes there today. I have to continually recalibrate my expectations and understand that this is the new St Paul and ideas here are just incredibly (to me) radical compared to other communities in Minnesota or America. St Paul today compared to 2013 when I moved here…it’s amazing the difference. You can see it in the positions of Mayor Carter compared to Chris Coleman and you can see it as much or more so from the representation on the city council or the school board. I also recognize the ideas expressed on are also skewed leftward.

            I don’t understand what you mean when you say St Paul will die if things don’t change. The neighborhoods I referenced, many of them were recently cited as the best neighborhoods in Minnesota to live in.

            There are parts of these neighborhoods where density makes sense, including mine. I have continually asked the city to build in these areas. I live close to one of the nodes. I would love to see more retail at my nearby node and we need density to draw those businesses.

            1. Zak Yudhishthu Post author

              If it’s true that the majority of St. Anthony Park residents opposed ADUs (I have no idea about that), it’s also certainly true that the resulting change in the feel of the neighborhood has been negligible. If 25% of homes become fourplexes in Mac-Grove over 40 years that’s great; I’d call that a pretty slow rate of change, during which most homes would naturally turn over to new owners and renters anyways. I agree that the idea of allowing gentle density (like fourplexes) everywhere is uncommon in most American communities, but I don’t think it’s radical. It’s a change we’ve seen happen in Minneapolis, Portland OR, and now California has allowed duplexes everywhere in the state. The energy to support such changes is out there.

            2. steveinmn

              What the community wants — well, the part of the community that has the money and time to express themselves successfully — is to keep things the same; to have Highland Park and Mac-Groveland and Saint Anthony Park remain the suburban-esque enclaves they are now.

              But St. Paul is not Falcon Heights, Roseville, Maplewood, or Mendota. Even at its current level of density, St. Paul has more sidewalks, streets, and trees to maintain than Maplewood and Mendota. St. Paul’s infrastructure needs alone supersede any of these cities. And St. Paul is blessed with/saddled with a high concentration of non-profits; entities that bring people and money and diversity and notice to the city but that do not pay property taxes to maintain the sidewalks, streets, and trees that line their properties. The big developments in Falcon Heights and Roseville are commercial and pay higher property tax rates than homeowners, not no tax.

              St. Paul also is pretty much fully developed. There are no green fields for development and only a few larger brown fields left. The only ways to increase population density are to shrink footprints or build higher. And we should want to increase St. Paul’s population. More people support more commercial entities, more schools, more churches, more arts organizations, and bring diversity of thoughts and experiences — the things that make a city an attractive interesting place to live. They also provide more city revenue. Given St. Paul’s demonstrated inability to maintain streets and rec centers and police coverage with its current property tax system, we all should have a much greater interest in having people move to St. Paul and increasing population density. St. Paul should not be a monoculture of only those who can afford to stay.

              “if that’s what you want and you think it’s not going to significantly change things, okay. I respectfully disagree. Allowing fourplexes throughout the neighborhoods I referenced is going to significantly change the look and feel of them. It may take 40 years but if every fourth or fifth lot is a fourplex in the heart of Mac Groveland, it will be significantly different and I think the people choosing to live there will have made different choices about living there compared to people buying homes there today.”

              Oh, I think it will change things. A lot of St. Paul looks like it did 50 years ago. But the city looked quite different 100 and 200 years ago. It has grown because people want to live here.

              While certainly there is some upper limit on how many people can live in a particular area before life gets unattractive (think Atlanta levels of traffic or San Francisco levels of housing/rent prices) I think St. Paul is nowhere near that limit if individuals accept that cities worth living in grow and change. (Personally, I think that’s the hard part of this. No one wants their ox to be the one that’s gored.)

              Zoning plays a part in this. New development should have some relationship with the existing landscape. Zoning a fourplex every four or five lots in some neighborhood is too much too fast — now. But it should be doable to rezone to allow one per block now and to increase that in the not-too-distant future. Or to zone for a small apartment building*; one per block — now — and maybe more later as population and demand increase.

              Zoning and building codes can enforce a building type and scale consistent with (n.b., not “the same as”) structures already in a neighborhood. I believe one reason people have little issue with the apartment buildings sprinkled among the very expensive homes on Crocus Hill is that the apartment buildings have a resemblance to the single-family homes and duplexes nearby and — Grand Avenue aside — they’re not cheek to jowl on any street in the neighborhood. Code can enforce that.

              And it may take 40 years while codes gradually allow increased density. But right now NIMBYism is keeping it from happening at all. Highland Park used to be mostly farmland. It’s not any more. Hasn’t been for a long time. People still want to live there. More than ever. For better or worse,the ones living there in a fourplex or 10-unit apartment, 50 or 100 years from now, probably will not spend much time musing how the land their home is on today formerly grew corn and held up a 900-square-foot bungalow for a century.

              There are many reasons Zak did not discuss why new apartment buildings typically look like they do, based on building codes, accessibility regulations, esthetic concerns, financial requirements, labor costs, and so on.

              1. Brad Engelmann

                Whose block is the fourplex going on?

                Edina is putting in sidewalks. They are not considering fourplexes.

                There are ways to get non-profits to pay taxes. The city has looked at this. So far they haven’t done anything about it. I’m not religious so it bothers me that churches don’t pay taxes but that’s a decision far above St Paul. They could at least do what Boston does. Regarding maintaining infrastructure including streets and parks, I couldn’t agree more. St Paul has chosen to spend significant amounts of property taxes on social programs. And cut police through attrition. It’s about priorities.

                I don’t think the neighborhoods I referenced by and large want to change and like you said, they have the suburban feel to them. It is technically St Paul’s right to rezone those neighborhoods but they won’t be the same neighborhoods years later. Like I said, it depends on what everybody here wants. Mostly that means the Mayor since the staff reports to him and to a lesser degree, council members this being a strong mayor system. I’m not sure where Mayor Carter is at with the upzoning. I suspect after the rent ordinance debacle, further changes affecting development will be more carefully considered.

                You have made some good points I agree with.

                1. steveinmn

                  Brad, I appreciate the thought and civility you have brought to this conversation; thank you.

                  The fourplex can go on my block (West 7th). We already have a mix of single-family and multi-family housing, some of it within sight of my SFH, and people like this neighborhood enough to want to stay here throughout phases of their lives in which something other than a SFH is appropriate and affordable.

                  I agree that the neighborhoods you mentioned don’t want to change. But Mac-Groveland and Highland Park are not separate cities, like Edina or Roseville, that can establish their own policies. They are neighborhoods in St. Paul, just as Conway and Frogtown and Desnoyer Park and North End and West Side are. While neighborhoods can comment on development within their boundaries, they don’t get to choose which city ordinances they dismiss because accepting them will “change the character of the neighborhood.”

                  Is it fair for the residents in SFHs in Mac-Groveland and Highland Park to strangle future development when they themselves — or at least the people who originally built their houses — were the benefactors of development of those same lots from farmland or warehouse space or unimproved land, more than 100 years ago? What of the residents of those times who were unhappy with the change in the character of their neighborhood?

                  Is it beneficial to these neighborhoods (and St. Paul in general) to lose their diversity and vitality and future because housing is restricted to one format that does not scale to accommodate people who want to live near where they work or worship or their kids go to school or who may have lived in the neighborhood for decades but can no longer maintain a multi-story SFH and lot?

                  The sad news for residents of Mac-Groveland and similar areas is that their neighborhoods are going to change anyway. The project at Highland Bridge and future projects at Hillcrest and the Sears site on Marion undoubtedly will change those neighborhoods in terms of opportunity and growth and maybe even traffic. The ability to sell an expensive SFH in a community that is no longer vibrant and changing may be severely curtailed. I wasn’t living in St. Paul at the time, but I know Crocus Hill went from darling to derelict to darling again over many years. Do residents of St. Paul’s more exclusive neighborhoods want to endure the bust cycle?

                  It is in the entire city’s best interests to offer a variety of housing formats to its residents and those who want to be residents. Considered zoning and building codes can avoid some of the radical changes that certain neighborhoods fear. But change has to come or St. Paul will no longer be the desirable city with a suburban feel that some covet so much. And every neighborhood will have to take part.

                  1. Zak Yudhishthu

                    Steve, you wrote that while some residents don’t want to see localized change, “it is in the entire city’s best interests to offer a variety of housing formats to its residents and those who want to be residents.”

                    In other words, I think we’ve made our way right back to the main idea of my article up above!

  3. Monte Castleman

    Anti-Growth policies like minimum lot sized zoning and the MUSA line are a big factor in limiting growth and making a lot of the existing growth unaffordable, since to get financing a home must be several times the value of the raw land.

    Another thing you have going on is that you have fewer people filling existing houses with the number of child-free couples increasing and the need for a home office taking out one of the bedrooms, and making siblings share a bedroom decreasing. Myself and my sister never had children but we share a three bedroom house. The thought never once occurred to us of any kind of multi-family housing. Having kids isn’t a preresiquate for liking your own private yard and not having to put up with sharing a common wall or ceiling.

    What happened in 1972 that we actually got ahead?

    1. Zak Yudhishthu Post author

      Lots of people like single family homes. There’s no question that having a private yard and no common walls is nice, and I’m not in the business of changing people’s preferences. But single-family zoning does more than allow people to have their preferences; it’ mandates that entire neighborhoods live under those preferences. I believe that we should allow people to make their own decisions and trade off against different margins when they’re picking places to live. Many people would surely continue to pay for for detached homes. But others would opt for greater affordability and learn to live with a shared backyard, or no backyard at all, or shared walls, and we shouldn’t prevent them from doing that by making 78% of St. Paul single-family.

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