St. Paul City Planners Are Ready for Missing Middle Housing

St. Paul’s Planning and Economic Development department (PED) is considering some changes to the city’s zoning code with a 1-4 Unit Housing Study. The targets are increasing what’s called “neighborhood-scale” or “missing middle” housing, the oft-neglected midway points between single-family homes and skyscrapers.

Here’s a quick update on the study so far: 

  • In late 2020, PED’s urban planners initiated a two-phase study on zoning policies that could help increase housing choices, availability and supply in St. Paul.
  • In late 2021, the PED put forth their conclusions from the study’s first phase, establishing easier rules for Accessory Dwelling Unit development and reducing some other marginal regulatory requirements on required lot sizes, floor-area ratios and the like. The City Council approved these changes.
  • PED staff began work on the study’s second phase, which aimed to take some more significant steps towards increasing “neighborhood-scale” housing types— duplexes, triplexes, 4-plexes and townhomes, for example. In other words, they were going to consider widespread legalization of missing-middle housing, replacing St. Paul’s pervasive use of single-family-only zoning.
  • In the spring of 2022, planning staff held public engagement opportunities on these potential changes, with many residents voicing support for legalizing neighborhood-scale density. 
  • In the time since, planners have been working through the more technical side of this analysis, thinking about how broad goals — make housing more abundant and affordable, accommodate different household needs, support transit networks — translate into specific code changes and housing production outcomes. 

Last December, St. Paul planning staff released their first report on their findings. Their analysis includes a discussion of broad policy goals, recent housing research and detailed looks at specific housing typologies and how a developer might go about building them. In January, they released a more technical slew of proposed changes to the zoning code. Unless you regularly dig through hidden-away reports on the city’s website, you might’ve missed these important documents. They make one thing clear: St. Paul planners are ready to legalize missing middle housing.

Where is the city coming from? 

Before diving into the details of proposed changes, we ought to look at the general policy goals and ideals that planners are aspiring to.

The stated goals of this project are quite good. They’re conveniently summed up by this slide from a presentation last year: planners are well aware of how strict zoning perpetuates housing shortages and drives up costs, and they see how single-family zoning fails to accommodate a broad array of housing needs. 

Additionally, the staff seems to be tuned into research related to these causes. In their first report, they featured a quotation from the book The Affordable City by Shane Phillips, a UCLA researcher and writer who has frequently argued for reducing zoning constraints. They also cited a paper by economist Evan Mast, which shows that new market-rate housing helps create new spots in lower-income rental housing through “migration chains.” And they referenced Richard Rothstein’s book The Color of Law to address how single-family zoning in part owes its birth to racial and economic exclusion.

Their report also references recent case studies. As expected, they note Minneapolis’s 2040 plan and its legalization of triplexes, but they also point to other successful zoning reform efforts: Oregon’s statewide missing-middle legalization for all towns with more than 10,000 people, Portland, Oregon’s ending of single-family zoning via the Residential Infill Project and California’s statewide legalizations of ADUs and duplexes.

City planners are well aware of the latest literature and policy discussions around zoning reform, and are using these sources to support commendable aims towards greater housing choice and availability in St. Paul.

Local analysis and research further support zoning changes 

PED’s new reports also contain a sizable cache of informative and useful analysis focused on St. Paul.

They note the consequences of insufficient housing. While the Twin Cities’ rental vacancies are at a healthy level right now (6.7% compared to a healthy benchmark of 5%), the for-sale supply is at low levels (1.6 months’ supply — a metric helpfully explained here — compared with a healthy benchmark of 5-6 months), and some parts of the market have seen very sharp rent increases. They also note the dearth of units in middle-sized buildings, especially relative to both single-unit houses and larger buildings.

Another important point is the “mismatch” between housing types and demographics. Nearly 65% of households in St. Paul are just one or two people — a growing share of whom are elderly — yet 50% of housing units are in single-family homes. Smaller and more flexible housing typologies can help provide better-fitting options for such households.

Importantly, staffers are also paying careful attention to the specifics of neighborhood-scale housing development. Consultants with experience in neighborhood-scale housing development helped create example developments, allowing them to think about the typical sizes and costs of this type of housing. Hopefully, this technical analysis ensures that headline zoning changes come alongside proper adjustments to things like setbacks and floor-area ratios. Keeping an eye on careful pro-forma analyses also ought to help set up rules so that new housing can pencil financially.

Proposed technical changes to the zoning code look promising

The second report released by St. Paul planners proposes a bunch of specific changes to the text of the zoning code. The report is technical and somewhat complex; I’ve done my best to report the headline results below.

  • For nearly the entire city, these proposed amendments would legalize up to three units on all lots, and in many areas up to four units on all lots — creating new zoning districts titled H1 (up to three units and four on corner lots) and H2 (up to four units). A neighborhood would be designated H1 or H2 based on which type of low-density zoning they currently have.
  • Areas within ⅛ mile of high-activity “Neighborhood Nodes” or light rail/rapid bus stops would allow up to six units on all lots in a zoning district titled H3. 
  • Various rules around setbacks, floor-area ratios, lot coverage and the like would also be loosened to accommodate denser development.
  • The city would implement a “density bonus” program that would allow these zoning districts to add one additional unit beyond the zoned limit for each unit that is restricted to rent at 80% of the area median income. (Portland, OR’s missing-middle zoning reforms did something similar).

There are a few areas where I’d ask if the city could go a bit further. I’m not convinced that we need the distinction between an H2 district and a slightly lower-density H1 district, especially because this proposal would carry over that difference based on our arbitrary, currently existing zoning districts. And the slightly higher-density H3 district is proposed to be within ⅛ mile of Neighborhood Nodes and transit stops, but this should also work at a ¼ mile distance; many would still reasonably walk to a transit stop at this distance.

But most important is the fact that these proposed policies would represent a significant step forward for St. Paul’s housing situation. City planning staff have continued to produce excellent research and have set admirable goals. I look forward to the project moving forward — there will be a Planning Commission hearing in mid-late March, and presumably a City Council discussion soon after that. 

Furthermore, community support for zoning reform seems strong (coinciding with huge national momentum for such changes). In St. Paul, the prospects for zoning reform are looking up.

Thanks to Luke Hanson for providing comments and suggestions. Photo at top courtesy of weston m on Unsplash

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.

9 thoughts on “St. Paul City Planners Are Ready for Missing Middle Housing

  1. Joe

    There are so many options between single-family detached housing and multi-story apartment building that aren’t really utilized in our area. I just wanted to give a shout-out to the “Twin Homes” concepts. We stayed with various different relatives in England last year, all of whom had semi-detached houses with a single common “party wall.” They aren’t too unlike side-by-side duplexes, except that these houses are typically owned, rather than rented, and include a second story (as shown in that diagram). Because the units are separately owned, there’s a highly developed regime of laws and regulations (and probably more importantly, norms and social expectations) surrounding party walls. Everything about the houses felt like our detached house, but with slightly less sunlight and an overall footprint about half the size.

  2. Pat ThompsonPat Thompson

    Does anyone know how the city would deal with alley-fronting homes (this probably applies to ADUs already) in terms of addresses for the fire department? Looking at the illustration, I can imagine some pushback from the fire department.

  3. Roger T Goerke

    The Twin Homes concept sounds absolutely ghastly. I cannot imagine a better way to breed animosity between neighbors, then a shared “party wall”.
    If one of these shared houses burns down it will inevitably destroy the 2nd house as well, causing a extreme fire hazard.

    1. Joe

      Party walls are required by code to be fire rated, sound transmission rated, and individually self-supporting on each side. The vast majority of fires do not spread across units, and the vast majority of neighbors live peacefully.

      I recommend that in the future, when presented with an unfamiliar topic, you do a quick common sense check (“Is London currently rife with fires? Do Londoners say they hate their neighbors?”) to determine if there may be something worth looking into before staking out an extreme position.

    2. zyudhishthu

      Perhaps you wouldn’t want to share a wall with a neighbor – totally fine for you to prefer that. But this rule change would simply allow people to trade off on different margins based on their own preferences. No reason to maintain zoning laws preventing that.

  4. Mike

    Its odd to see the comment vitrol against twin homes – South Minneapolis has many side by side duplex bungalows that have been viable for decades.

    However, It’s odd to read this entire article and not find any acknowledgement of the St. Paul rent control ordinance and its role in limiting the development of multifamily housing. You can loosen these zoning requirements but St. Paul still has a shackle on development which is the remaining albeit watered down rent control that will continue to make new builds in city risker and less attractive than across the river. Feels like the author is whistling past the graveyard on that point.

    1. Zak Yudhishthu Post author

      It seems pretty clear that the first, strict iteration of rent control had significant effects on development in the city. But the new policy isn’t just watered down; I would consider it to be a completely different policy. 20 year exemptions and a soft vacancy decontrol are really significant changes that put this policy much more in line with other cities’ RC policies.

      I am not yet ready to call the new policy a “shackle on development,” it’s clearly too early to say that.

  5. Melissa Wenzel

    Firstly, thank you Zak for this thoughtful, detailed article. What strikes me most is that we are woefully inadequate in housing stock, especially housing that offers choices and options based on footprint, cost, amenities, and access to many of our community members. It’s unthinkable to me that we wouldn’t consider these options! When I was looking for my first home (I owned and sold a condo), I was looking for a 2 bed, 1 bath detached home around 1,000 square feet. Couldn’t find any. We finally went to “rural Saint Paul” (south of Battle Creek) and got a home that was much bigger than we needed. But the stock was low, prices were high (not like 2022 or now but still high at that time) and competition was fierce. I love our home but still feel it’s too big for 2 adults and a cat. I know many of us are concerned about those who are underhoused or for those paying more for rent than they would for a mortgage (and can’t qualify for one). The missing middle can help SO many members of our community, which makes our entire city better, more prosperous, and more able to thrive!

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