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

Pronouns: He/him

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. Tweet him @zyudhishthu or email him at zyudhishthu@yahoo[dot]com.