In St. Paul, Zoning Discourse Has Developed for the Better

St. Paul is currently close to legalizing “missing middle” housing like townhomes and triplexes across the entire city. As I’ve previously reported for, public support for the project seems fairly strong, and city planners seem to have bought in on this policy change. I’m also optimistic that the city Planning Commission and City Council will support it. 

Beyond the seemingly good political prospects for this policy change, I’ve noticed another reason for optimism: The local discourse around zoning and housing development in St. Paul seems to be improving. There’s less fear-mongering around neighborhood character and bulldozers, leaving more room for important questions around effective policy implementation, the likely effects of policy changes and equity.

Let’s hope this bodes well for the future of regulatory reform in the Twin Cities, both for this current project and future ones.

The Anti-Change Caucus Has Faded

St. Paul’s 1-4 Unit Housing Study generally fits in the same vein as the missing middle reforms in Minneapolis 2040, the comprehensive plan that was passed in 2019. Details differ, but it is broadly a policy to increase the amount of housing that can be built on areas currently zoned only for single-family houses.

If you read blog posts, media reports or public comment files from the 2040 plan, you’ll see that “neighborhood character,” protection of existing homes and a general resistance to local change shaped the contours of the debate. This is perhaps best encapsulated in the red anti-2040 lawn signs that read, “Don’t bulldoze our neighborhoods.” Because highly engaged constituents frequently advanced this type of complaint, it consumed a lot of air time in discussion of the 2040 plan.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see this ossifying, anti-change perspective barely present in the coverage of and public engagement on St. Paul’s 1-4 Unit Housing Study. It still pops up on occasion — a former City Council member attended a public hearing to call proposed changes a “radical and ill-conceived housing ban” (even though the changes would entail no ban of any housing), and the written public comments on the plan contain a small collection of anti-density hardliners (amounting to three out of 61 written comments in opposition). But unlike in Minneapolis 2040 discussions, there is no organized anti-change coalition, and opponents’ comments represent a small fringe of the policy discussion.

I don’t want to overstate the scale of this shift. In the recent debates over constructing separated bike lanes on Summit Avenue, anti-change advocates were well-organized, significantly shaping the contours of debate (although the City Council approved the Summit Avenue Regional Trail plan 6 to 1, a strong statement against ossifying our city). In other Twin Cities jurisdictions, you might still see residents openly organizing against affordable housing. Just last month, the Shakopee mayor expressed fear that an affordable housing project would bring “decreased valuation of [neighbors’] properties because of the use and a quality-of-life impact.”

But at least for this current policy proposal, the debate has advanced past fear mongering around bulldozers destroying single-family neighborhoods. This reflects a greater national shift in recent years, with more recognition of housing affordability problems and more momentum on land use reform as a tool to fix those problems.

Even better, the disappearance of overt NIMBYism from St. Paul’s zoning reform discussion is leaving more space to think about better, more informative and more useful questions.

We Have a Better Idea of the Moderate Likely Impacts

Perhaps the biggest change from Minneapolis 2040 is that a lot of people have more low-key expectations because of the likely impacts from allowing a few units on single-family lots. When the 2040 plan passed, some people were well aware of the limited likely impacts (Wedge Live’s John Edwards, for example), but overall, media coverage and other analyses struck a very excited tone.

Since then, we’ve learned from the negligible construction of neighborhood-scale multifamily housing after the Minneapolis 2040 plan. Many commentators, from this website to prestigious national publications, have noted that no noticeable shift occurred in the construction of duplexes and triplexes after the initial hype around “the end of single-family zoning.”

As the following graphic from the Minneapolis Federal Reserve shows, the story is even less optimistic than the headline suggests: Almost none of the new duplexes, triplexes or fourplexes in Minneapolis are in areas where they weren’t previously allowed.

One important reason why is that, unlike pricey coastal cities, the Twin Cities doesn’t have a ton of latent housing demand waiting to be unleashed, so light regulatory reforms don’t suddenly free massive housing production. And even in hotter markets, missing middle housing might not always be the most market-viable form of development — even California isn’t seeing a lot of duplexes after its statewide duplex reform — making the legalization less impactful than eliminating parking minimums or allowing larger housing developments.

Many conversations around St. Paul’s potential legalization of neighborhood-scale density have wised up to the fairly moderate nature of these changes; as a great example, see Kyle Stoke’s recent coverage of the proposed changes in MinnPost.

Hammering Out the Regulatory Details

The Minneapolis 2040 plan didn’t fully address all of the roadblocks to triplex development. What we call “zoning” ultimately encapsulates a dense, complex thicket of rules, and it seems that Minneapolis’ zoning code rewrite had a few flaws that limited the eventual development of small multifamily housing

One particular critique is that Minneapolis 2040 didn’t set floor-area ratios (FAR) high enough to actually allow for development of multi-unit housing like triplexes. Zoning researcher Emily Hamilton gave this critique to the Pioneer Press in May. Indeed, this exact restriction caused a problem for an affordable triplex earlier this year, forcing them to scale down their plans and reduce amenities in their new units.

That’s not to say that Minneapolis housing advocates weren’t paying attention to fine-grained policy detail. See, for example, this thoughtful letter coauthored by Neighbors for More Neighbors (Minneapolis’ zoning reform leaders) and local affordable housing-focused groups giving feedback on the 2040 plan with careful attention to FAR limits and minimum lot sizes.

Single-family and multi-unit housing can co-exist. file photo, May 22, 2018

These concerns, which are more technical and challenging to discern than old-fashioned NIMBYism, seem to have soaked more deeply into the discussions of St. Paul’s zoning reforms. 

One optimistic development is St. Paul’s work with consultants to develop model pro formas for developments, which delve into details of the housing types that the city wants to allow. Hopefully, this has helped city planners set up the regulatory environment that will best support new neighborhood-scale housing. 

I also was happy to see many written commenters echoing recommendations from the advocacy organization Sustain Saint Paul (where I am a board member) focused on a different element of nuts-and-bolts policies. Commenters turned their attention to the distinctions among different proposed zoning districts — some of which would allow denser development than others — and have pushed to further consolidate the zoning code to be more loose and favorable to missing middle housing, and in more areas of the city. 

Addressing Equity

How can these policy changes benefit lower-income people and people of color? While zoning reform can improve market-wide housing affordability, zoning changes alone are unlikely to affect existing disparities, and the zoning discussion increasingly reflects that.

The Family Housing Fund (FHF), a housing nonprofit based in Minneapolis, has released some helpful research in the past couple of years focused on two- to four-unit housing as an opportunity for low-income homeownership. Their reports have highlighted the needs to both increase supply and use complementary financial programs to help low-income residents and residents of color benefit from multi-unit housing. This research has paired with a program forged by FHF and other community development groups to provide training and financial support for first-time homebuyers of duplexes and other small multifamily housing. 

“The [Minneapolis 2040] plan tackles the sacred cow of requiring developers to provide off-street parking for new houses, often a poison pill for low-cost housing.”

Brookings commentary, December 12, 2018

St. Paul planning staff have made good efforts on equity, too, with planners including specific questions focused on equity and displacement in their public engagement. In webinars I’ve watched, city planning staff have highlighted other city programs they see as complementing the 1-4 Unit Housing Study, such as an extension of their downpayment assistance program to benefit descendants of the Rondo neighborhood — a reparative policy for the primarily Black community that the I-94 freeway tore through. 

And among public commenters, I’ve noticed people and organizations making similar critiques and calls for complementary policy action, such as the Metropolitan Consortium of Community Developers

As with the previous topics, Minneapolis advocates were certainly attempting to address these types of questions when the Minneapolis 2040 plan was passed. For example, you can find former Minneapolis City Council president and 2040 plan champion Lisa Bender giving a measured assessment of the plan’s potential to transform citywide housing inequalities almost immediately after the plan was approved. As another example, this 2019 Politico feature story on Minneapolis 2040 features thoughtful critiques from researchers and advocates who supported the plan but argued it wouldn’t do much for racial inequalities and other big housing-market problems.

The difference now, however, is whether those concerns can stay at the forefront of citywide policy discourse relative to other facets of the debate. Again, the disappearance of any strong anti-change caucus has opened more airspace for equity-related concerns. 

Politics Never Ends

I hope that the St. Paul City Council will support legalizing four to six units anywhere in the city, and that land use reform continues to have positive momentum — but we can’t be certain that NIMBYism’s most influential days are over.

“My duplex has enough space to be a triplex. It’s got a third floor that is large enough for someone to live in. Right now, it can’t be that. We could be retrofitting available space that is currently restricted for an arbitrary reason.”

Karen Allen, board member, Sustain Saint Paul, quoted in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press

For decades, preservation of perceived “neighborhood character” and opposition to change have defined our urban development at great cost to everyone. Recent years have seen an accelerating recognition of these costs, and more governments are removing stringent apartment bans and other regulatory barriers to housing abundance.

At the same time, regulatory reform itself has become an object of careful examination, and the resulting policy conversation leaves room for more complexity. This enables us to focus on better implementation of more future-focused policies, opening a path to more fair, equitable and effective housing policies. 

In St. Paul, I don’t yet see fully satisfying answers as to whether secondary zoning constraints like floor-area ratios and lot sizes will be adequately rethought, or how effectively other policies will address the uneven development that zoning reform won’t adequately address. 

For now, though, I’ll gladly accept this shift toward improved discourse.

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.