Editor’s note: This article spins off a five-part series that Zak Yudhishthu has been writing for the Minneapolis-based publication Southwest Voices. The following article builds on his previous reporting, which informs this statistical work.
In 2019, Minneapolis made national waves for legalizing duplexes and triplexes in all residential neighborhoods — including neighborhoods that had long allowed only single-family homes — as part of its 2040 Comprehensive Plan. Since then, many commentators have noted the relatively low rates of construction for these buildings.
As an informative exercise, I’ve mapped the building permits for duplexes and triplexes built in Minneapolis since 2020, when duplexes and triplexes officially became legal citywide. Based on over two and a half years of data, 72 new duplexes and 37 triplexes have been built in Minneapolis, representing a total of 255 housing units.
I got these data from the Minneapolis Community Planning & Economic Development department. It initially came as a table of all housing permits in Minneapolis since 2017. I filtered down to developments categorized as “TFD” (two-family development) and “3 to 4,” further sorting by hand to remove any fourplex construction. My count of triplexes appears to be a bit lower than other counts in previous reports and articles on the topic, because many data sources group three- and four-unit buildings (and sometimes all two- to four-unit buildings) together and thus have overcounts.
What the Data Say
On first impression, the map reinforces an increasingly familiar takeaway: Duplexes and triplexes have not contributed a meaningful amount of housing for a city of over 400,000 people.
The map also shows that less than half of post-2040 plan duplexes and triplexes have been built in areas that previously allowed only single-family housing (R1 and R1A zones prior to the 2040 plan). See the count below:
|Building type||Project Count|
|Previously single-family only||Duplex||28|
|Previously single-family only||Triplex||17|
|Previously 2+ units allowed||Duplex||44|
|Previously 2+ units allowed||Triplex||20|
When you consider some of the specifics of Minneapolis’ housing regulations, this makes sense. As I recently reported for Southwest Voices, the previously single-family districts might allow for two or three units per lot, but other regulations often make these buildings impractical to build. For example:
- These interior neighborhood districts restrict residential building heights to 28 feet.
- They also limit floor-area ratios — how much square footage a building can have relative to the lot’s square footage — to 0.5 (meaning a ratio of 1:2).
- In practice, this means no three-story buildings, and on a typical 5,000-foot city lot, you’d have to squeeze a triplex into little 833-foot units.
That’s before you consider the recent lawsuit against the 2040 Plan, which has put the plan on hold and increased uncertainty for developers.
Other areas that had already allowed two or more units prior to the 2040 Plan continue to have looser rules around the size of housing. Thus, it’s no surprise that two- to three-unit development has been slightly more common in these districts. Also keep in mind that the 2040 Plan loosened zoning restrictions in other areas of the city, too — not just single-family areas.
Although these data point to an opportunity for Minneapolis to improve its zoning rules, don’t take the lackluster development of duplexes as evidence that the overall 2040 Plan was a failure. A key takeaway from two of my recent stories for Southwest Voices is that the 2040 Plan helped initiate a lot of other beneficial changes around city housing regulations. Those include:
- Removing parking minimums on new housing.
- Increasing zoned density in areas that were already zoned for multifamily housing.
- Reducing uncertainty in the housing approval process.
Meanwhile, in St. Paul . . .
Duplexes and triplexes represent a type of small-scale housing that is a step forward, to be sure, but they are not a comprehensive solution to our deep housing shortage. While many have recognized the more moderate effects of zoning changes to allow this smaller-scale density, it hasn’t fully permeated the discourse around zoning and housing affordability — we still have Bloomberg reporters saying Minneapolis’s housing costs are relatively low because the city ended single-family zoning.
St. Paul recently surpassed Minneapolis with regard to smaller-scale, neighborhood housing density, although not without dissension. On October 18, the St. Paul City Council voted 4-3 to legalize four or more units on most residential lots in the city. St. Paul also went further than Minneapolis with key regulatory details that restrict building size, including taller height limits and smaller minimum lot-size requirements. These changes will likely make it more viable to densify St. Paul’s single-family neighborhoods compared with those in Minneapolis.
Granted, duplexes and triplexes are addressing some of Minneapolis’ housing needs — but they could be contributing more if the city would address the policy barriers that currently stymie or prevent them.