The sunbathed, one-bedroom apartment that Eric and Chrissi Larsen rent out behind their St. Paul house is in a class by itself.
It’s the only “granny flat” in the city, more than a year after the St. Paul City Council approved building the micro-apartments along the Green Line on University Avenue.
For first-time homeowners like the Larsens, the chance to add a rental apartment atop a new two-car garage with their renovated home was a golden opportunity.
“It makes the house much more affordable,” Eric Larsen said. “And it’s a great way to keep the wealth of development within the city.”
St. Paul hoped more property owners like the Larsens would respond when it followed the lead of Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco and other cities in approving accessory dwelling units — ADUs for short. Minneapolis has approved 92 granny flats since allowing them citywide in 2014.
A number of metro-area suburbs, including Bloomington, Roseville and Shoreview, have allowed ADUs for years — although few reportedly have been built, at least partly because they’re so tightly regulated. In Bloomington, a property owner cannot build one on a lot smaller than 11,000 square feet.
Jamie Radel, a senior city planner, said the absence of granny flats has much to do with the city’s restrictions on where ADUs are allowed. Whereas the plan was originally to allow them along the full length of the light-rail line down University Avenue, concerns about parking and neighborhood character prompted city leaders to limit them to a smaller area. They are allowed a half-mile north and south of University Avenue, from Emerald Street at the Minneapolis border in the west to Lexington Parkway in the east.
As a result, what was intended to boost housing density along the Green Line hasn’t.
Now there’s a new push to expand the territory for granny flats. At a time when St. Paul continues adding population to an already squeezed housing inventory, residents of several St. Paul neighborhoods — from the East Side to the West Side and Mac-Groveland to Como Park — are expressing interest in using ADUs to bolster housing options throughout the city.
“I definitely think there is growing interest in this and it may be due to a number of factors,” said City Council Member Jane Prince, who pointed to not only a shortage of affordable housing, but a growing desire to keep extended family close. “We want to hear from people, whether they think it’s a good idea and if they want it in their neighborhood.”
In early February, the City Council initiated a zoning study to consider allowing ADUs in five additional areas of the city — the Mounds Park area of Dayton’s Bluff, as well as the Eastview-Conway-Battlecreek-Highwood planning district, the West Side, Frogtown and West Seventh. In addition, the city planning commission is seeking citywide input — and it’s coming back positive.
At its April 16 meeting, the Union Park District Council Committee on Land Use and Economic Development unanimously supported ordinance changes that would make ADUs allowable citywide and allowing them to be built on parcels smaller than 5,000 square feet, as long as it is within the existing structure.
Radel said the desire for more affordable housing might be helping overcome previous obstacles.
While the city has for years allowed historic carriage houses in the Summit Hill and Crocus Hill neighborhoods to be rented, the idea of adding to the housing stock by finishing an attic, building atop a garage or creating a small cottage in the backyard has been slower to catch on in St. Paul than elsewhere.
Accessory units proved particularly controversial in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood a few years ago, as some residents expressed fear that they could irrevocably alter the neighborhood’s character. Others worried about what will happen once the original owner decides to sell.
Prince acknowledged that there are concerns regarding expanding the use of ADUs — namely, the potential for absentee landlords to take over properties where they would be allowed. While St. Paul’s ordinance, like most around the country, requires that the homeowner of a property with an ADU live on the site, “the fear is that over time, we would allow landlords to buy these properties and rent both units,” Prince said.
On the East Side, where the words absentee landlord have often been equated with “bad landlord,” Prince said such fears are not without reason.
“I know in my neighborhood, Mounds Park, it seems that people are prepared to give this a go,” she said. “While we won’t know until we hold public hearings, I’m cautiously supportive.”
The Larsens’ ADU replaced an old single-car garage with a modern, airy apartment they will begin renting to a student friend within the next several days. The main rules were simple to follow: They had to stay on the property, the ADU couldn’t be taller than the main house and they had to provide an off-street parking space for the new unit.
“I would encourage St. Paul to go citywide with it,” Eric Larsen said. “Like Minneapolis has.”