Tiptoeing into the debate over a more densely populated city, the St. Paul City Council is exploring how to ease the city’s affordable-housing shortage by allowing more multiunit buildings in neighborhoods filled with single-family homes.
While Minneapolis is considering a 2040 comprehensive plan that, if approved, will allow construction of multifamily buildings in every neighborhood, St. Paul is asking city staff to conduct a zoning study and report back by the end of 2019.
St. Paul’s 2040 plan identifies areas where denser housing should be encouraged, but unlike Minneapolis’ draft plan, doesn’t mandate upzoning anywhere in the city.
The study request is part of a housing resolution the City Council unanimously approved Wednesday. While the resolution includes ideas for increasing the supply and availability of housing — from requiring city-funded housing developments to accept Section 8 vouchers to limiting rental application fees — there isn’t a clear sense of when the council might enact policies.
Council President Amy Brendmoen said the resolution pulls together ideas that emerged from briefings on the need for more affordable housing that council members have received in recent months.
“It’s pretty overwhelming, and so we felt it was important to sort of acknowledge the receipt of that information and track the things that we are doing and also be clear what we’d like to see moving forward, and particularly what we’d like to see in the mayor’s budget,” Brendmoen said. “Every single one of the council members has housing as a top priority.”
Not all council members agree that upzoning is a solution. Council Member Jane Prince, who represents part of St. Paul’s East Side, said she’s worried that allowing duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes in areas zoned for single-family homes would create more poorly managed rental housing in her ward.
Prince said she would rather the city set a goal to build a certain number of housing units and start chipping away at it. Plenty of sites on the East Side are ripe for development, she said, including the 110-acre former Hillcrest golf course.
“I feel that in terms of the housing crisis, we need a comprehensive development strategy that involves setting an aggressive goal of developing housing,” Prince said.
Council Member Samantha Henningson, who is serving on an interim basis until a special election Aug. 14, proposed that staff study upzoning in every neighborhood, but then scaled back to transit routes and “neighborhood nodes” — 56 spots that St. Paul’s draft 2040 comprehensive plan has identified for future high-density, mixed-use development.
Henningson said the council is considering “anything and everything at this point,” given the tight rental and housing markets.
Though she likely won’t be on the council when the zoning study is finished, Henningson said she wants to understand the origin and need for certain zoning and housing policies, including the number of unrelated adults who can live in a house and the definition of “family.”
“How did we get to where we are, and is the reason that we got there still a reason that we agree with?” she said.
Large swaths of St. Paul are zoned for single-family homes, but there are still neighborhoods where multifamily buildings have coexisted for years with single-family homes.
As zoning rules changed over time to favor single-family homes, older, multifamily buildings were grandfathered in and allowed to remain, said Dan Edgerton, who chairs the city Planning Commission’s zoning committee.
Planning Commissioner Bill Lindeke said he would like to see that diversity of housing reflected in the city’s zoning code. As big housing developments crop up at major intersections and along the Green Line light rail corridor, he said, “it would be nice to see more middle ground between a five-story building and no change at all.”
For now, though, the proliferation of fourplexes in St. Paul is far from reality — if it happens at all.
“Sometimes St. Paul follows Minneapolis’ lead and sometimes we decide we want to do it our way,” Edgerton said. “You never know what direction it will take for us in St. Paul.”