A bipartisan group of legislators want to relax local zoning rules that block apartments from being built in many Minnesota cities.

The bill would supersede local zoning rules and require cities of 5,000 or more to legalize at least six types of homes from a menu that includes duplexes, cottage clusters, townhouses and small apartment buildings. Smaller cities would have to allow duplexes.

"Now is the time to legalize more housing choices," said Rep. Mike Howard, DFL-Richfield.

But zoning — what kinds of buildings are legal to build and where — is something cities and towns control. Local issues and resident preferences have shaped those rules, but proponents of the new bill say those local rules are too persnickety and end up excluding people from living where they want to live, in the kinds of homes they want.

In cities like Oakdale, resident Kormasah Deward said, there is little space for duplexes, small apartments or even more modest houses. Most of the city's land is zoned for large single-family houses. The bill would not prevent building those, but it would make it possible to build something else, like a fourplex or cluster of cottages.

Deward, an activist supporting the bill, said she would one day love to own one of the big homes with a big yard in Oakdale.

"That's my dream too," Deward said. But that dream of the big house and yard is not in reach for everyone, and she said she wishes there were more housing options in her city.

When she lost her apartment after the pandemic, Deward couldn't find any apartments she could afford — there were just too few places. She spent a year and a half living in her car with her five children as she struggled to stay in Oakdale, near her work and the children's school. Finally she found more work and a new apartment.

Already, Howard said, about a million Minnesotans live in cities where some version of these new rules exist. St. Paul passed zoning changes last year that will allow up to four units on many residential lots. City planners there did not expect overnight change but hoped for more affordable homes in the long term.

Minneapolis' zoning changes, the so-called 2040 plan, have been hamstrung by a lawsuit demanding an environmental review, though city leaders are looking for a way to move forward.

Where similar rules are in effect, change has been incremental.

Richfield started allowing duplexes in any residential neighborhood just over a year ago. But so far, that zoning change and similar moves in Bloomington and Roseville have led to only a handful of proposals in the first year, not a tidal wave of developers buying houses to tear down.

Though some city leaders support the bill, the League of Minnesota Cities, Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities and other city groups have come out against the measure, which they see as stripping power from cities.

The bill would also mean fewer residential developments are subject to a public comment process, with most projects subject only to review by city staff. The League of Minnesota Cities has said it worries residents' voices will be lost.

Asked about public comment, Sen. Nicole Mitchell, DFL-Woodbury, said she has heard from local leaders who were swayed against a project they believed in by a "loud minority" of residents. Eliminating public comment would make it easier to approve small apartments, she said, because local elected officials would not feel at political risk.

With no spending attached, the duplex bill shows one way Democratic majorities could keep pushing for sweeping changes this year, even without a historic budget surplus.

But legislators were quick to note that there are Republicans supporting the duplex bill in both the House and Senate.

"I'm not the token Republican," said Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, during a news conference Tuesday. He said urgency around affordable housing has grown, and more legislators are seeing the need for affordable homes and workforce housing in their districts across Minnesota.

Housing and tenants' issues are becoming more pressing across the state, and homelessness is a growing problem, especially with Hennepin County emergency shelters housing twice as many people as they did a year ago.

A rally Tuesday afternoon pressed other affordable-housing policies, and a Senate committee discussed a series of minor tenant protections, including a bill that would require developers to compensate renters if a new building was not completed by the start of a lease, such as happened to University of Minnesota students who tried to move into a Dinkytown complex last fall.

For some legislators, the affordable-housing issue has become personal. Rep. Larry Kraft, DFL-St. Louis Park, said he often hears from constituents who would not be able to afford their suburban homes today, or whose children cannot live in the cities where they grew up.

Nash said he hopes to see more affordable homes for his own family, "so all of my six kids could come back to the state of Minnesota."