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Tweaking the rules for multi-family housing in Saint Paul

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In September, the Saint Paul City Council tweaked the Zoning Code to make it easier for developers to build the multi-family housing we need.

After months of study by the Department of Planning and Economic Development, careful deliberation and recommendations by the Planning Commission, and strong supportive feedback from the community, the Council amended the “Residential – Multi-Family” categories of the Zoning Code (abbreviated RM1, RM2, and RM3). The changes are technical in nature, but the broad outcome is simple — Saint Paul will now allow slightly wider and taller buildings on lots zoned for multi-family housing, and will require fewer parking spaces per unit in new projects, thus making it more financially viable for developers to build housing on these lots  which they can sell at reasonable prices. 

This is good news for Saint Paul, because it will gradually result in more housing units to accommodate the people who want to live in our city. Unfortunately, the positive impact is limited. According to the Saint Paul 2040 Comprehensive Plan, only 22% of the residential land in Saint Paul is zoned to allow multi-family housing. The other 78% of Saint Paul’s residential land is reserved for single-family homes.

Now that the city has updated the zoning standards for multi-family districts, it’s time for  Saint Paul to consider changes to the single-family districts, such as allowing small multi-family housing within single-family areas. The city should make it legal to build a duplex, small apartment building or townhomes on any residential lot in the city. 

The Saint Paul Planning Commission has begun to discuss a study to examine the possibility of allowing some multi-family housing in single-family zones, but may only examine the potential along arterial and collector streets.

We think that a study of single-family zoning should examine all areas. Many of our collector streets already have small multi-family buildings, built before residential zoning standards differentiated between single-family and small multi-family. If you walk down Saint Clair, Minnehaha, Smith, or nearly any other old collector street in the city, and you will see plenty of duplexes and small apartments. It’s time for Saint Paul to take bold steps to allow more small multi-family housing choices throughout its neighborhoods.