A duplex changed Michael Williams’ life.
Williams grew up on St. Paul’s East Side without a lot of money. For a brief stint in seventh grade, Williams lived with his mother in homeless shelters. When they were housed, the apartments they were able to rent were too small and bare-bones.
As an adult, that made Williams’ first purchase of a duplex seem miraculous. For a $100 downpayment — and with the help of federal loans — a duplex gave Williams both a toehold into financial prosperity and a stable place for his mother to live. Both of his parents (who are divorced) are now his tenants.
“Wow,” Williams realized. “I can take care of my family just through one duplex.”
Now 25 years old, Williams hopes to replicate this duplex revelation for others. An aspiring developer, he hopes to build what advocates call “missing middle” homes: smaller-scale, multi-family buildings that typically contain up to eight units — including duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes.
For now, St. Paul’s zoning code doesn’t allow these housing types in most neighborhoods, limiting 72% of the city’s residential land to single-family homes. St. Paul has taken steps to allow more mother-in-law, or accessory dwelling units (ADUs), on these lots, but few property owners have created them.
That might be about to change. City officials have proposed changing the zoning code to legalize “missing middle” housing on almost every residential property in St. Paul, meaning any lot zoned for single family could have three housing units — and sometimes more.
City Council members could enact the changes as early as this summer. If they do, St. Paul would join a growing list of communities that have effectively ended single-family zoning. Minneapolis was one of the first major cities in the nation to do so, though the city’s “2040 plan” now faces a still-unresolved legal challenge.
Officials hope the new rules would help St. Paul make a dent in the region’s housing shortage. Experts say the Twin Cities metro produced 80,000 fewer units of housing than residents needed, a crunch that drives home prices and rents higher, exacerbates problems of homelessness, and prevents Minnesota from closing one of the widest Black-white homeownership gaps in the U.S.
Proponents say allowing more “missing middle” housing could be an antidote to these problems, multiplying the number of units that developers like Williams could add to lots all over the city.
“We’re really just put in a situation where we either are building small, single-family homes, or we’re building 100-plus units,” Williams told the city’s Planning Commission last week. “Nobody’s really looking at the three-plexes, four-plexes — that little next step up — so I think this is one step in the right direction.”
The new proposed rules would allow as many as six units next to almost any single-family home in the city — which opponents say is extreme.
But critics also question whether the new zoning rules will actually help the city build more housing and decrease cost. Wouldn’t newer, multi-family units be more expensive than the historic homes they’d replace?
“We’re seeing this massive push for ‘missing middle’ housing,” said Christina Stacy, a researcher at the Urban Institute who studies equity and housing issues, “but I think the jury is still out on whether that’s the right type of reform for what we need.”
Under St. Paul’s proposal, what would actually change?
In short, a city’s zoning laws spell out who can build what, where. Cities generally set aside specific districts for commercial, industrial or residential uses. They also regulate how tall, wide or bulky buildings on the property can be, and how many people can occupy them.
St. Paul’s proposal would consolidate the city’s seven current “low-density” residential zones into just four categories. (To search for your property’s current zoning — and to see how it might change — click here.)
- H1 residential (Lots currently zoned R1, R2 or R3) — These zones all currently accommodate single-family homes only. If the changes are enacted, developers in H1 zones would be able to build four units on corner lots, and three units on all others.
- H2 residential (Lots currently zoned R4, RT1 or RT2) — Some of these parcels can currently accommodate duplexes. If the changes go through, these H2 lots would all be open to development of up to four units on every lot.
- H3 residential — If you’re within one-eighth of a mile of a major intersection, rail line or bus rapid transit corridor, the proposal calls for even more density: Developers can slot six units on every lot.
- RL large lot residential — The city has long set slightly-different rules for the Highwood area in the southeastern corner of the city. If enacted, up to two units would be allowed on RL lots.
Proponents say these changes will pave the way, not only for more triplexes and fourplexes, but also “missing middle” options like townhomes, cottage clusters and mother-in-law units or “ADUs.”
City officials say these types of homes are already part of St. Paul’s neighborhoods. Though a 1970s-era rewrite of the zoning code set aside much of the city for single-family development, St. Paul’s earlier 1922 zoning code allowed for fourplexes and carriage houses in many of the oldest neighborhoods. Hundreds of these buildings still dot the city’s nominally-single-family areas.
“These local proposals allow us to return to the same type of housing options that built these cities generations ago,” said Nick Erickson, senior director of policy at Housing First Minnesota, a statewide lobbying group for home developers and builders that supports St. Paul’s proposed changes.
“We don’t just want single family houses with yards,” said Luke Hanson, a Highland Park resident and co-chair of the advocacy group Sustain St. Paul. “We don’t just want big apartment buildings. We want to create options for people.”
“By legalizing these other types of housing choices,” Hanson added, “these are ways that we can add more housing in the neighborhood without great disruption — and without the threat of displacement.”
Opponents quibble with the notion that the changes wouldn’t be disruptive.
In certain areas — the proposed H1 and H2 zones — developers would have two ways to earn a “density bonus” to add up to two additional units to their projects: They could promise to include “affordable” units — meaning, units available at 80% of area median income (currently $89,400 for a family of four). They also could promise to include units with at least three bedrooms.
If developers maximized these bonuses, they could build up to six units on these lots.
Gaius Nelson, an architect and former member of St. Paul’s Planning Commission, said he’s open to the idea of developing more duplexes and triplexes but said adding six-unit buildings would strain neighborhoods.
Nelson worries relatively small lots aren’t big enough to accommodate six trash cans, six recycling bins, and six vehicles — because he doubts people will give up their cars — which would likely end up parked on the street.
“When developments can go up to six units essentially as a right — it can just happen and nobody has any say about how it happens. That becomes a major difference in what people expect will happen in their neighborhood,” said Nelson, who lives in Mac-Groveland.
“I guarantee most of the residents of St. Paul, who will be concerned about this, don’t appreciate how important it is and what a massive change it will be,” added Tom Darling, who lives on Summit Avenue, in comments before the Planning Commission. “I’ve got questions about the unintended consequences.”
Will the changes lead to more affordable housing?
It’s not yet clear whether encouraging “missing middle” housing will alleviate the region’s housing shortage, or open more affordable units.
In Minneapolis, regulations allowing duplexes and triplexes haven’t opened the floodgates to new multi-family units in single-family settings. Since the regulations took effect in 2020, a total of 102 duplexes and triplexes have opened in Minneapolis — a little more than half of which were legalized by the zoning change, a city spokesperson said.
But the Minneapolis data didn’t count tear-downs, and building permit data from the Metropolitan Council that does include tear-downs show they might have canceled out any new duplexes and triplexes in the period.
At the Urban Institute, Stacy studied eight major U.S. metro areas where cities relaxed their land-use policies, including legalizing more duplex and triplex development. Within three years of instituting these reforms, housing supply increased by just 0.8%.
But if St. Paul realized this small increase in housing supply, would the city wind up with more units that only the affluent can afford?
“My fear is that what’s already out there — and naturally affordable — is going to get torn down to create things that aren’t affordable,” Nelson said. “There’s no incentive not to do that. My suggestion was: if you tear down an affordable house, there ought to be a mechanism to say there’s no net loss in affordable housing.”
Nelson might have a point. In cities that relaxed their zoning laws, Urban Institute researchers were only able to conclusively show that new housing improved affordability only for middle- or upper-income families.
Other research suggests that, over the long-term, adding more units to a city’s housing stock will improve affordability at every income level. Stacy’s team found hints of these across-the-board improvements in their study — but no definitive proof.
“It’s unclear yet which types of zoning reform are going to be the most successful and that’s where we really need to dig in more,” Stacy said.
St. Paul’s package of proposed zoning changes don’t only deal with the number of units allowed on a lot. They also relax the “density and dimensional standards” in each zoning district, allowing for smaller lot sizes and for buildings to take up more space on a parcel.
Williams said these finer zoning regulations, as they exist now, have already proven cumbersome in his quest to build his first duplex.
Williams and his business partner — fellow Harding High School graduate Donovan Adesoro — are working on a project on the city’s East Side. Though the lot is already zoned for a duplex, the rules also technically say the lot is too small for a duplex; Williams and Adesoro had to request a variance from the city’s Board of Zoning appeals to move forward.
Even with a rise in labor or building materials costs, research shows that restrictive zoning rules and other regulations tend to be a more reliable driver of housing costs. Though Williams was complimentary of city officials, he said the costs of those bureaucratic delays add up for developers.
“Unless you’re a big massive firm who’s been doing deals for decades, you don’t have that cash balance to just hold deals,” said Williams — who is not yet working full-time as a developer; he works in sales at the YMCA. His business partner, Adesoro, works for a lender in Houston, Texas, and is hoping to move back to St. Paul soon.
Even well-heeled builders need this predictability, Erickson said. He said developers need the assurances that they’ll be able to turn, not a bigger profit, but any profit on a project. Minimizing regulatory restrictions and easing zoning rules decreases the chances that developers will lose money.
“Achieving density isn’t about getting enough margin” for developers, Erickson said. “It’s whether or not I’m gonna lose or make money on it.”
Williams doubts a change to zoning regulations would open the floodgates for large developers — who may already be leery of St. Paul because of rent control regulations, he said. Instead, he’s hoping for a more predictable environment for developers like him to erect housing at a more modest scale by tapping into government subsidies.
“I literally want to build as many nice duplexes as we can,” Williams said, “because these lots are sitting vacant for more than a decade — so why not get housing on them? It’s gonna help people like me.”
Williams met with MinnPost on the site of his project in the Dayton Bluff neighborhood, where the last home on it was razed in 2010. It’s been sitting empty ever since.
“It’s cold out here,” Williams said, his hands in his pockets as he walked the lot on a brisk, windy afternoon. “This grass is cold. There should be a warm structure here.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct a quote from Hanson. He referred to single family houses with “yards,” not “cars.”