Would ‘infill housing’ provide ‘missing middle’ housing?

Planning commission considers changes to allow accessory dwelling units, backyard housings and new 2 to 4-unit buildings


How should St. Paul add dwelling units in the midst of a housing crisis? Could that be in the form of accessory dwelling units, backyard houses and new two- to four-unit buildings? Could larger houses be subdivided?
A proposal to add more infill housing citywide is drawing sharply mixed reactions. Proponents say changes would add needed housing and density. Opponents counter that the city risks damaging neighborhood character and could wipe out single-family neighborhoods. The commission’s Comprehensive and Neighborhood Planning Committee is reviewing more than 250 pages of public comments, and testimony from 16 people at an April 14, 2023 hearing.
The study recommendations, if adopted, would allow for infill smaller multi-family units. It would be easier to add accessory dwelling units (ADUs), cluster developments and tiny houses. A focus is on adding density described as “neighborhood-scale housing.” These are the so-called “missing middle” units between single-family dwellings and large apartment buildings.
The City Council called for the study in a 2018 resolution. It is also called for in the city’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan. The first phase of the study was adopted last year. How people choose to live, such as in multi-generational homes, is one factor. So is the growing challenge of housing affordability.
Once approved by the Planning Commission, the zoning code changes would go to the City Council for a public hearing in mid-summer, with approval by fall.
Comments on the 163-page study ran the gamut. A wide range of housing, sustainability and development organizations chimed in in support. But many citizens are in opposition, mainly based on concerns about impacts on single-family neighborhoods.
Others who oppose the study and its recommendations said the city is trying to eliminate single-family neighborhoods, by making several technical changes to zoning categories. Former City Council Member Tom Dimond called the proposal “a ban on single-family housing, on single-family neighborhoods.” Dimond said residents need more of a say if entire swaths of St. Paul will be rezoned without property owner consent
“It’s labeled as a study .. . I don’t think people appreciate what a massive change this will be,” said Summit Avenue resident Tom Darling. Darling, Dimond and others said the study needs more public notice and scrutiny before it moves on.
Planning Director Luis Pereira challenged those concerns, saying that single-family homes will still be allowed. The intent is to allow a greater diversity of neighborhood-scale and missing middle housing options in districts currently zoned exclusively for single-family homes (RL-R4), as well as in zoning districts that allow duplexes, triplexes and townhomes.
Pereira said the proposed new zoning districts that would be adopted would not make single-family homes nonconforming or illegal, but would allow more options.
Another part of the study allows for conversion of larger single-family homes into multi-family dwellings. While that was applauded by some, others recalled the poorly done post-World War II housing conversions that took decades to undo.
Some supporters added caveats to their comments. Having design guidelines and/or paying more attention to neighborhood character was a request from several area groups.
The commission also heard from several small developers and landlords, who said the proposed changes could help them add smaller-scale multi-family housing. Desnoyer Park resident and developer Jeff Chermak said the proposed rezoning changes would help him build small multi-family buildings on properties he owns. “Please help the small developers in this city,” Chermak said.
Midway homeowner and Summit-University duplex landlord Barb Allen said she could easily add a third unit in her existing duplex and an ADU on the garage, without displacing existing renters.
But one barrier developers cited is costs, even for smaller-scale multi-family housing. Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity is among nonprofit developers struggling to find affordable lots to build housing on in St. Paul. The Metropolitan Consortium for Community asked that the city consider waiving fees and providing grants for developers of “missing middle” housing.
Supporters said the study as proposed would provide more badly needed housing. Luke Hanson, co-chair of the advocacy group Sustain St. Paul, said the ability to add housing would also have property tax base benefits. Sustain St. Paul is urging the Planning Commission to consider changes that would encourage more density around neighborhood nodes and transit stops.
Some of those who weighed in asked the Planning Commission to consider unintended consequences. Macalester-Groveland resident Gaius Nelson is an architect and former Planning Commission member. While he agrees with the need for more housing options, Nelson cautioned commissioners to not conflate the issues of new housing and affordable housing. “Just because you build new housing doesn’t mean it will be affordable,” he said.
Nelson recalled the issue of smaller, affordable starter homes being torn down in Highland and Macalester-Groveland. Residents had to push for design guidelines to keep new dwellings from being built lot line to lot line, towering over existing homes, blocking natural light and causing water runoff problems. He suggested a number of technical changes to the proposed regulations, and urged the commission to look at impacts on a surrounding neighborhood when infill housing is built.


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