St. Paul zoning changes are good for housing affordability

On October 18, the St. Paul City Council approved a major overhaul of the city’s zoning code, effectively ending single-family zoning in St. Paul. Specifically, zoning changes will consolidate the city’s seven low-density residential zones into three categories that will allow denser housing.

Six zones (R1-R4, RT1, and RT2), will become H1 and H2. The H1 residential zone would allow up to 4 units per lot. Lots in the H2 residential zone — those “within 1/8 mile of neighborhood node or fixed rail, bus rapid transit, high-frequency bus corridors”— will be allowed up to 5 units. The one-family large lot district which currently allows one house will be allowed up to 2 houses. Additionally, developers in H1 and H2 zones can accumulate a density bonus of up to 2 units if they meet certain requirements, like providing rental housing affordable to people with incomes at 60 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI).

The changes are a result of a 1-4 Housing study that St. Paul commissioned after the city passed a resolution in 2018 to study housing. The initial phase of the 1-4 housing study recommended allowing Accessory Dwelling Units ADUs), a change that the city council adopted and went into effect in 2022. In addition to zoning changes, newly approved changes will provide further flexibility with ADUs, allowing 2 per family home.

Why this is commendable

While the changes have major support, they face some criticism as well. Pioneer Press reported, for example, that some critics worry that the changes would be used to tear down affordable housing to make room for expensive luxury units.

Tolbert, who chairs the city’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority, called for a more targeted, neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach. He noted that a study of housing teardowns in Highland Park and Macalester-Groveland once found that the smallest, cheapest housing stock was the most vulnerable.

“Most single-family homes that are torn down are 800- to 1,200-square-foot homes,” Tolbert said. “I still expect the 800-square-foot homes on the 5,000-square-foot lot are probably going to be the ones to be bought out by developers. … These blocks will add some of the larger buildings, which will be quite a change on these blocks. I just think we can do a little bit better with this proposal.”

Such criticism is, however, misguided. It ignores the fact that housing is much like any other good, when you have more of it, prices will go down. Even if new housing consists of mostly luxury or market-rate units, it still reduces competition on older housing, lowering prices for low-income earners.

At American Experiment we have consistently been raising alarm over Minnesota’s affordable housing problem. In a report we published in 2020, we specifically found that housing in the Twin Cities is less affordable compared to peer metros. For Minnesota in general, housing is less affordable compared to other states in the Midwest.

Among the numerous factors that we noted have an effect on housing affordability are restrictive land use and zoning laws. Studies have proven that restrictive land use and zoning laws hinder housing development, restricting housing supply, which drives prices up. One study from the Mercatus Center even found that single-family zoning in the Twin Cities is associated with less racial integration.

St. Paul should be commended for taking a bold step to liberalize its zoning laws. These changes will likely spur housing development, making housing more affordable.