Credit: Photo illustration by Kim Jackson | Sahan Journal

St. Paul recently revealed proposed zoning changes designed to encourage the construction of new housing to accommodate the city’s growing population.

The changes would allow the construction of more diverse types of housing, such as duplexes and triplexes, in more parts of the city. The effort also aims to rectify longstanding housing practices that segregated and disenfranchised people of color and low-income households, said city planning staff.

“We’ve moved to the 20th century, and we find ourselves in new situations, new issues,” said Fernando Burga, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “Those original foundational understandings [of zoning] have evolved and changed. Now, we have a lot of different types of zoning innovations.” 

Zoning provides a set of regulations to ensure that the intended use of land is followed, said Burga, who teaches in the Urban and Regional Planning Area Department. Burga studies land use, policy, and urban planning with a focus on immigrant populations and communities of color. Burga and the University of Minnesota are not involved in St. Paul’s rezoning efforts. 

The proposed changes are from Phase 2 of St. Paul’s “1-4 Unit Housing Study.” Zoning changes from Phase 1 were implemented last spring.

City staff conducted studies looking at how zoning changes could potentially address the shortage of affordable housing, accommodate more residents, and take advantage of unused land. St. Paul’s current population is estimated at more than 300,000; the city experienced a growth rate of 9.3 percent between 2010 to 2020, according to the Metropolitan Council, a regional policy-making body for the seven-county Twin Cities metropolitan area.  

Phase 2 of the study is open for public comment and could be implemented as soon as this summer if it’s approved by the city.

Burga said the potential impact of rezoning is hard to predict.

“It is what the city can do in order to consider the supply of housing, and to open up more opportunities for housing,” Burga said. “But what we don’t know are the questions of implementing that—actually being able to provide the mechanisms for developers, architects to actually do that work. That’s a trickier question.” 

Sahan Journal recently spoke to St. Paul city planners and academics who study urban planning about how the proposed changes could affect the city. The following is a broad overview of the proposed changes; more exact details can be found in a city memo.

Do you plan to take advantage of St. Paul’s zoning changes?

Are you a homeowner or developer of color who is converting your home into a duplex for extra income? Or are you building an accessory dwelling unit as an additional home for aging grandparents, other family members, or friends?

We’re interested in speaking with you about how you’re adapting your home to fit your needs as a person of color or immigrant. Email our housing reporter, Katelyn Vue, at with the subject heading “Zoning.” 

What is zoning? 

Zoning laws date back to the early 20th century and are created by local governments, said Bill Lindeke, a lecturer in urban studies at the University of Minnesota. They divide land into districts, each with a set of regulations governing what types of structures can be built on the land and how the land can be used, such as for homes or for warehouses. 

“Zoning was seen as a tool that could reinforce the identity of the neighborhood and the homogeneity of the neighborhood—who was allowed to live there,” Lindeke said. “You could make rules about things like how big the house needed to be, or how far from the street it would be set back.” 

Many early zoning laws were based on race and class, and segregated communities of color and low-income people from white, wealthy neighborhoods.

Race-based zoning was declared unconstitutional in the 1917 U.S. Supreme Court decision Buchanan v. Warley, but many zoning laws in Minnesota and across the country are still outdated and perpetuate inequality.  

What does zoning look like now in St. Paul? 

There are five main zoning district categories in St. Paul: residential, industrial, traditional neighborhood, Ford site, and business. Nearly 70 percent of the city is made up of residential zoning districts, which govern the construction of homes. 

Forty-eight percent of the city is zoned for single-family homes, meaning that the city allows only one house on a single residential lot, according to city planning staff. Detached single family homes make up an estimated 50 percent of all housing in the city, according to the American Community Survey 2021-year estimates.

Apartment buildings with 20 or more housing units make up 24.7 percent of all housing in the city, while 10.4 percent of housing units are duplexes, triplexes, or fourplexes. 

“We have single family homes, a lot of them. Then we have a lot of big multi-family buildings and not a lot in between,” said Luis Pereira, St. Paul’s planning director. 

Why does the city want to change zoning?

The city wants to increase housing capacity and create more equitable housing opportunities for different types of homebuyers and renters, said city planners. New homes added to a lot can be sold or rented. Accessory dwelling units, which are smaller secondary homes added to property that already hosts a main home, can only be rented.   

For example, the owner of a single-family home with a large backyard can build another single-family home on their property to create two different lots, and sell the second home. Or, the owner of a single-family home can convert it into a type of multi-family housing, such as a duplex, and rent it. 

“We’re not just hoping to just add as much housing as we can—we want to do it in a thoughtful way that increases housing equity and choices for everyone,” said Emma Brown, senior city planner for St. Paul and chief author of the Phase 2 zoning amendments. 

The housing shortage across the nation and the lack of new housing production are key reasons for the proposed changes, said a city memo. Fewer houses are being put up for sale in the state, and the median home price continues to rise, according to Minnesota Realtors, a nonprofit trade organization that tracks statewide housing trends and statistics.  

Atop that, the St. Paul City Council passed a resolution in 2018 calling for the creation and preservation of affordable housing and the creation of infrastructure to stabilize housing. The resolution also compelled the city to address racial, social, and economic disparities in housing. Other cities, including Minneapolis, have also looked at zoning changes as a solution to racial inequity. 

“Single-family-only zoning that allows only single-family homes has been found to be socially exclusionary, especially toward renters, low-income households, and communities of color,” read an email from city planning staff. “By allowing greater housing variety, the proposed amendments aim to open up more neighborhoods to everyone, not just those that can afford or want to live in a single-family home.”

St. Paul officials also want to encourage small-scale developers to build more housing on vacant lots in neighborhoods, or on large lots that already have an existing house. 

“We’re an urban city, so we wanted to think about our precious and scarce urban land in a different way—thinking about how our population has changed, how households are changing,” said Pereira, the city’s planning director.

These factors prompted the City Council to ask the St. Paul Planning Commission to explore ways to increase population density and include more housing types, which led to the 1-4 Unit Housing Study in 2020. 

What happened in Phase 1?

Phase 1 changes were implemented in March 2022. Some major changes included allowing homes to be built at a width of 22 feet or less, and allowing more than one residential building on a single lot. 

City regulations for accessory dwelling units, which are smaller, secondary homes on the same lot as a standalone home, were also changed. A previous requirement that the homeowner had to live in the main home or in the smaller unit was removed, and the maximum size for the smaller unit was changed from 800-square-feet to 75 percent of the floor area of the main home.*

What are the main proposed zoning changes, also called zoning amendments, in Phase 2? 

Phase 2 focuses on building duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes in more places across the city, and allowing more types of single-family homes, such as townhomes. It would also allow new homes to be constructed with more flexible rules, such as allowing homes to be built closer to the street and increasing their maximum footprint, among other changes to what city planners call “dimensional standards.” 

The study’s team predicts that if adopted, the proposed changes will lead to a 25 to 30 percent increase in housing in residential areas over 20 years. That amounts to about 3,000 new housing units. 

The city is proposing these changes to accessory dwelling units: 

  • Two accessory dwelling units would be allowed per single-family home, but one of the units must be detached from the main house. A detached unit could consist of a unit above a garage or in the backyard, for example.
  • The maximum size allowed for an accessory dwelling unit could be 800 square-feet or 75 percent of the total floor area of the single family home on the lot, whichever is greater. 

Changing dimensional standards on multi-family housing buildings like accessory dwelling units, cluster developments, and townhomes is a step towards meaningful change to zoning rather than symbolic gestures, said Lindeke, who lectures about urban planning at the University of Minnesota. 

In Phase 2 proposals, the city defines cluster developments as “the arrangement of multiple one-family, two-family, and/or multiple-family dwellings of no more than four units” that share a common open space on a single lot.*

How would zoning districts change in Phase 2?

A main component of Phase 2 is reducing seven residential zoning districts that cover single-family homes, townhomes, duplexes, and fourplexes, into four zoning districts in order to simplify the districts and make them more consistent. One of the four zoning districts, RL, already exists, but three new districts would be created under Phase 2.

The four proposed zoning district changes are: 

  • RL large lot residential: allows two units on one residential lot. The units can consist of either two single-family homes or a duplex.
  • H1 residential: allows three units on interior residential lots or four units on a single corner residential lot. The units can consist of a combination of either single-family homes, duplexes, triplexes, or fourplexes. 
  • H2 residential: allows a maximum of four units on one residential lot. The units can consist of a combination of single-family homes, duplexes, triplexes, or fourplexes. 
  • H3 residential: allows six units on one residential lot. The units can consist of either single-family homes, duplexes, triplexes, or fourplexes.

For more information about the specific requirements and changes proposed in Phase 2, check out the city’s staff memo here.

Click on the image and slide left or right to compare two maps showing the current residential zoning districts in St. Paul and the proposed residential zoning districts.

Source: Handout from the City of St. Paul

The city wants to reduce seven current residential zoning districts into four districts to simplify them and change restrictions on what can be built on city lots.

The changes would allow more diverse types of multi-family housing buildings, such as duplexes and triplexes, to be constructed on a city lot.

Who will most likely be impacted by these zoning amendments? 

The proposed zoning changes are intentionally broad to spread out housing growth and to ensure that everyone has access to opportunities, said Pereira.

All St. Paul neighborhoods have at least one zoning district that would be changed by the proposed zoning amendments, he said. Neighborhoods that have more industrial zoning districts and that already have multi-family zoning districts would see less impact.

Downtown St. Paul would be the least impacted because it’s mostly zoned as a business district, Pereira added. 

“I think it’s safe to say that the impacts will be felt across the city,” Pereira said. “It gives multiple opportunities for different people in the market to make decisions.” 

For example, he said, a homeowner could pool money with family members and add a second, smaller residential building behind their first home so grandparents could live nearby.

“So in that way, it’s equitable, because there’s different paths to get at different additional housing outcomes,” Pereira said. 

However, city planners are also aware that building those smaller secondary homes, also known as an accessory dwelling unit, or converting a home into a duplex is expensive and not a simple undertaking. 

If the proposed changes are adopted, Pereira said, St. Paul expects the construction of new housing units to occur slowly over a period of time, as was the case when Minneapolis enacted zoning changes.

That gradual change should avoid displacing “existing people who might be low income and vulnerable to, you know, changes in those rents and that housing market,” he added.

How will we know if zoning amendments are actually working to increase affordable housing? 

Researchers widely agree that reducing zoning restrictions is one piece of the puzzle to solving the housing shortage and combating rising home prices. However, some researchers also believe that more research is needed to show whether flexible zoning leads to more affordable housing for renters and homebuyers. 

“The notion is that with more supply, there will be more opportunities, and also more opportunities in terms of buying, but is that the case? Are the ones who really need it, are they going to be able to afford it?” said Fernando Burga, a University of Minnesota assistant professor in urban planning. “We do not know exactly what a complete rezoning from single family homes to triplexes does. That’s sort of like an experiment in a sense.”

Bill Lindeke, a University of Minnesota geography lecturer, said it will take a long time to see whether St. Paul’s proposed changes will improve housing issues if they are adopted. However, he said, studies have shown that not changing zoning worsens affordable housing. 

A way to check if the proposed zoning amendments are affecting your neighborhood is to monitor the amount of new housing being constructed in St. Paul through a city website that tracks building permits, Lindeke said. 

City planning staff also stress that zoning is a tool and is not the only solution to addressing housing issues. 

“We have other policy tools; zoning is only one, and so zoning cannot do everything,” Pereira said. “There’s other things that we’ve been doing.”

A few of the city’s other housing initiatives include an Anti-Displacement Plan and Community Wealth Building study that examine ways to minimize displacement, grow housing production, and increase business investment. The city also launched a new program, the Rondo Inheritance Fund, to rebuild generational wealth for displaced residents and descendants of the historic Rondo neighborhood by providing them with forgivable loans for home repairs or a downpayment on a home.

How is new zoning approved?

Phase 2’s proposed zoning amendments are open for public comment until 12 p.m., April 13.

City planning staff and the city’s Comprehensive and Neighborhood Planning Committee will review the public comments. The Planning Commission will then decide whether to recommend that the City Council vote to pass the zoning amendments into law. The council vote would most likely occur in late spring or early summer. 

If the City Council votes to pass the zoning amendments, the changes would go into effect 30 days after the mayor signs them into law. That could happen in mid- to late-summer at the earliest, according to St. Paul city planners. 

How can I weigh in on the proposed zoning changes?

There are three ways to share your opinions about the proposed zoning changes with the city:

  • Email your comments with your first and last name and address to:
  • Send a letter with your first and last name and address to: 1 to 4 Unit Housing Study, 25 West 4th Street, Suite 1400, St. Paul, MN 55102
  • Testify at the public hearing on April 14, 8:30 a.m. in room 40 at city hall, 15 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul, Minnesota, 55102. 
  • Learn more about the proposed zoning changes at a Lunch & Learn event with city staff from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. on April 11 at the East Side Freedom Library, 1105 Greenbrier St., St. Paul, Minnesota, 55106. Free lunch will be provided. RSVP by April 9 to reserve a spot.

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story included the wrong size parameters implemented in Phase 1 for accessory dwelling units, and an incorrect definition of “cluster developments.”

Katelyn Vue is the housing reporter for Sahan Journal. She graduated in May 2022 from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Prior to joining Sahan Journal, she was a metro reporting intern at the Star...