Zoning updates promote flexible, equitable living options

By Janet Pope

“I wanted to turn my house into something I could get old in.”

So said Victoria Erhart, of her decision to construct an “accessory dwelling unit” in the basement of her St. Anthony Park home.

This unit type, often referred to as an ADU, was first allowed throughout St. Paul in 2018. In 2020 and again last fall, St. Paul further updated its zoning code to allow more density and more housing options across the city.

Before the 2023 updates, the St. Paul zoning code restricted over 70% of city land to single-family residences. In addition to the new ADU rules, the code now allows for two to five units throughout the city on lots where previously only one unit was allowed.

And to further encourage “missing middle” housing, up to six units are allowed in certain circumstances when affordable or family-sized units are included.

Cottage clusters and townhomes are also allowed when several adjacent lots are used. And ADU sizes can now be larger, with two ADUs allowed for each one-family dwelling on a lot.

In years past, Erhart had wanted to add an accessory dwelling for her mother to occupy—but that was before ADUs were allowed in St. Paul.

More recently, Erhart constructed her ADU to expand her own future options. “I don’t want to live alone in my house,” she explained. “Now I could house a caregiver in the future, or just rent it out so I am not alone here, as I am doing now.”

More housing on the same lot

A severe shortage of housing in St. Paul and the need to address climate change have had city officials and advocates working for several years on the zoning changes. The Twin Cities metro area is 80,000 housing units short, according to St. Paul zoning director Lui Pereira in a recent Finance and Commerce podcast interview.

Pereira said he hopes the recent zoning changes will help reverse the losses of 2- to 4-unit and 5- to 19-unit buildings St. Paul has experienced in recent years.

Additionally, single-family zoning has long been recognized by city planners as a tool historically used to keep most Black people— and virtually all low-income people—from large parts of city neighborhoods.

“We’ve been pricing people out of certain neighborhoods,” Twin Cities realtor Karen Rue said recently. “These changes should directly help diverse populations get into neighborhoods throughout the city.” Rue had planned to build an ADU over her garage. But she found a house that worked in Minneapolis and moved there instead.

An accessory unit is added in the Como neighborhood

After looking at multiple duplexes, many of which needed lots of work, Sierra Burris and partner Joe Hundt decided to purchase a home in the Como neighborhood and add an ADU. They wanted a living space for Burris’s mom and stepdad to “call home” and easily have the flexibility to travel in retirement.

“I did a lot of research,” she explained. “We hired an architect and contractor and worked through multiple plans over about a year to receive city approvals.”

Taking advantage of 2020 ADU zoning updates, they tied the new unit’s heating and plumbing systems to the main house. The two units are connected by a mudroom. Helped by family and friends, the couple did a lot of the work themselves.

The ADU is just over 600 square feet and fully ADA-compliant. Meals often cooked by her mom, who also gardens, are additional benefits.

Burris also noted, “Neighbors have commented that they appreciate that we did not change the character of the neighborhood. We would not change anything. We love it.”

With more options now available, more of our neighbors can be housed in configurations that work well for them and for our larger community. 

Janet Pope lives in the Como neighborhood, several blocks from Sierra Burris and Joe Hundt, whom she was happy to meet while writing this article. She is also a leader with the climate action group Saint Paul 350.

Leave a Reply