Why You Should Care About Single-Family Zoning

Why You Should Care About Single-Family Zoning

Zak Yudhishthu, Staff Writer

Over the next year, St. Paul will consider eliminating single-family zoning in the city.

Just about all of the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood, with the exception of arterial streets such as Grand and Snelling, is zoned for single-family housing. In this land of “predominantly low-density, one-family dwellings,” there are no duplexes or triplexes, nor row houses, nor mixed-use apartments. 

This is more than a fun quirk of St. Paul’s geography. It keeps neighborhoods expensive, exclusive and segregated. It forces urban sprawl, increasing car dependency and damaging the environment. It hurts workers, St. Paul’s economy and the entire United States’ economy. Yet it makes up 78% of the city’s residential land. As a member of the Macalester community, you need to care about eliminating it.

Single-family zoning was forged in the fires of exclusion, and it still bears those marks. As Richard Rothstein writes in “The Color of Law,” zoning became widespread in cities after the Supreme Court made it illegal to explicitly zone neighborhoods by race in 1917 (although racial covenants on housing deeds in the Twin Cities lasted well beyond 1917). By implementing single-family zoning, city residents could ensure that their rich, white neighborhoods wouldn’t build any cheaper apartments that Black people or poor people could live in.  

Today, Macalester-Groveland is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in St. Paul, and is overwhelmingly white. Single-family zoning ensures that our neighborhood stays that way. This is exactly the effect that researchers Jonathan Rothwell of Brookings Institute and Douglas Massey of Princeton University have found: anti-dense zoning increases both economic segregation and racial segregation in American cities by choking off the supply of new housing and keeping prices high.

Because single-family zoning limits people’s access to neighborhoods, it also hurts the entire American economy. In 2019, economists Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti estimated that from 1964 to 2009, “stringent restrictions to new housing supply” in cities lowered aggregate U.S. growth by 36% by keeping workers out of the cities where they could work more productive jobs. This massive loss hurts everybody. Workers earn less and the government has far less money to spend on goods and services.

Single-family zoning also worsens urban sprawl and makes us more car-dependent, growing individuals’ carbon footprints. If housing supply can’t increase in most of St. Paul’s neighborhoods, new residents in the area must move to the suburbs — or price out current residents, pushing them into the suburbs. Those residents then drive longer distances everywhere, releasing carbon emissions along the way.

Ending single-family zoning would make a significant difference for the environment. In 2019, researchers at UC Berkeley found that increasing urban density was the single most effective policy that San Francisco, Berkeley or Palo Alto could enact to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Density is much greener than sprawl, but our zoning laws don’t offer most residents the choice to live in denser neighborhoods.

We shouldn’t expect that loosening the housing market will solve all of our housing problems. According to Twin Cities data service HousingLink, St. Paul has zero apartments that would be affordable to a family of four with an income of $30,000. That means that for the 18.9% of St. Paulites living under the U.S. census threshold for poverty, there is nowhere to live affordably, and ending single-family zoning won’t solve that. But lifting burdensome zoning is a crucial step towards making housing affordable. 

In a presentation earlier this year, Tram Hoang, who works with Housing Equity Now St. Paul — the coalition currently leading the push for rent stabilization in St. Paul — wrote that “we say yes to all housing policy solutions.” These solutions include rent stabilization, more government spending on voucher programs and affordable housing subsidies, and tenant protections. They also included “abolishing single-family zoning to allow for increased density.”

This is a necessary change, but it won’t be a radical one. Two years ago, Minneapolis legalized triplexes in all residential areas in the city. Last year, Portland, Oregon legalized quadruplexes across the city. Just two months ago, legislators in California voted to legalize duplexes statewide. St. Paul needs to follow these governments’ lead in allowing more density.

As St. Paul moves forward in considering reforms to the zoning code, the voices of advocates matter. When community engagement begins in the coming months, some residents of St. Paul will fight to keep their neighborhoods exclusive. 

The Macalester community must become part of the movement to end single-family zoning in St. Paul. They can put their voices at the forefront when the city seeks public input on zoning changes, emphasizing single family zoning’s many downsides.

That’s how we can progress towards a more inclusive and sustainable vision of housing in St. Paul.


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