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A key to more Twin Cities housing: Free the carriage house

This is likely more stately than most would be, but you get the idea.

This is likely more stately than most would be, but you get the idea. Wikimedia

Earlier this week, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey announced a $50 million plan to address affordable housing. Notably absent was any mention of accessory dwelling units.

That’s unfortunate. It's time for Minneapolis to promote these units and for St. Paul to loosen its codes and allow them citywide.

Accessory dwelling units (I prefer the term “carriage house” -- it sounds more pleasant and less part of the bureaucratic-industrial lexicon) are additional housing units on the property of an existing home. They're usually just studio apartments on top of or beside a garage – or even a converted garage – with space to live, a bathroom, and a kitchen.

Minneapolis passed an ordinance in 2014 to allow these units throughout the city, but fewer than 100 homeowners have constructed them. That’s not enough. St. Paul’s building code limits them to certain neighborhoods and “family members” of “up to four unrelated persons,” whatever that means.

This is a complex topic from a public policy perspective, because there are layers upon layers of consequences. However, we often make policy more complicated than it really is. The math is fairly simple – we need more housing, the cost burden of carriage houses would largely be carried by participating homeowners, and the density of both cities will increase. That’s simple enough.

It becomes more complicated when we consider the consequences. They’ll increase traffic in certain neighborhoods, necessitate more for utilities like electrical and sewer lines, and they’ll require more housing inspectors. An argument can even be made that they could exacerbate income inequality. But I feel the downside is largely exaggerated.

These are cities, by nature dense areas where people want to live, work, start businesses, and enjoy the culture and other amenities.

They’ll also have positive consequences: More people will be able to enjoy city life, more people will frequent neighborhood businesses, more people and their dogs will be at city parks. And Minneapolis and St. Paul won’t suddenly become Tokyo or Dhaka. Carriage homes won't cause severe overcrowding.

Let’s take a small portion of Minneapolis' $50 million to promote these units through whatever incentives would be effective. People will listen.

In St. Paul, allow them to be built citywide and with fewer restrictions. Either proposition sounds better than that 26-story tower behind Surdyk’s in Northeast.

Building nice studios on top of garages is a smart approach to additional housing. Please share your thoughts.