City looks to amend code, widen housing options

A new policy would encourage homeowners to build and rent out accessory dwelling units, officials say.

The inside of Minneapolis City Hall as seen on Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019.

Image by Parker Johnson

The inside of Minneapolis City Hall as seen on Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019.

by Mohamed Ibrahim

Minneapolis officials are looking to amend an existing policy to serve as another solution to increasing the city’s housing supply.

An ordinance to be introduced to the City Council this week would amend a current policy,  eliminating a requirement that owners reside on the property with an accessory dwelling unit (ADU), or a smaller housing unit built as a separate structure or attachment to a house. City officials say the amendment is an effort to boost the variety of housing options citywide for both new and current residents.

ADUs are between 300 and 800 square feet, and units typically have their own outside entrance, as well as a kitchen, bathroom and living area.

The original ordinance, authored by Ward 10 City Council member and City Council President Lisa Bender, allows homeowners in residential districts to build an ADU on their property, as long as they occupy the primary home.

The new policy from Ward 2 City Council member Cam Gordon would amend the ordinance to eliminate the owner occupancy requirement, which he said can be a barrier for rental property owners who may see an ADU as a more affordable way to increase the number of units. 

“[Property owners] would look at options like ‘should I try to make this into a triplex or should I look at how I could add an accessory dwelling unit,’ but if it’s a piece of rental property, they don’t have that option,” Gordon said.

Gordon, whose ward includes the University of Minnesota campus and some of its surrounding neighborhoods, said the policy would attempt to supplement housing alternatives for both new and current residents, like students.

“A lot of times people move to Minneapolis, maybe because they’re going to go to the University or St. Thomas or Augsburg, and they like it here, and they want to stay,” Gordon said. “So this is going to give them other options.”

According to a February report by Minneapolis housing nonprofit Family Housing Fund, the Twin Cities seven-county metro area could create 11,000 new housing units by adding ADUs to 1.5 percent of its single-family homes. 

Family Housing Fund Vice President Colleen Ebinger said ADUs can be a “gentle” approach to adding more housing units to neighborhoods. The policy would make ADUs more accessible, leading to more options for tenants in areas of the city that lack rental housing, she said.

“They’re small-scale, they’re often hidden from sight [and] they’re really incorporated into the feel of a neighborhood,” Ebinger said. “It’s not by any means the silver bullet to solving our housing problem, but it is one of the tools that I think is really important to have.”

As of Aug. 30, the city had issued 169 ADU permits to homeowners since the policy was approved in Dec. 2014, according to Jason Wittenberg, planning manager in the city’s Community Planning and Economic Development office.

Wittenberg said that while eliminating the owner occupancy requirement will require further steps before implementation, the amendment will ultimately build on the original ordinance.

“If the amendment passes, it has the potential to open up a lot more properties where that housing option could be utilized,” he said. 

The policy is set to be formally introduced by Gordon at the city council meeting Friday.