Occasionally Minneapolis does the right thing.
Late last year, with little fanfare, the Minneapolis City Council passed an amendment with the dry title "Minneapolis City Planning Department Report: Zoning Code Text Amendment Establishing Boundaries of the Accessory Dwelling (AD) Overlay."
This allowed Ventura Village (aka "North Phillips") residents to build so-called "mother-in-law units" over their garages.
While this may sound minor, it's a huge step toward revitalizing the city. I'll tell you why later. But first, a little background on zoning
An accessory structure is a secondary building on a lot. A detached garage is one example. An accessory structure is distinct from the primary structure on a lot, most often a single-family residence.
An accessory dwelling is a second housing unit on the same lot as the primary structure -- for example, an apartment, often called a mother-in-law unit, over the detached garage of a single-family house.
This type of housing used to be common in Minneapolis. Upper-middle-class homes built before World War I commonly had several rooms tucked into the roof above the carriage house. These rooms were designed as housing for household staff. Grooms once lived above the horses, and, later, chauffeurs lived above the cars.
The era of live-in household servants for the middle class died in the 1920s, and during the Depression countless carriage houses were converted into apartments. Generations of college students, young married couples, and other struggling types lived in such accessory dwellings, free from the obligations and costs of home ownership. Generations of homeowners counted on the rental income, however small, of these accessory dwellings to defray the costs of living in big old houses.
During the 1950s and '60s, however, accessory dwellings fell out of favor. They were seen as old-fashioned, and cities across the country, including Minneapolis, changed their zoning laws to prevent the construction of accessory dwellings. This was part of a larger move away from mixed-use neighborhoods -- communities where single-family houses were found along with duplexes, apartments, small shops and, yes, accessory dwellings -- in favor of single-use communities in which single-family homes were concentrated together in segregated enclaves.
So now, for the first time in decades, it's legal to build an accessory dwelling here in Minneapolis. It's legal to build mother-in-law apartments above garages where less prosperous people can live affordably for a few years while they get on their feet. These units are also a perfect option for elderly people, a place where they can live independently, but still under the watchful eye of family.
And while not exactly legal (yet), accessory dwellings are also wonderful little incubator offices, affordable spaces in which to found and build new businesses. And as every economist will tell you, it's now small businesses that are creating the majority of new jobs.
Accessory dwellings provide much-needed choice to the housing market. So why hasn't this happened before? Largely because of fear. Fear that people will turn their garages into auto-body shops. Fear that renters will be rowdy. Fear of too many cars and too much traffic.
The only bad news about this amendment is that it only applies in the "overlay district" of Ventura Village, that small neighborhood bounded by I-94 on the north, Hiawatha Avenue on the east, 24th Street on the south, and I-35W on the west. Cities create overlay districts as a way to experiment with zoning changes. North Phillips is the testing ground to see how the idea will work, how the neighbors will react, and what unintended consequences might arise.
I expect it will work beautifully. I only hope that Minneapolis will make accessory dwellings legal throughout the city. Soon.
Robert Gerloff, AIA, is the principal of Robert Gerloff Residential Architects, located in an accessory structure in Linden Hills. He can be reached at email@example.com.