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Local View: Duluth City Council can allow more housing; so why doesn't it?

From the column: "As enamored as Duluth City Councilor Arik Forsman may be about having others live in a tiny home, ... I’d prefer to live somewhere larger than a shipping container."

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Pat Bagley / Cagle Cartoons

It’s illegal to build an apartment in Duluth.

How can I claim that when we have so many houses and apartment buildings?

I’m not a developer; I’m just one woman who’s ready to become a homeowner, and I’d like to be able to pay off my mortgage within five years. If I were to build a duplex, triplex, or sixplex, I could afford to pay off my mortgage, my student loans, and start saving for retirement — all within five years.

So I decided to look to see if there were any plots of land for sale in Duluth on which I could build my dreams. As of the evening of Dec. 12, I found 48 tax-forfeited lots in Duluth for sale. These properties are under the ownership of a governmental unit, a common outcome when owners fail to pay taxes. Tax-forfeited lands are some of the most affordable, sometimes costing as little as $1.

Of these 48 affordable lots for sale, I could only identify one where I could potentially build an apartment without having to develop a whole subdivision — and that lot doesn’t even come with sewage.

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How can it be so difficult to build housing in Duluth when our mayor and City Council speak so frequently about the need for affordable housing in our city? Like most things in life, the devil seems to be in the details.

Take a look at Tax Parcel ID 010-3870-00690, which is a vacant lot off Livingston Avenue and Glenwood Street. It’s listed for $3,600. That’s affordable enough that I could buy the land tonight. It’s a lot measuring 25 feet deep by 133 feet long, and it is zoned as R-1, a classification under which building more than two units of housing on one lot is a crime. So no triplex or sixplex. But what about a duplex? Or any house?

Unfortunately, the vacant lot has 133 feet facing Livingston, what zoning codes call “frontage,” and R-1 zoning requires a minimum of a 25-foot setback from your “frontage” for your front lawn. The code does provide for an exception: I could pay the full cost to have Glenwood Street extended to Vermilion Road, which would let me change which side is considered the front of the lot. No, thank you. I’m on a budget, and I can’t afford the standard $3 million per-mile cost of road construction. Looks like we’ll have to keep Livingston and Glenwood a vacant lot.

So how about a Parcel ID that’s zoned for multiple housing units? Look no further than Parcel ID 010-1250-00130, a lot at 602 W. Third St., which is selling for $1,440 and is zoned R-2. In the words of the City Code, “R-2 is established to accommodate multi-family apartments and townhouses, in an urban setting.”

Marvelous! Maybe I can build my family’s future at 602 W. Third St.!

Unfortunately, as you may have guessed, that’s a big fat nope. When you get into the weeds, which 602 W. Third St., has in abundance, you find that it’s illegal to build anything on this parcel. How’s that? The lot is 50 feet by 50 feet, and R-2 zoning requires minimum setbacks, or places where you can’t build anything. This lot requires 6-foot setbacks on each side, a 15-foot front setback, and a 25-foot rear setback, leaving you with a “buildable” area of 38 feet by 10 feet. That’s a total of 380 square feet.

As enamored as Duluth City Councilor Arik Forsman may be about having others live in a tiny home (“As homeless crisis worsens, Duluthians strive for new solutions,” Dec. 12), I’d prefer to live somewhere larger than a shipping container — especially when I’ll be borrowing over $100,000 to build my home and to build affordable housing for others.

But Forsman doesn’t need to worry. The policies our council keeps in place make it a crime to build anything on 602 W. Third St. No matter what you or the architect you hire may think, our zoning code says that the lot is simply too small to be anything other than an overgrown vacancy.

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Is there a better way? Yes! Our council could help to create an inclusive city by repealing all exclusionary land-use policies and regulations that make apartment construction illegal in Duluth. All it would take to legalize more apartments in Duluth is five votes from our City Council.

Although some may say that there would be a need for multi-year, intra-agency discussions and consultations and contracting with consultants for community discussions and consultations, the fact is that our council has the authority to legalize more apartment construction in Duluth tomorrow — if it so wished.

So what are our elected councilors waiting for?

Ginka Tarnowski of West Duluth is a community organizer who assists with her fiance's consulting work.

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Ginka Tarnowski

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