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Fourplexes are a debated housing model, but these Minneapolis residents love them

September 14, 2018

Janne Flisrand was about 25 when she bought the 1903 Minneapolis fourplex that has been her home for 22 years.

She and a handful of friends had been renting a dumpy house with a leaking shower in a northern suburb when she found the four-unit building, which included a garden-level studio apartment and three larger ones stacked above. The front porch was rotting, but the fourplex had an irresistible location in the bustling heart of Uptown.

We scraped together a down payment, she said, buying the building with her then partner and renting to their other housemates. The plan was for all of us to move in together.

Over the decades, renters have come and gone. But Flisrand, who bought out her former partner 10 years ago, has stayed. Shes now in her mid-40s, and theres nowhere else shed rather be.

Its the exact location I want, she said.

Fourplexes have become a point of controversy in Minneapolis ever since the city unveiled a proposal to allow buildings of up to four units to be built in every neighborhood. (Now, about two-thirds of the city is zoned to allow only single-family homes or duplexes.)

The fourplex proposal is just one part of a broad update to the citys comprehensive plan, called Minneapolis 2040, designed to address future needs, including housing. But residents have loudly voiced concerns that fourplexes will bring increased traffic, noise and investor-owned rental properties to some of the citys most desirable neighborhoods.

After a period of public feedback, the city is now working on a revised draft of the plan, expected to be published this fall. Whatever shape the final plan takes, it appears likely that at least some new fourplexes will be added to the citys housing stock in the years ahead.

For Flisrand, owning a fourplex is a way to stay in Uptown.

I couldnt afford to live in this neighborhood if I didnt have help, said Flisrand, who operates a small consulting business on affordable housing policy.

It costs a lot to maintain her old and big house. Over the years, shes updated kitchens and bathrooms, replaced the roof, invested in energy-efficient features, and re-landscaped the backyard to create a community garden. But shes never lacked for renters.

The location makes it easy to find people who want to live here, she said.

Sure, there are downsides to being a live-in landlord. Its a bunch of work, she said. When the toilet breaks, people call me.

But the upside is worth it.

My favorite thing about living here is the community of people, she said. Shes rented to a lot of artists, students and families new to town. Its fun and interesting to meet people at different times in their lives and hear all their stories.

Early 1900s heyday

Fourplexes had their heyday almost a century ago, then fell out of favor.

Most of the fourplexes Ive seen in St. Paul and Minneapolis appear to date between 1900 and 1925, said architectural historian Larry Millett.

Thats also about the time that two-story duplexes were introduced. (Before then, side-by-side duplexes were more common, he said.)

In Minneapolis, the decline of the fourplex coincides with the citys first zoning ordinance, adopted in 1924, which restricted the areas of Minneapolis where three- and four-unit buildings could be built.

Between 1900 and 1927, there were 820 fourplexes built in Minneapolis, according to city records. Between 1928 and 1944, only 51 fourplexes were built, and between 2009 and 2018, only five.

Today, there are about 1,100 fourplexes in Minneapolis, compared with about 10,000 duplexes and 74,500 single-family dwellings, according to the city.

While duplexes and single-family homes are widely distributed throughout the city, fourplexes tend to be concentrated closer to the center of the city. Many were built along streets that had streetcar service, according to Millett.

Flisrand, for one, thinks the time has come to allow more fourplexes in more parts of the city.

Cities change, she said. They always have. We are a growing city, and we need enough housing of enough shapes and sizes.

Rising prices and rents in popular urban neighborhoods have become a barrier to people who want to live there, she said. Homeownership in Minneapolis is so inaccessible.

Over the years, shes watched dozens of people move in and out of her fourplex. Often they left to buy a house, she said. They used to move nearby. The clear pattern I see now is that they cant afford to stay. A fourplex can create a first step to homeownership.

Owning vs renting

One Minneapolis resident who recently made the leap from renting to owning, via a fourplex, is Matt Lewis. He and his wife, Natalie Wagner, bought their first home last summer a condo in a four-unit building near LynLake.

We couldnt have afforded a single-family home, said Lewis. They had to compete with two other buyers and pay over asking price to get the condo. We got really lucky, he said.

Their unit in the 1925 brick building still has its original wood moldings but has been updated with new appliances. All four units are owner-occupied, he said, and owners pay a monthly fee to fund a reserve to cover exterior repairs and maintenance.

Not long after we moved in, we had to do major tuck-pointing. The mortar was crumbling, he said. There was discussion among the owners as to whether to spend more to get it right vs. kicking the can down the road, Lewis recalled. Coming to a consensus was simpler in their little building than it would have been in a bigger complex with many condos. Its easier to wrangle four people than 40, he noted.

So far, fourplex life suits them, Lewis said.

Its really cool to have it feel like a community. He and his wife share a vegetable plot with one of the other owners and trade cat-sitting duties with another.

As for the responsibilities of homeownership, they take a little getting used to.

Lewis and a younger neighbor are responsible for snow removal. I miss our old caretaker, who used to handle that winter chore, Lewis said. But its a small price to pay. Overall, weve just loved our place.

But not all fourplex renters aspire to become owners, at least not anytime soon.

Freelance cartoonist Matt Wilson, one of Flisrands tenants, would rather rent. I just like the apartment experience, he said.

Diana Nock, a freelance artist and one of Wilsons two housemates, also expects to be a longtime renter. Theres no way I could afford to get a house on my own, ever, she said. I dont make much money. She, Wilson and the other housemate divide their $1,950 monthly rent.

A fourplex is perfect for people like us.

Kim Palmer 612-673-4784

@stribkimpalmer

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