This is the first in a series of editorials by the ECM Editorial Board, examining affordable housing issues in Minnesota and potential solutions.

Chances are you’ve seen it where you live or work. Homes are being built again, jobs are plentiful and new apartments are sprouting faster than many Minnesotans can remember. The housing crisis and Great Recession are assuredly over.

But prosperity has helped expose and exacerbate the shortage of affordable housing. To many, including Gov. Mark Dayton, the mismatch between housing costs and too many working families’ ability to afford them is the state economy’s new crisis. The mismatch persists in the Twin Cities region and outside it, where monthly job gains sometimes exceed the metro area’s.

Last December, Dayton formed the Governor’s Task Force on Housing to find solutions to the problem of more than one in four households — nearly 550,000 — spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing. The 30 percent figure is a widely accepted benchmark of affordability.

As the task force works toward a July report, the ECM Editorial Board will publish a series examining the contours of the problem, its specific impacts on working people and senior citizens and potential remedies — which must include public incentives to bring private and nonprofit builders and housing providers into the picture.

Twenty-seven percent of households are burdened by housing costs of more than 30 percent, meaning they must skimp on other needs like food, medicine and transportation, according to the March 2017 “State of the State’s Housing” report by the Minnesota Housing Partnership, an affordable housing advocate.

The number of cost-burdened households rose by 58 percent from 2000 to 2016, reports Minnesota Housing, the state’s housing finance agency.

Among Minnesota’s 590,000 renter households, nearly half experience housing cost burden and nearly a quarter experience “severe” burden, with more than half of income spent on rent, MHP reports. Forty-three percent of white renter households suffered cost burden, compared with 53 percent of renters of color.

“While many housing trends vary by region, renter housing cost burden is an issue in almost every county in Minnesota,” MHP reports.

Incomes have not kept pace with rising housing costs.

Statewide, median monthly rents rose from $815 in 2000 to $912 in 2016, while median annual incomes fell 4 percent from $38,250 to $36,766, Minnesota Housing reports. The median renter income of $32,600 in 2015 provided $815 to spend affordably on housing compared with the fair-market rent of $924 for a two-bedroom apartment, according to MHP.

There is a housing shortage. Rental vacancy rates are 3.8 percent in the Twin Cities metro and 4.3 in greater Minnesota, both below the 5 percent that reflects a stable market.

Among Minnesota’s 1.5 million homeowner households, nearly one in five experienced cost burden in 2015. That’s 20 percent higher than the average rate of cost burden in Upper Midwest states. Nearly 10 percent of Minnesota’s homeowning households spend more than half their income on housing.

In the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota, the growth of relatively low-wage jobs is expected to create 118,000 new openings by 2024. But among the top six in-demand occupations, only registered nurses and truck drivers will be able to afford fair-market rents for a two-bedroom apartment, according to MHP.

Senior citizens face their own challenges. More than half of renting seniors face housing cost burden along with a quarter of senior homeowners. In the Twin Cities region, more than three in five senior renters are cost burdened.

“This issue is likely to grow only more urgent as the region’s senior population is expected to grow by 123 percent over the next 20 years — the largest projected increase for any region in the state,” MHP said.

Market forces alone don’t solve these problems.

Minnesota has lost thousands of units of “naturally occurring” affordable rental housing — older units with modest rents. As rents have risen and vacancies fallen, they’ve become plums for investors to pluck, update and put back on the market at much higher rents.

Strong growth among renter households with higher incomes has prodded the trend, symbolized most notably in the Twin Cities by the upscaling of the 700-unit Crossroads at Penn complex in Richfield, where many low-income renters lost their homes.

Gov. Dayton’s bonding bill before the Legislature includes $100 million for affordable housing projects statewide. He says more than $5 billion in public and private investment has helped 325,000 low- and moderate-income households gain affordable housing since he took office in 2011.

We hope that new investment and new approaches will become part of his legacy when he leaves office at the end of this year.

An opinion of the ECM Editorial Board. (Name of newspaper) is part of ECM Publishers Inc. Reactions to editorials are always welcome. Send to: editorial.board@ecm-inc.com.

Load comments