Affordable Housing Series

(Editor’s note: This is the third and final installment of a series of editorials by the Adams Publishing - ECM Editorial Board, examining affordable housing issues in Minnesota and potential solutions.)

Every family needs to have a place to call home – a cozy bed, a kitchen stocked with food and a secure roof overhead. Beyond shelter requirements, home offers us sanctuary from the stresses of life, a place for children to do their homework and for social interaction.

So why is that quest so far out of reach for many Minnesotans? It just doesn’t seem possible in this time of booming business, residential construction everywhere you look and a jobless rate at a longtime low that housing remains unaffordable and inaccessible to so many.

In previous editorials, our Editorial Board has outlined the extent of the problem and some of the specific barriers to those who are unable to develop a stable housing situation.

Twenty-seven percent of the state’s households are “cost-burdened,” meaning their housing costs more than 30 percent of income. 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. Forty-three percent of white renter households suffered cost burden, compared with 53 percent of renters of color.

Those families in turn need to cut other costs, skimping on food, medicine or transportation.

Minnesota’s senior citizens also struggle. More than half of renting seniors face housing-cost burden along with a quarter of senior homeowners. In the Twin Cities region, more than 3 in 5 senior renters are cost burdened.

Housing at all price levels is at a premium in the state, but the affordable housing market is the tightest. Apartment complexes are renovated and rents increased. The number of older homes naturally moving from market rate to affordable is decreasing. Builders say it is not feasible to build single-family homes under $350,000, a price many cannot afford.

So what can be done to bridge the gap between housing needs and available stock?

Many organizations, cities and nonprofits are doing what they can to develop affordable housing along with the boom in larger homes and apartment complexes.

One such organization is CommonBond Communities, a provider of affordable housing throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. Services include job training resources and other social services. It aims to offer quality housing and support to “create environments and experiences that help each resident meet their goals and be their best self.”

The state, through a variety of programs, is investing $100 million this year. Programs range from short-term assistance to families at risk for homelessness, rehabilitation loans to help low-income homeowners make basic essential improvements, to homebuyers’ counseling and foreclosure prevention. Significant funds ($28 million) go to new construction and redevelopment programs.

Cities and counties need to consider the needs and obstacles that face homeowners and renters. Cities should consider some flexibility in their zoning rules, such as allowing smaller units in some areas, or allowing multifamily units in residential areas.

Cities, counties and the state need to consider tax incentives and grant programs to help builders in developing affordable units throughout our communities.

Governmental units should review their building requirements to ensure rules are essential and do not put unreasonable burden on home and apartment developers.

All cities should require some number of affordable units to be included in all developments, or to require builders to contribute to an affordable housing fund. A new proposal in St. Paul will require any builder who receives any public money, directly or passed through from other units, to accept federal Section 8 vouchers.

Beyond such incentives, however, the long-term answer is to bring families’ incomes higher. We continually hear employers cannot find enough workers to fill their jobs – many of them well-paying positions. A recent survey by Enterprise Minnesota shows 64 percent of manufacturers anticipate economic expansion – a record high. Yet the same survey shows 48 percent say attracting and retaining its workforce is a major challenge, which might impact future growth. Deliberate training, recruitment and community collaboration programs are essential to manufacturing’s future.

A constant business-education-government partnership must exist to train unemployed or underemployed people in our communities to meet the needs of today’s companies.

The result is an upward cycle. By helping families improve their standing, we improve their ability to afford quality rental units or buy their own homes. In turn, they become more able to afford life’s necessities and extras, fueling our communities’ economies.

We all benefit from stronger, healthier, more stable families in our neighborhoods. Home is not only where the heart is – home is the essential base for a quality life. — An opinion of the Adams Publishing – ECM Editorial Board. Reactions welcome. Send to: editorial.board@ecm-inc.com.

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