Finding the right balance of city, suburban affordable housing

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 3, 2014 - 6:09 PM

The Twin Cities region will be stronger and more diverse if subsidized units are in the core cities and the suburbs.

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There’s significant demand for good, affordable housing in the Twin Cities. Waiting lists often have hundreds of names and — whether in the two core cities or in the suburbs — quality units with reasonable rents are in short supply.

Local housing advocates, experts and researchers agree about the demand. But there is sharp debate about whether government housing policies are meeting the need for lower-cost housing metrowide.

University of Minnesota law Prof. Myron Orfield says they aren’t. His recent research on subsidized housing concludes that city, county and state governments and the Metropolitan Council promote too much affordable housing in the core cities and not nearly enough in the suburbs. That imbalance, he argues, further concentrates poverty, increases racial segregation, and makes struggling neighborhoods and schools even worse.

A former state senator, director of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, and longtime supporter of racially integrated communities and schools, Orfield says his data demonstrate that the primary way for low-income people of color to improve their situations is to move to mostly white suburbs where there are more opportunities.

Not all experts agree. University of Minnesota urban planning Prof. Edward Goetz has criticized Orfield’s study. And many housing experts and developers take issue with Orfield’s contention that adding better-quality affordable housing in low-income neighborhoods does little to improve them. Legitimate questions have been raised on both sides of the question. Should integration goals play a larger role in housing policy? Have government officials, planners and developers in the core cities collaborated to ensure that more subsidized housing is built in Minneapolis and St. Paul? And why not use access to transit as a factor in locating public housing?

Decades of experience in many American cities have taught that concentrations of poverty can create enormous challenges. Consider the huge high-rise housing projects built during waves of urban redevelopment in previous decades. Cabrini-Green in Chicago, for example, once was home to more than 15,000 residents and had one of the highest crime rates in that city. The last of its towers was demolished in 2011.

Conversely, in Minneapolis, the recently renovated Riverside Plaza complex in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood was planned as a mixed-income development when it was built, but it is now home to many low-income East African immigrants.

Orfield says the growing demand for subsidized housing in the suburbs is due in part to the fact that some low-income residents believe the suburbs are safer and offer better schools. If there were more affordable suburban housing, he argues, the metro area would be less segregated.

Ideally, the Twin Cities metro area would be more racially and socioeconomically mixed. Officials charged with developing metro housing policies should pay attention to Orfield and his research. A balance of affordable housing in urban and suburban communities — with living-wage jobs, transportation options and strong schools throughout — would benefit the entire region.

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