Burnsville and Coon Rapids led all Twin Cities suburbs last year in a state ranking of housing availability, an indication that they have a healthy mix of places to live, including for lower-income and senior residents.

The two suburbs tied with 89 points on a 100-point system created by the Metropolitan Council, which ranked 181 communities in the seven-county metro area. They had the third-highest score after St. Paul (98 points) and Minneapolis (97).

The scores are “a way to measure how communities are doing with regard to affordable housing and diversification of housing … and housing preservation efforts,” said Guy Peterson, director of the Met Council’s community development division.

Cities with high housing scores gain a slight advantage when applying for a piece of the $15 million in Livable Communities grants the council gives out each year.

For Coon Rapids, the ranking means “we are a pretty affordable community,” said community development director Marc Nevinski. “The scores indicate our community has opportunities for people at all income levels.”

Since the Livable Communities Act was enacted in 1995, the Met Council has awarded nearly $286 million through 800 grants. Most of the money helped communities build or rehabilitate 41,829 housing units, Peterson said. Of that number, nearly 18,000 units were affordable apartments, about 1,600 were owner-occupied homes, and the rest were market-rate housing.

More than $104 million of the grants helped clean up 2,164 acres of contaminated sites that then were developed for businesses and builders, he said. That process created 43,636 jobs and resulted in the investment of about $6 billion in the sites and increased tax base values by $96 million, according to the Met Council.

Under the Livable Communities program, cities negotiate with the council to set goals for affordable-­housing units and prepare plans to reach their goals, Peterson said.

Like Coon Rapids, Burnsville has a fair amount of affordable housing, as well as programs and loans to encourage such projects, said Jenni Faulkner, community development director. She noted that $4.1 million in council grants in 1999-2000 resulted in 42 percent of 628 planned units in the downtown Heart of the City area becoming affordable housing. The grant also helped build streets and a parking ramp.

Another grant for $800,000 in 2010 helped buy and demolish an old shopping center to make way for 140 affordable assisted- and independent-living units at Valley Ridge Senior Living. The $21 million complex is a partnership between Presbyterian Homes and Dakota County’s community development agency.

“The grants are necessary to bridge the gap in financing” for such projects, Faulkner said. Without them, some projects would not occur or would be smaller in scope.

Burnsville and Coon Rapids boosted their housing scores by having flexible zoning setbacks and other development rules. Coon Rapids also permits compact new housing products like single-family detached townhouses, Nevinski said.

Coon Rapids has won two council grants — one in 2000 for $124,781 to clean up a contaminated redevelopment site, and a second in 2012 for $40,000 to plan housing and other development near a big Metro Transit bus parking ramp on Foley Boulevard.

The urban advantage

Older, larger cities such as Minneapolis and St. Paul and aging suburbs tend to benefit more from Livable Communities grants because they often have housing development agencies and programs that encourage affordable, compact and senior housing near transit and jobs, Peterson said.

The money helps older cities with aging buildings and sites that need rehabilitation and other assistance, said Anoka Mayor Phil Rice. Anoka, which ranked fifth-highest last year with 87 points on the housing score, has won two grants. The most recent was $30,000 in 2012 to plan for redevelopment around the town’s Northstar Station.

“We’ve been snubbed a few times, but we count on the Met Council’s help,” Rice said.

Rural cities and townships don’t benefit as much from the program. They may receive low housing performance scores because they have little or no rental, affordable or senior housing. But if a community without affordable housing seeks a grant to build such units, it receives a high priority even if it ranked poorly in the housing scores, Peterson said.

Lake Elmo, population about 8,100, has never used Met Council grants. The rural city earned 13 points out of 100 last year on the council’s housing performance list, placing ahead of 57 other mostly rural and small municipalities.

“That score might be a little misleading,” said city administrator Dean Zuleger, noting that the city has a mobile home park with 500 low-cost homes. Lake Elmo recently installed sewer lines sought for years by the Met Council, he said, and is improving its long-frayed relationship with the agency.

The city is focusing on the need for housing for aging residents who need to downsize but don’t want to leave town, he said.

“We have done it [development] slowly, so we don’t lose our character,” Zuleger said.