Despite the widespread notion that the Southwest light-rail line would cater to professionals commuting from the wealthy western suburbs, the train also will cut past working-class homes with incomes well below the metro median.
That’s why one-third of the 11,200 new apartments, condos and homes expected along the line through 2030 should be for those with low and moderate incomes, according to a Southwest LRT Corridor working group.
Those goals are designed to ensure that the metro area’s first light-rail line extending deep into the suburbs won’t cause wholesale gentrification of lower-income neighborhoods, where rapid transit is more a necessity than a convenience, said Hopkins Economic Development Director Kersten Elverum.
“I do think that there is a [wealthy west] perception out there, and one that has been used as reasoning against Southwest LRT. It’s not based in reality,” Elverum said.
Even before light-rail construction has begun, prices near the proposed route are up.
Colleen Thompson, a retiree who works as a store clerk in downtown Hopkins, recently left the west metro area because she couldn’t find a $1,000-a-month apartment that she liked. She moved to a senior apartment community in St. Anthony, “a nice, safe place to live that is not going to put you in the poorhouse,” she said.
Policymakers are worried that others in Thompson’s position — bank tellers, school bus drivers, nursing assistants — could be priced out of neighborhoods along the Southwest line.
Officials in St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Edina and Minnetonka are giving the housing goals a thumbs-up.
“We support affordable housing. We are supportive of the study,” said Edina Community Development Director Cary Teague. Both Edina and St. Louis Park now require that 10 percent of the units in most new housing projects be affordable.
“We are comfortable with the numbers. It’s not unrealistic,” Elverum said.
According to data collected during a 2013 inventory, the median household income for neighborhoods within a half-mile of Southwest’s 15 planned stations is $50,580. That’s well below the metrowide figure of $82,833, determined by federal officials in 2014.
The Southwest corridor working group believes that cities and the Metropolitan Council should use their influence, financial aid and resources to promote a mix of housing.
“Analysis suggests that if housing development is left solely to market forces, new development around station areas will be market-rate and luxury rental options,” according to the strategy.
In other communities, said Cathy Capone Bennett of the Urban Land Institute of Minnesota, high-end development has “really had a devastating effect on low-income people because of the market shifts that occur when rail transit gets put in. Pulling together all of the partners and having the county and the cities working together is unprecedented.”
The cost of housing eats up half of Hopkins resident Montana Moore’s wages. The 22-year-old, who works full time as a barista, splits the $1,500 rent and utilities on her two-bedroom apartment with two roommates.
“It’s really hard,” said Moore. An affordable housing option, she said, could create some room in her budget to pay for nursing school.
Concerns about rentals
Not everyone is thrilled with the affordable housing strategy; some express skepticism about loading up the suburbs with high-rise affordable rental units. Cheryl Lais, a Hopkins heirloom jewelry dealer who lives in St. Louis Park, said she’d rather see affordable homes that are owner-occupied.
“Too much rental is not good for any community. There is no sense of community. There is no sense of commitment,” Lais said. She added that she worries builders cut corners on affordable apartments, which wind up looking shabby.
The strategy calls for 950 of the 3,520 affordable and moderate-priced units to be owner-occupied.
On the other side, some say the plan doesn’t provide enough affordable housing to meet demand. But housing policy leaders say they believe the goals strike the right balance.
“I don’t think we should let the perfect stand in the way of the good. If we are waiting for a perfect plan, we will never get a plan,” said Met Council Member Gary Cunningham, chairman of the community development committee that reviewed the plan.
Affordable and moderately priced housing projects don’t simply happen, city planners said.
“It takes so much effort, especially in the funding end of things. You have to get in a pipeline for tax credits,” Elverum said.
New apartment growth has been booming in St. Louis Park for several years, most of it marketed as luxury units. But the city’s new affordable housing requirement isn’t dissuading developers, said St. Louis Park Housing Supervisor Michele Schnitker.
“The market is strong in our community for multifamily development,” Schnitker said.
While the Eden Prairie City Council hasn’t yet taken a position on the specifics of the housing strategy, Mayor Nancy Tyra-Lukens said the city recognizes “the need for more affordable housing across the region.” The city’s long-standing policy is to try to get builders to carve out affordable units in 20 percent of a new project.
There’s already interest. A developer is looking at building a 200- to 300-unit apartment complex near one of the stations in St. Louis Park with a mix of affordable and market-rate units. Hopkins has several housing projects underway.
Elaine Goepfert, who owns a Hopkins photography business, said she is “100 percent for affordable housing.” Rising housing costs make it hard to find nannies, who can’t afford to live nearby, she said.
Goepfert remembers vividly her struggle to make ends meet a few years back, when she was divorced with two small children and waitressed while finishing a college degree.
“I was that person,” she said. “Anything that can help people get on their feet and succeed, I support. It’s tough out there.”