“I watched this place be built and I remember praying and praying to get in. This was my last hope.”
Although Katie earned a paycheck, she couldn’t afford rent anywhere in Rochester. She shuffled her three children from shelter to shelter, guilt-ridden by the impact that instability had on her young kids. “It was really overwhelming,” she says. But she had no other options.
Katie and her kids are the faces of Minnesota’s growing housing crisis. Rising rents, stagnant wages and soaring housing costs mean more than 580,000 Minnesota households pay more than they can afford for housing, pushing them to the brink of homelessness. Since 2000, the number of cost-burdened families has increased 60 percent, and it’s a weight on the education, economy and strength of communities statewide. For Katie, her last hope to lift that burden was Gage East apartments — a rental complex in Rochester built with the assistance of state bonds.
As a state legislator, I recognize the urgent need to make sure our public resources are focused on the populations who most need our assistance. So Peter Coyle’s commentary — “Affordable housing unchained: We don’t need more subsidies in Minnesota. We need fewer rules and fees” (April 8) — was troubling. While he asserts that “the discussion of housing affordability usually misses the mark,” it’s his narrow focus that loses sight of the bigger picture.
Especially in a state with the most extreme disparities in homeownership by race, we must work to make this critical wealth-building asset accessible to more people. Ensuring reasonable regulations, zoning and fees for single-family homes, as Coyle urges, is certainly part of that equation. But the reality is that the most vulnerable populations — those bearing the most devastating impacts of our housing crisis — are not those who “have incomes too high for public subsidy.” It’s the growing number of families, like Katie’s, who are working hard but earning a paycheck that can’t secure even a decent apartment.
I don’t disagree with Coyle’s contention that local laws shouldn’t preclude homeownership for middle-income households. But I do reject his argument against bonds for housing.
Despite Coyle’s claims that bonding dollars “result in too few affordable-housing units to make a real difference,” the truth is that state investments in affordable housing programs have created thousands of units of housing for those who need them most. Since 2012 alone, state bonding has created or preserved close to 7,000 homes. When Coyle questions the efficacy of the $100 million in bonds for housing in this year’s bill, he’s telling more than 4,650 households across the state that they aren’t deserving of safe, decent, affordable shelter.
Another benefit of using bonding dollars for housing is that for every state dollar invested, three dollars in matching funds are leveraged. Last year, state and federal resources leveraged $346 million in private and local funding for affordable housing.
While local governments should do more to address rules that increase costs, we do a disservice by suggesting that state investments are inefficient. In awarding bonding dollars, our state housing agency already prioritizes projects in communities that waive fees or amend zoning ordinances to make a development feasible.
Pointing to regulation reform to undermine the importance of state investment is simply a straw man argument. As one Twin Cities homebuilder shared with me, a 10 percent decline in costs wouldn’t come close to making homeownership affordable even to households earning the area median income in the Twin Cities. So while Coyle points out that “the same home costs some $20,000 more to construct in Minnesota than in Wisconsin,” he doesn’t mention that, by any estimation, that difference hasn’t mitigated the affordable housing crisis in our neighbor to the east. In fact, according to analysis by the Minnesota Housing Partnership, 30 percent of Wisconsin households pay more than they can afford for housing, compared with 27 percent of households in Minnesota. Just last month, the Wisconsin legislature passed a $42 million affordable housing tax credit, underlining the reality that, even with lower costs, state investments are still needed.
In a perfect world, a properly regulated private market could ensure housing stability for all Minnesotans. In the real world — the world Katie lives in — state investment is crucial to make places like Gage East in Rochester possible. We provide this type of support for roads, public universities and many other community assets — and, if we collectively agree that Katie’s kids shouldn’t be homeless, it is something that we can and must do for housing.
Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, is a member of the Minnesota House.