As the mayor of a successful suburban city, I value good data — it helps to develop a community plan and a path to prosperity. As in business, planning community success in a competitive and changing marketplace requires that we in local government understand the demographic and market trends that will affect our cities and the region we’re part of.
Two recent commentaries criticized the Metropolitan Council’s housing plan with different but equally tired and unproductive perspectives.
Katherine Kersten’s ideologically fueled attack — “Do we really want to live like this?,” Sept. 27 — is based in a politically potent but false “boogeyman” narrative of the Met Council pushing around local governments like mine in Eagan.
In response, Myron Orfield and Will Stancil paint an equally distorted narrative — “Actually, the Met Council is protecting the status quo,” Oct. 4 — of suburban policymakers who need pushing around because of their proclivity to “use their zoning powers” to “effectively ban” housing that is affordable to lower-income families.
Both are wrong, bordering on offensive.
To be sure, I was one of the suburban mayors on the council’s Housing Plan Advisory Committee. I’m not 100 percent supportive of every detail in the final housing plan, and I can’t speak for all mayors and suburban policymakers in our region. However, Kersten’s notion that the housing plan somehow empowers a “strong-arming” Met Council to impose its will on suburban governments is fiction and dangerously devalues the importance of regional planning to a prosperous, vibrant future for our communities.
The planning partnership between the council and local governments is rooted in a common understanding of regional trends. In that partnership, communities like Eagan are indeed autonomous and control local land-use decisions. Nothing in the housing plan allows the council to “impose its will” or “its vision of an ideal community.”
Conversely, the suburban colleagues I worked with on this housing plan, and those from across the region, genuinely care about affordability, gaps in their community housing stock and the increasingly diverse needs of all their residents. Orfield’s and Stancil’s image of suburban leaders caring only about “expensive houses on expansive lots” is an all-too-familiar and easy distraction from the very real challenges policymakers and advocates face when trying to encourage affordability in a dynamic and changing housing market
As we begin work on our own comprehensive plans, cities across the region are taking stock of today’s housing, transit, and transportation options and identifying the challenges of the future. For example, right now, 1 in 3 households are paying 30 percent or more of their income on housing; 1 in 8 pay more than half of their income. That leaves precious little money and fewer choices for other needs. In Eagan today, an estimated 1,300 households cannot find a home their family can reasonably afford. While welcome, the unfortunate reality is that this past Monday’s Eagan dedication of the Dakota County Community Development Agency’s 50-unit Lakeshore Townhome development will make only a small dent.
Affordable-housing options help low-income people who already live in cities like Eagan. A recent Met Council study revealed that there are actually more people living in suburban poverty than in the major cities of our region. It’s not about shifting challenges from the cities to the ’burbs; it’s about using good data to inform our planning for the challenges we already face and will face into the future.
Unlike the implications of both attacks on the housing plan, affordability is not just about low-income residents or redistributing urban poverty to suburban communities. Businesses and large employers increasingly identify the costs of having employees trapped in long, unproductive and congested commutes when they can’t afford to live closer. Additionally, other low- and moderate-income jobs follow higher-paying ones to the suburbs — from administrative positions and dry cleaners to coffee shop baristas and office cleaners.
By 2040, older adults will head 1 in 3 households in our region. Many don’t want to continue living in the four-bedroom house with a big yard. How will they remain a part of our communities if local and regional leaders aren’t using that knowledge to help ensure as best we can that there are options that meet the needs of aging residents?
The need to anticipate and plan for affordable-housing demand can be a byproduct of a region’s success. Millennials just starting out in cities like Denver and San Francisco are struggling against rising rents and being “priced out.” The essence of planning is to avoid that struggle and to be able to attract and keep talented professionals and entrepreneurs early in their careers.
Both Thrive MSP 2040 and the Met Council’s housing plan aim to cultivate a region where all residents have options and opportunities. The goal may not be fully achievable, but it is laudable, and so too is the housing plan.
Mike Maguire is mayor of Eagan.