Call it a perverse side effect of economic success. In Minnesota and around the country in the years since the Great Recession, a shortage of affordable housing has worsened in places experiencing healthy GDP growth. While local variations contribute to the problem, they boil down to one pervasive trend: As the economy expands, rents rise faster than tenants’ incomes.
The ill effect that gap is having on Minnesota’s best economic asset — its workforce — is reason enough for state and local governments to seek a remedy. But the housing market is a realm in which governments must take care to avoid doing more harm than good. That’s why we’re cheering recent moves by Gov. Mark Dayton and city leaders in Minneapolis and St. Paul to deepen their respective governments’ housing expertise before recommending changes.
Last month, Dayton created a Governor’s Task Force on Housing; its first meeting is set for Friday. Charged with making policy recommendations by July — in time to inform the campaigns for governor and the state House — the task force includes representatives of both the public and private sectors and plans to collect wide-ranging input for a holistic examination of the problem. Minnesotans can share their views via a survey at www.mnhousingtaskforce.com.
That befits a whole-state problem. A 2017 Minnesota Housing Finance Agency study found that 1 in 4 Minnesota households pays more than 30 percent of its income — a recommended guideline for affordability — on either rent or mortgage payments. That’s a 58 percent increase since 2000.
In recent years, pleaders for the Legislature’s help in addressing affordable housing shortages have been as likely to come from Thief River Falls or Albert Lea as from the Twin Cities. That’s why it’s good to see Duluth Mayor Emily Larson, Olmsted County Board Member Sheila Kiscaden and several other Greater Minnesota representatives on the task force.
Homelessness persists despite the economic upturn, and it will be one facet of the task force’s work. Minnesota’s homeless population was up 4.5 percent last year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported last month. Acooa Ellis of Catholic Charities, a co-chair of the governor’s task force, reported that space intended to accommodate increased winter-season demand at the new Higher Ground homeless shelter in downtown St. Paul was full well before cold weather arrived.
Meanwhile, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and the City Council are signaling that affordable housing tops their agendas. It was a marquee theme in Frey’s inaugural address on Monday. Keeping housing affordable and available in every corner of the city is a vital component of a strategy for maximizing human capital, he emphasized. “Everyone has the right to live in a great city. And in our great city, we don’t push certain communities aside, we welcome them in,” he said.
New Council President Lisa Bender announced the creation of a Housing Policy and Development Committee, to be chaired by veteran Second Ward Council Member Cam Gordon. Gordon said Tuesday he intends to establish a community advisory panel of experts and to seek input from city residents affected by the squeeze.
Similar work is already in progress in St. Paul. Shortly before leaving office, former Mayor Chris Coleman joined incoming City Council President Amy Brendmoen in setting a March 28 deadline for the city’s Fair Housing Workgroup to recommend a new strategy to Mayor Melvin Carter and the city’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority. The two city governments appear to have a fine opportunity for collaboration as their efforts proceed.
At Monday’s Minneapolis inauguration event, a group of hecklers tried to tell city officials what to do. “Rent control now!” they shouted — touting an idea that economists almost universally advise against because of its propensity to shrink the housing supply. We trust that the new Minneapolis committee, the St. Paul work group and the governor’s task force will pay particular attention to people who are deeply familiar with the housing market and are willing to collaborate to make it better serve everyone.