Every Monday evening in Minneapolis, there’s a drawing to select the names of those lucky individuals who will get a bed for the month. The numbers of shelter seekers, men and women, have been increasing in recent months. Currently, there are more than 100 homeless men showing up for the Monday lottery. Their odds are not good. Only about 10 to 15 will get a bed in one of the three church-based shelters. The lottery losers will be found sleeping in parks and like places, praying for good weather.
The lottery for homeless people is a reminder that housing assistance for those with little income is a question of luck. Only about one-quarter of those who qualify for housing assistance receive any support.
Across the Twin Cities, rents have been steadily increasing, and more and more people are finding themselves homeless or with rents that leave little money for food and other necessities. The number of Twin Cities families paying over half of their income for housing has more than doubled since 2000 (to 153,312, or nearly one in seven metro households). Many are elderly or disabled, and the uneven economic recovery has left increasing numbers of working people unable to cover the cost of housing.
The lack of affordable housing provides the context for Wednesday’s meeting of the Metropolitan Council. At this meeting, members will vote on three key amendments to the council’s new Housing Policy Plan. This plan creates a road map for an equitable approach to meeting our region’s affordable-housing needs. The council’s plan also guides municipalities that are required by state law to include a housing element in their comprehensive plans, explaining how each will meet its share of affordable housing.
These amendments will not improve the lottery odds overnight, but they will establish a new level of public commitment to addressing the demand for affordable housing over the next decade. The council should adopt these amendments to expand housing choice for everyone across the Twin Cities region.
One amendment before the council specifies for each municipality the number of new affordable units, by income level, that represent a fair share of the region’s projected demand (37,900 units) by the year 2030. Community amounts are based on forecast household growth, but increase should a community have relatively low numbers of existing affordable units or large numbers of low-wage jobs. Under this distribution formula, Bloomington, for example, has a need for about 50 new affordable-housing units per year, with half being affordable to households with annual incomes under $26,000.
The Housing Policy Plan also lays out how the council will review an individual community’s housing element as well as help implement the housing goals of its comprehensive plan. In its review role, the council will comment on whether a community is fulfilling its statutory responsibility to identify land at needed densities for affordable housing, and identify programs or policy actions that could be employed to help every community meet their affordable-housing goals.
The third major amendment provides the factors used to determine a community’s Housing Performance Score. This score awards extra points to cities for producing and preserving affordable housing and for adopting housing-related community initiatives, such as creating a rental licensing system or administering a housing rehab program. The score will be used by the council to prioritize communities applying to it for resources such as those to recover polluted land or enhance livability of downtown areas.
While some local governments have raised concerns about the formula for assigning need, we believe the Housing Policy Plan is consistent with state statute and takes a reasonable approach to fairly allocating the region’s demand for affordable housing. Some have suggested that the plan creates expectations beyond available resources, and while that is a valid concern, the council is only calculating the housing need and encouraging communities to do what they can, not requiring any specific expenditure of local funds. Increased state and federal funding is also needed, as are private-sector jobs at pay levels that minimize the need for public assistance.
Adoption of the amendments to the Housing Policy Plan is just one step to expanding housing affordability across the metro region, but it is an important step in supporting municipal plans and policies that offer housing opportunities to families at the full range of incomes found in our region.
Gail Dorfman is executive director of St. Stephen’s Human Services and is a member of the Metropolitan Council. Chip Halbach is executive director of the Minnesota Housing Partnership.