Minneapolis and St. Paul recently updated their comprehensive plans, highlighting how zoning affects housing with little consideration of the land itself. When we buy, sell, demolish or build housing, we aren’t just working with the structural asset, the building, but also the land asset, the ground on which it sits.

This year has given us much to contemplate, including how our housing situation affects our lives during a global pandemic. Landowners are more likely to have the ability to grow food, soak up fresh air and sunshine, easily access outdoor play spaces and mentally refresh themselves in a garden. For cooling our urban heat island, filtering our water, providing wildlife habitat or playing flashlight tag with neighborhood kids, an apartment building with a party deck just can’t compare to a house with a yard.

One of us is a homeowner; the other lives in an apartment building. The homeowner can socially distance; the apartment-dweller needs to rely on others to keep public areas sanitary and doesn’t have easy, contact-free access to nature. One of us is Black and one of us is white.

“Confronting the ownership gap,” (Homes section, Aug. 23) highlighted many important issues regarding the gap between white Minnesota homeowning households (77%) and Black homeowning households (24%). The gap is one of the highest in the nation. This ranking, coupled with the wide educational gap and COVID-19 disproportionately affecting people of color, are standards used for measuring quality of life and are not good news for anyone who believes in equity.

A source quote in the article noted “The biggest obstacle for consumers we work with is access to affordable inventory.” Home price and availability are subject to multiple forces, zoning policies included.

Affordable starter homes are being torn down to build apartments. Sometimes, the homes are marketed so only those with deep pockets and plans to redevelop the site are able to buy them. Rents are often twice what a mortgage payment for the starter home would have been.

Owning a home increases access to credit and mortgage and equity loan interest is tax deductible. Building personal and generational wealth through homeownership becomes much more difficult as the entry point supply continues to diminish.

MinnPost’s 2018 article, “Why it’s extremely difficult to buy a first home in Minnesota right now,” stated, “Short supply has ripples beyond the new homeowner set. The lack of homes under $250,000 means more competition in the market, which also affects, say, baby boomers looking to downsize. It means many young professionals who, in past generations, might have bought a house, are renting, putting pressure on the rental stock and making it harder for lower-income people to find places to live.”

New construction reflects what cities and counties accept from developers. Our homeless encampments suggest new developments are not addressing affordability. A new “affordable” development on St. Paul’s East Side lists one-bedroom apartments at $1,600 a month. Affordable for whom?

Additionally, are we considering long-term consequences of land ownership transfers from someone who lives in the community to someone who does not? In today’s global markets, it seems more and more of our local real estate is being controlled from afar. Apartments that are replacing naturally occurring affordable housing are sometimes sold to outside firms, and it is likely much of the Ford site, now Highland Bridge, will not be locally owned. What does it mean for the community when corporate firms based around the country or, worse yet, international investment cartels, control the land?

In such cases, we are literally selling our city out from under ourselves. Climate change and climate refugees will continue to make land more valuable. What does it mean for our self-determination as a city when we control less and less of the very ground on which it is built? For starters, we lose flexibility of use as new economies emerge.

African Americans, or American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS), want to build generational wealth, too, and need opportunities to invest. The pandemic has underscored the benefits of land ownership. Plus, the most environmentally friendly practice for our cities is to maintain and reuse existing buildings and not to scrap them in landfills.

Those benefiting from teardowns and new construction, like building trade unions and developers, majority white-male dominated, give large sums of money to our politicians. Meanwhile, affordable housing and new parks are heavily subsidized by taxpayers. Highland Bridge has been approved for up to $275 million of public subsidies to developers through tax-increment financing (TIF). When taxpayer money goes to TIF debt service, it isn’t going to our counties that run social service programs, our schools to educate our children, nor our cities for better roads, parks and libraries.

Our leaders must have the courage to reflect on current policies, look at long-term effects and adjust if the stated goal and the actual outcome aren’t in alignment. “Hindsight is 20/20,” as the saying goes. To benefit from that perfect vision, however, one first has to be willing to look.

 

Tony Parrish and Shirley Erstad are St. Paul activists.