As a citizen working hard on Stillwater’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan, I am concerned Minnesota is missing the mark in its affordable housing conversation, which is vehemently focused on location and not expected cost.
On the Met Council website (www.metrocouncil.org), a document in the Planning section called “Area Median Income and Housing Affordability” details low-income levels and household size for the Twin Cities area. The levels are 80 percent (low income), 50 percent (very low income) and 30 percent (extremely low income) of Area Median Income (AMI). The income levels are matched to an affordable home purchase price, which is set by the Metropolitan Council.
For a family of four earning 80 percent of AMI, HUD shows an annual income of $68,000 before tax. The Met Council sets an affordable home price for this family at $236,000.
This ratio gave me pause, so I investigated with the council’s 2017 assumptions found in the footnotes. Using the Zillow.com mortgage calculator, a $236,000 home with 3.5 percent down (i.e. $8,260) and a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage at 4.375 percent interest would require a payment of $1,137 a month. Add in taxes, homeowner insurance and mortgage insurance, and the monthly payment is $1,669 (assuming an angel covered closing costs).
I then plugged in $68,000 on the Smartasset.com paycheck calculator. The semi-monthly gross paycheck is $2,833. Less assumed deductions of $133 for federal taxes (three allowances), $72 for state taxes, $148 for Social Security, $35 for Medicare, $450 for health insurance, and $142 for 401k (5 percent of salary), the net take-home pay is $1,853.
That leaves this family of four, after its house payment, with $184 for the first half of the month. (One hopes the employer is pitching in for dental insurance, disability and life insurance.)
This household does have another $1,853 take-home coming in the second half of the month, but it still needs to pay for utilities, transportation, home maintenance, internet, cell phone … and food. And the two kids may need diapers, clothes or activity fees (although they may need to skip hockey).
This basic breakdown shows that “affordable” housing costs easily eat up nearly half of the family’s take-home pay. It’s possible to claim a buyer could always purchase a cheaper home. But these numbers are used by Minnesota cities to paint a picture of available affordable housing stock.
In my city’s 2040 plan, a graphic displays a yellow dot for every house deemed affordable by the Metropolitan Council. It looks like the city has a good number of affordable houses. However, many of the houses highlighted are more than a century old. Encouraging a family in the affordable housing category to purchase a 100-plus-year-old home is like wrapping up a poor choice with a shiny bow. The trials are expensive and so are the tribulations.
What should Minnesota do? Accept the Metropolitan Council’s numbers and say a little prayer that workers can make it work, save for the future and not rely on government help? Or be bold and concretely define affordability?
When you play with these online calculators, it’s easy to see which deductions are concrete and which are fluid. It also is not hard to figure out what would be affordable. For years, society has expected a household to spend a third of income on housing. The Met Council bases this on gross pay. What if it were based on net pay? In the example above, a third of take-home pay is $1,235, which would pay for a $175,000 home. The word affordable suddenly makes sense.
Imagine if Minnesota lowered its affordable housing expectations. Would it lure businesses and workers? Would economic disparities start to level? Would families devote more time to education? Would builders be challenged to be more innovative and creative?
A realistic home-price-to-income expectation is the foundation for creating affordable housing that works.
Anne Sundberg Siess has served on the Stillwater Planning Commission since 2010.