Spring has arrived in Minnesota. Snow is melting and a collective sigh of relief can be heard across the state if you listen hard enough.
Sadly, there is another sign of spring in Minnesota that demands our immediate attention and investment. As the temperature rises and the days get longer, hundreds of Minnesotans will go from staying overnight in temporary emergency shelters to living outside in the elements.
The number of people experiencing homelessness who are unsheltered is growing in Minnesota — and quickly.
Minnesota is facing a housing crisis. Symptoms of this crisis — historic encampments, families living in cars, people turning down jobs that could support their families because they simply can’t find affordable housing nearby, youths couch-hopping to hide their homelessness — threaten our quality of life, community vitality, racial and social equity, economic prosperity and so much more.
Now is the time to act. In every corner of the state, health care professionals, veterans advocates, small and large employers, tribal communities, homeless service providers, education, faith and philanthropic leaders, law enforcement, local government officials, housing and real estate developers are all saying the same thing: We must prioritize capital and operating investments in affordable housing this legislative session.
Last fall, a bipartisan, statewide task force released recommendations to navigate the state out of this crisis; a balanced approach that encourages investments along the housing continuum, from emergency shelter to workforce housing and permanent home ownership. A crucial part of this work addresses the racial inequities that exist at every level of housing, threatening Minnesota’s cultural and economic prosperity. The task force also highlights the importance of flexible state resources to address community and culturally specific needs.
For example, 63 of Minnesota’s 87 counties operate without any form of fixed site shelter. This creates unique challenges for greater Minnesota communities in the face of rising homelessness. In Rochester, there are active discussions of creating “warming houses” to temporarily shelter people from winter weather. Despite innovative new housing in Bemidji, homelessness remains a vexing problem for many tribal members. In areas like Brainerd and Baxter where no shelters exist, the only option is limited hotel vouchers to provide a reprieve from the street.
Likewise, a shortage of workforce housing across the state is creating serious challenges for employers, hindering the state’s prosperity and economic growth. Employers like Digi-Key in Thief River Falls are poised for expansion, providing quality jobs in greater Minnesota, but struggle to find enough housing for their growing workforce.
The good news is that not many issues have the breadth and depth of bipartisan, statewide and cross-sector support that affordable housing and solutions to homelessness have at this very moment in Minnesota. We are poised to make critical progress on goals like ending veterans homelessness — a goal that is very much within our grasp — but lawmakers must act with urgency, prioritizing critical investments in affordable housing this legislative session.
More good news is that we know what works. A number of high-impact funding proposals are under consideration at the Capitol — and a “grand alliance” of support exists across the state to prioritize these investments. For example, investments in housing infrastructure bonds will ensure that “shovel ready” projects can proceed as early as this fall, leveraging critical private investments. Creative new financing tools, such as a proposed housing tax credit, will expand housing opportunities. Tried-and-true funding sources like the emergency services program will provide dignified shelter to the estimated 10,000 Minnesotans experiencing homelessness every single day.
The final stretch of a legislative session can be a turbulent time when even issues considered high priorities become victims of partisan gridlock. We can’t afford for critical investments in affordable housing to suffer this fate.
We can end veterans homelessness. We can respond to rising trends in unsheltered homelessness with smart, strategic solutions. We can support growing businesses by providing workforce housing. We can create safe, permanent homes for every Minnesotan.
We urge lawmakers and Gov. Tim Walz to join the “grand alliance” of leaders and communities across the state who agree that now — this legislative session — is the time for critical investments in housing this legislative session.
Jonathan Weinhagen is president and CEO, Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce. Acooa Ellis is senior vice president of community impact, Greater Twin Cities United Way. Senta Leff is Homes for All co-chair and executive director, Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless. Warren Hanson is president and CEO, Greater Minnesota Housing Fund. Rick Trontvet is vice president, administration, Digi-Key Corp. Neal Loidolt is president and CEO, Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans.