Knowledge is power in Minnesota lawmaking — or so rookie State Capitol journalists were taught a few eons ago.
Can that still be said, days after the U.S. Senate demonstrated that partisan loyalty Trumps facts and pretty much every other consideration in governing today’s America? My eyes will be on state Rep. Alice Hausman at the 2020 Legislature as I hope for a reassuring sign.
Hausman, a 16-term St. Paul DFLer, has a fine opportunity to demonstrate the value of knowing a thing or two in today’s Minnesota Legislature, which is set to resume regular-session business Tuesday.
This year’s scheduled main event will be a major bonding bill. No sitting legislator surpasses Hausman in mastery of the arcanery of assembling and enacting a bill to finance public building projects with long-term public debt.
But Hausman no longer sits on the DFL-controlled House Capital Investment Committee, which with its Republican-controlled counterpart in the state Senate will craft this year’s magnum opus. After leading her caucus’s bonding work since 2007, she was denied the committee’s gavel last year in what she took as a demotion. Capitol talk said it was payback for disobeying DFL leaders’ orders to block the GOP-built 2018 bonding bill. (Bonding bills require a 60% supermajority, so it’s a rare year when a few minority-caucus votes are not needed for these behemoth measures to become law.)
Instead, Hausman was assigned to chair the House’s newly created Housing Finance and Policy Division. Speaker Melissa Hortman explained the move by citing a House rule about not chairing the same committee in “the three immediately prior consecutive regular biennial sessions.” That’s an argument with a couple of multiyear holes in it. Hausman’s stints as bonding chair were in 2007-10 and 2013-14.
More to her credit, Hortman also notes that a chronic shortage of affordable housing has become a bigger and hairier political deal, deserving the focus of a senior legislator.
“There’s no better expert on housing in the state of Minnesota than Alice Hausman,” Hortman said last week, praising Hausman’s relationships with housing advocates and familiarity with housing policy tools. “Plus, the housing issue is almost at a crisis point.”
That latter argument has legs, in Minnesota and beyond. The big millennial generation has reached its 30s, the age when its ownership share of the nation’s homes should spike. It hasn’t. And a perpetually tight rental market is pricing out low-income renters, whose share of the total rental market has been falling, according to a Harvard University study released last week.
Those trends are fueling support for both Donald Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left. Voters who are angry about their inability to afford a better place to live are drawn to the ideological extremes. So argued the venerable Economist magazine, which made housing unaffordability its Jan. 18 cover story. Rapidly swelling housing costs since 2000 are the consequence of “one of the rich world’s most serious and long-running economic failures,” the magazine’s lead editorial said. It faulted 60-plus years of public and financial policies that favored homeownership, to the detriment of an adequate supply of working-class shelter.
What’s state government to do about that? One state and one legislative session can’t remake the housing marketplace alone. But one session can ramp the state’s assistance for those whom the marketplace treats most harshly — the unstably housed and homeless poor.
The image those words might conjure is of ill-clad beggars holding cardboard signs near freeway entrances. If so, permit me to expand your vision.
“Half of Minnesota’s homeless are children,” said Monica Nilsson, a longtime advocate for the homeless in Minneapolis, citing the 2018 research led by the Wilder Foundation. “Many are seniors. Many are working, trying to sleep enough to hang on to their jobs. We have people in wheelchairs sleeping at the Mall of America transit station. We have people sleeping in their cars. A third of Minnesota’s homeless live in greater Minnesota. Another third are in the suburbs.
“Homelessness is much more than individual pathology. It’s what happens when incomes don’t meet the cost of housing.”
The Great Recession ended with housing problems getting worse, not better. Since then, the Legislature has been paying more attention to housing, and Hausman has been in the thick of that work. She helped create a new bonding tool, housing infrastructure bonds, that would not compete with higher education and natural resource management for limited general obligation bonds. She encouraged advocates to consolidate their efforts; the Homes for All coalition is the result.
Last year, Hausman rounded up bipartisan support to approve $60 million in housing infrastructure bonds — a major achievement, given that bonding was otherwise a bust last year.
She has found a strong ally in Gov. Tim Walz. The DFL governor made a stepped-up investment in housing one of four featured elements in his 2020 bonding proposal. He seeks $276 million, three times more than was included in the 2018 bonding bill. He has also spearheaded the creation of a new charitable effort, the Minnesota Homeless Fund, to provide emergency assistance this winter.
Hausman is understandably pleased with the governor’s initiatives. But she notes that Homes for All is seeking a $500 million investment this year, and a group of faith leaders and DFL legislators is touting the creation of rent subsidy program that would start with a cool $1 billion. Hausman aims to give those ideas a good hearing.
“What we’ve learned is that it costs the taxpayers more to have homeless people than to actually house them,” Hausman said, citing the long-term costs of the ills that homelessness produces — unemployment, illness, underachievement, shortened life expectancy. “Nothing else in life goes well if you don’t have a safe place to sleep at night. Everything starts there,” she said.
If knowledge is still power at the Legislature, this ought to be a banner year for state investments in housing, and Hausman ought to be a key author of the words on that banner. I’m hoping it’s so for the sakes of Minnesotans who don’t know where they will sleep tonight — and for the sake of maintaining a government in which facts matter.
Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at email@example.com.