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MN2020 - 2012’s Little-known Legislative Gains
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2012’s Little-known Legislative Gains

June 19, 2012 By Leigh Rosenberg, Guest Commentary

As the Minnesota Legislature closed with the great stadium debate of 2012, it ended with roaring fans, anxious questioning of government priorities, and of course the intrigue of political scandal. So it was easy to miss the unassuming victory for affordable housing hidden behind the headlines.

Housing and homeless advocates, reeling after years of cuts amidst a growing need for affordable housing, united together for a simple ask: bonds for housing. Minnesotans who care about housing got busy making their voices heard in St. Paul.

It worked!

Rep. Alice Hausman, chair of the House bonding committee remarked at the end of session, “Like almost no others, housing advocates have been here almost every single day talking to everyone, and the bill reflects that.” Ultimately, the bonding bill included $37.5 million for affordable housing.

This is truly something to celebrate. The housing bonds will help our communities offer better housing choices for people across the income spectrum, so that cashiers and child care workers can actually afford to live where they work. These resources will make sure that safe, affordable, public housing remains available for people on the edge, most of whom have household incomes less than $15,000 per year.

Long-term homeless people will benefit from more supportive housing due to these housing bonds. In areas hard-hit by foreclosure, the bonds will help address vacant properties in jeopardy of becoming neighborhood nuisances.

Bonding resources also put people to work building homes in an industry that’s lost half its jobs since the housing bubble burst.

It’s rare indeed, when people across the political spectrum find a line in the budget to celebrate together.

It’s also important to remember what we didn’t accomplish this legislative session. Compared to our needs, the bonding resources for housing are a drop in the bucket. Much of the money will address long-term homelessness or preserve housing that’s already affordable, by rehabilitating it or preventing it from reverting to market-rate. So the bonding bill was an important success, but barely touches the growing need.

As of 2010, about 1 in 8 Minnesota households paid half or more of their income for housing, with the vast majority being low-income households. The federal government considers this to be unaffordable housing. Unfortunately, in the last decade, Minnesota has had the fastest growth of any state in the share of households that pay this much of their income for housing.

For renters, in particular, the recession is taking a severe toll. Long-term unemployment, young people unable to find jobs, and the number of folks who have quit looking for work are at levels not seen in decades.

Meanwhile, rents keep rising, in both the Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota. With rising rents and long term unemployment, regrettably, and tragically, homelessness is up. Collectively, the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Duluth public schools report 23% more homeless children than just two years ago.

So it’s clear that writing Minnesota’s next chapter on affordable housing will require sharpening our pencils.

With 2012 being an election year, Minnesotans need to ask candidates about their positions on housing and help educate them. We need to be sure that all our candidates, regardless of political persuasion, understand that good housing choices benefit the entire community, and that investing in housing creates jobs and infrastructure for the future. With budget shortfalls likely for next session, it’s important for candidates to know the housing issues in their own districts and across the state.

We also need to talk to policymakers at all levels of government about the importance of increasing resources for housing, and targeting resources to those with the greatest need. From 2006 to 2010, only 564 homes or apartments in the entire metro area were built to be affordable to families with the lowest incomes of $25,000 or less for a family of four. At the same time, there has been a tremendous reduction in lower-rent apartments. Having so few apartments affordable to people in financial straits, it’s sadly not surprising that homelessness is up.

Finally, we should understand that the federal government plays a much bigger role in funding housing than the state of Minnesota does. At the very least, we should make sure federal funds for affordable housing are maintained, even as the U.S. House threatens cuts.

We should also rethink how to target dollars to rental housing, especially for the lowest income families. As it stands, the largest housing subsidy, by far, goes to homeowners in the form of the mortgage interest deduction.

Minnesota is recognized nationally as a leader for its forward thinking approaches to housing. The united energy of Minnesotans who care about housing gives us much hope for the coming year, despite clear challenges. We’ll be aiming to pen, collectively, a new book where we all have safe, decent, and affordable housing. May this inspiration become the next storyline for housing.

Leigh Rosenberg is research and outreach manager for the Minnesota Housing Partnership.

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