Tackling the Affordable Housing Crisis in Minneapolis
The cost of housing is reaching crisis levels in our city. It is wonderful that so many people want to call Minneapolis home, but when housing demand is so much greater than supply we see cracks in the very foundation of our community’s stability. Those of us fortunate enough to have options when it comes to choosing a home are not immune to the impacts our current housing crisis has on safety, livability, economic vitality, and racial equity. We are in this together, and to meet its fullest potential Minneapolis must become a place where everyone can find a safe, decent and affordable place to live.
Fortunately, there are real solutions to the problems we are facing when it comes to housing. As your Mayor, I will bring forward the following priorities to keep Minneapolis growing in a healthy, more balanced way:
Priority: Build more housing!
Part of the reason housing is so expensive is because there is more demand than supply. Vacancy rates in Minneapolis are below 3%, far lower than what we need for a healthy housing market. More housing of all kinds is needed to restore balance to the housing market.
Density: Allowing more housing units on less land is an efficient, economical, and environmentally responsible way to grow our city. Every neighborhood in the city can support higher densities than the current zoning code allows. Duplexes and triplexes should be allowed in most single-family districts, maximum building heights and floor-area-ratios should be increased, and parking requirements should be phased out to allow more space for additional housing units. By-right housing: The amount of land use applications needed to build new housing can be overwhelming. They take a lot of staff time to process, and add project costs that are handed down to the tenants or owners. Some land use regulations are very important to ensure quality urban design, meet health and safety standards, and to avoid truly incompatible land uses. However, in Minneapolis even multi-family housing developments that meet all current zoning requirements (which is very difficult to do) must go through, at a minimum, a site plan review process that requires planning commission approval. If the zoning requirements are met, we can save a lot of time and money allowing eligible housing proposals to be approved by-right.
City-owned vacant lots: Minneapolis owns hundreds of vacant lots, many of which are on the city’s Northside. The city spends money maintaining these lots while families struggle to find affordable housing. Recent efforts have been made to get these lots to sell to home builders more quickly, but we can do more. Building new homes directly, allowing more diverse housing types such as tiny houses, and financial incentives to encourage first time and or lower-income homebuyers with a focus on serving the existing residents of the Northside could help these lots turn back into homes more quickly.
Build it green: It’s a win-win-win. Environmentally responsible buildings are become more affordable to build, they lower utilities and other maintenance costs, and they meet our responsibility to grow Minneapolis in a way that minimizes our impacts on climate change.
Make small apartment buildings feasible again: You know those cute brownstones, fourplexes, two and three-story apartment or condominium buildings that are peppered throughout much of our city, even in many single-family neighborhoods? They are an important housing type that can add light-touch density without changing the character of lower-density areas. Our zoning code doesn’t allow this kind of development in very many places, because of antiquated planning practices that consider this “spot” zoning. We can be more creative than this! We can find a way to allow new, scattered moderate density development throughout the city in a way that is reasonable and gives us the kind of diverse, interesting residential blocks that we already enjoy in older neighborhoods.
Priority: Build more affordable housing!
While it’s true that we need more housing of all types, we especially need more affordable housing for households that have lower-than-average incomes. Many Minneapolis residents don’t earn enough to afford a decent place to call home. The stress and trauma caused by housing insecurity, the tax dollars lost to housing court battles, and the unacceptable number of children who are poor and who lack access to decent housing affects us all. The cost of building new housing, to be financially feasible, requires rents much higher than many families can afford, so the government must intervene to make sure more affordable housing gets built.
Mixed-income housing: Mixed-income, or inclusionary housing policies, are a great way to increase affordable housing supply and promote integrated neighborhoods. Neighboring cities St. Louis Park and Edina have already adopted mixed-income housing policies, and Minneapolis has certainly supported mixed-income housing developments. But we are overdue to adopt an official ordinance that lets the development community know where and how we expect mixed-income development to be built.
Affordable housing funding: Minneapolis has an impressive history of providing funds for affordable housing development. The city can allocate even more resources to its Affordable Housing Trust Fund; through bonding, increased property taxes on home values in excess of $500,000, and linkage fees for new luxury housing in parts of the city with the strongest housing markets. As Mayor, I will also advocate that Hennepin County’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority increase its levy to support more affordable housing development in its cities. Hennepin County’s HRA levies a significantly smaller percentage of the statutorily allowed limit compared to the other metro county HRA’s that levy for affordable housing. This is a significant untapped source of affordable housing funds. Strengthening partnerships: As your Mayor, I would take a good, hard look at our partnerships with community partners such as the Minneapolis Public School District, City of Lakes Community Land Trust, and the Land Bank Twin Cities to ensure we are making the most of these relationships when it comes to creating affordable housing in our city. The city cannot do it alone, and we need to make sure our affordable housing partners are supported and empowered to help us meet our housing needs.
Different kinds of affordable housing: We talk about affordable housing in a lot of different ways. We talk about what is affordable at different incomes, supportive housing for folks who are chronically homeless, individuals leaving the criminal justice system, affordable housing for artists, seniors, and homeless youths. It can be overwhelming; there are a lot of needs out there competing for the same resources. We must be smart, strategic, and realistic. In Minneapolis, we need to support all kinds of affordable housing needs, but that will mean being proactive about encouraging the kinds of projects that aren’t currently being built; making tough choices about what should be funded when, and following through with projects that may not get funding right away. We are not beholden to the kinds of project that come to us – we can do more to make the kinds of projects we want to see happen!
Priority: Preserve affordable housing!
With vacancy rates low and rents growing higher, it is a tempting prospect to buy an older, modest apartment building, give it a face-lift, and then charge higher rents, stop accepting Housing Choice Vouchers, and create more restrictive tenant requirements around income and criminal history. While it is understandable that apartment building investors would want to take advantage of these market conditions, we cannot allow our neighbors to be pushed out of their housing so that someone who already has financial means can profit. Fortunately, there are lots of tools we can use to preserve naturally occurring and subsidized affordable housing.
4(d) and other tax incentives: Minneapolis can use tax abatements and tax reductions to incentivize updates and improvements to naturally occurring affordable housing while maintaining affordable rents for income-eligible residents.
Notice of Sale: Giving tenants an opportunity to raise money to counter-offer the proposed sale of their building is one way to protect naturally occurring affordable housing (NOAH). The city can do even more, helping to organize and empower tenant associations in vulnerable NOAH buildings before a sale is imminent.
Build and maintain strategic partnerships: The loss of naturally occurring affordable housing is not unique to Minneapolis. Many regional partners are compiling resources and strategies to address this challenge, and as your Mayor I will reach out and maximize our efforts to protect low-income tenants.
Renew affordability contracts: Naturally occurring affordable housing is not the only affordable housing at risk of being lost. Many subsidized affordable housing projects are coming up on the expiration date of their affordability requirements. Minneapolis must stay on top of these properties, keeping a comprehensive database of such properties and proactively seeking ways to extend their affordability terms.
Priority: Improve rental housing quality
In today’s market and without the benefit of strong, enforceable regulatory tools, too many landlords are able to make a living while taking advantage of renters with few options to live elsewhere. It took too many resources and too much time to finally bring a class-action lawsuit against Stephen Frenz and Spiros Zorbalas – we need to do a better job holding landlords accountable for the impacts they have not only on their tenants, but on the neighborhoods in which they operate. If a landlord doesn’t recognize his/her impact on and contributions to the communities in which they own property, they don’t need to own rental property in Minneapolis.
Renter’s Rights: Renters need to have the ability to hold their landlord accountable for maintenance and livability conditions in their housing units. Many low-income renters are immigrants that may not know their rights nor feel they have the agency to stand up for them. So much of the city’s communication goes directly to property owners, but renters make up more than half the households in our city! How can renters get involved if notifications of public hearings, tax and valuation information, and inspections communication about their homes are not sent to them? There is a power dynamic in the system that favors the property owner, and that needs to change.
Of course, there are wonderful landlords in our city, and I respect their right to earn a living providing others with quality housing. But it cannot be at the cost of their tenant’s dignity or safety. As your Mayor, I will work to include more renters on city commissions and boards, and encourage community organizations to educate and support renters, such as the Renter’s Guide published by the Corcoran Neighborhood Organization and work done by HOMELine.
Regulatory Services and inspections: The city’s regulatory, police, neighborhood and housing staff need to have better tools to work together to identify problem landlords and hold them accountable. Many individuals and small companies own dozens, if not hundreds, of rental properties in our city – it is impossible to be responsive and maintain that many properties without sufficient staff. Through our rental licensing program, Minneapolis can do more to regulate and monitor the quality of our rental housing stock. More inspectors, culturally sensitive inspections training, cross-departmental collaboration and real consequences that are enforced consistently are needed to improve our accountability to the renters in our city.
Priority: Improve/preserve access to housing
Creating more housing, and more affordable housing is key, but we also need to make sure people have access to that housing. There are a lot of ways people can be left behind, even when the housing is there. We need to maximize our housing efforts and increase and preserve access to housing for everybody.
Workforce development: Building more affordable housing is important, but another way to make housing affordable is to increase the incomes of our residents. We already hear about labor shortages in certain industries, and some economists warn we will run out of workers on a massive scale if we don’t attract more residents as our baby boomers start to retire. But the truth is, we also have intolerable disparities in unemployment, wages, and educational outcomes for our residents of color.
While attracting new residents is important, we need to better coordinate workforce development efforts with the industries that need workers so that our existing residents get to benefit from job creation and economic growth. This is a win-win-win, as it will give folks more income, more housing choices, and address racial inequities in our city.
Just-cause eviction: Let’s face it – landlords need tools, too, when tenants are not accountable for their responsibilities as a renter. But it’s not reasonable for landlords to be able to evict without just cause. And eviction often costs more than the loss of rent or costs of repairs that triggers the eviction in the first place. Finally, eviction records can make it nearly impossible to find another place to live – creating a cycle of costly, traumatic housing instability.
We need to empower landlords and tenants to prevent, mediate and resolve issues that lead to eviction whenever possible, and reduce the length of time than an eviction stays on someone’s record. This means working with Hennepin County Housing Court, community organizations and property managers to reduce evictions.
Fair Housing and Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing: Some folks think that we should only build new affordable housing in neighborhoods that don’t have very much. Other folks think that we need to continue to lift up and invest in our neighborhoods struggling with poverty and crime. The truth is that we need to do both. Segregated neighborhoods, whether by race or class or both, demonstrate the legacy of racist zoning, real estate and finance practices. There needs to be affordable housing options in all neighborhoods of our city, and Minneapolis can be more proactive about attracting it. But our lower-income, racially diverse neighborhoods are vibrant, fulfilling places to live as well, and many people want to be able to afford to stay in the communities they love. New affordable housing in these parts of the city bring new investments, increased tax base, and may replace vacant or run-down properties. We can be thoughtful about the unique needs of each neighborhood when we plan for affordable housing, but there isn’t anywhere in Minneapolis that can’t benefit from some kind of new affordable housing.
Fair housing legislation supports this approach. Our job is to be transparent about how we are prioritizing and achieving new affordable housing projects, so the community can help inform the best ways to implement this balanced perspective.
Priority: Mitigate negative outcomes associated with gentrification
Gentrification is a complicated issue that means different things to different people. The bottom line is, if residents and businesses are being displaced for economic reasons, especially at higher rates than the city as a whole, that’s a problem. But there is another negative outcome that can happen when gentrification is occurring. Original residents can start to lose their sense of history and belonging in their community. This cultural appropriation can be even more devastating than the loss of affordability.
Prevent displacement in communities experiencing gentrification or at risk of experiencing it: We need to flag the neighborhoods that are experiencing housing cost increases at a higher rate than the city overall – especially those with more residents of color. When we are talking about priorities for the preservation of affordable housing, these are the communities that should be lifted to the top of the list.
Ensure culturally sensitive protection of community character in communities at risk of or experiencing gentrification: Work to prevent business displacement in gentrifying areas, and ensure public investments that often accompany higher-income residents benefit and represent the existing community. Honor and maintain public spaces, festivals, and other neighborhood traditions in a way that welcomes new members of the community while retaining its original intent and character.
Provide and support opportunities to build community between long-term and newer residents: Support neighborhood and community organizations to create connections, through activities and events, between existing and new residents from different backgrounds.
Priority: Ending homelessness
Homelessness hurts us all, and it is on the rise in a very visible way. It is no coincidence that homelessness has become so visible just as housing costs have risen so drastically and opioid addiction has overwhelmed our communities. Great strides have been taken to reduce homelessness for certain populations, such as Veterans, but we need to do more in the city of Minneapolis.
Remove barriers to providing short term shelters: Make sure that homeless shelters can operate in more places for longer hours, and are connected to opportunities to connect with needed services. Support a network of homeless service providers: Promote collaboration between homeless service organizations to more efficiently and successfully meet their clients’ needs.
Advocate for more resources to provide shelter for those who face homelessness: As Mayor, I would utilize the bully pulpit to advocate for more resources to be devoted to providing shelter beds and other necessities for those who experience homelessness in our community.