Central Minnesota’s ‘Resilient Region:’ Affordable Housing

View the full live discussion here. 

This is the second conversation MPR News’ Ground Level project is hosting in conjunction with the central Minnesota “Resilient Region” project. It deals with the availability of affordable housing in the five-county area and centers on these three questions:

1) Which among local government, the private sector or the non-profit organizations in central Minnesota should play the lead role in making sure residents have affordable housing? Why do you think that?

2) Should the leadership response to affordable housing questions be different in rural areas like central Minnesota than it is in urban areas like the Twin Cities?

3) Is it better for leaders in central Minnesota to deal directly with shortages of affordable housing or instead to deal with education, health care and other community issues on the theory that housing problems can be fixed that way?

The folks at Region 5 Development Commission and the Initiative Foundation in Little Falls put the questions to some of the people who have been involved in the planning project and here at Ground Level we’re asking them of central Minnesota residents who have volunteered to be part of our Public Insight Network.

We’re planning a live chat at 11:30 a.m. April 5 on the topic.

In the meantime, here’s what people have to say. Add your thoughts by hitting the comment button at the end of the page.

(First conversation, about economic drivers in the region, here.)

1) Which among local government, the private sector or the non-profit organizations in central Minnesota should play the lead role in making sure residents have affordable housing? Why do you think that?

Dale Parks (image courtesy of Dale Parks)

Dale Parks, Brainerd, financial assistance supervisor for Crow Wing County

Local government. I believe that local government has the foresight to work with the private sector and non-profit organizations to put a long-range plan in place to assist in securing affordable housing.

Karl Samp, Brainerd, consultant

Non profit (i.e. Habitat)/local government. (HRAs) partnership

Gary Walters, Brainerd, owner of insurance and investment firm

First, a definition of affordable housing needs to be outlined. And is this category apartments, multi-family structures or single-family homes? Or all three? It surprised me when I sat on a government board regarding this topic. What shocked me was the size and square footage that was part of the definition. It appeared it was centered on single family homes that had approximately 1,500 square feet and attached garages. But, my first homes at the age of 20 and married were: 1 bedroom, tiny apartment, then a second 1-bedroom apartment a little bigger, and our first home was 910 square feet, 2 bedrooms with a detached 1 car garage. Home was over 80 years old.

Unless we are using government money to make either the monthly rent or the payment, the private sector should be the first option. It is this sector that will build the housing, and they will build what is needed and where money can be made in either sales or rent. Local government can help with tax incentives or regulation allowances to help private sector lower costs that can thus lower cost to end user. I don’t see the need for non-profit in this area. If a non-profit wants to help great. But, the non-prifit should not be using government funds or funding.

Craig Nathan, Brainerd, Rural Minnesota Concentrated Employment Program, a jobs preparation non-profit

Rural Minnesota CEP should be involved in the discussion about affordable housing, as the people we work with are likely recipients (low income) and to achieve economic sustainability, housing must be affordable for those most in need. As a one-stop workforce center we serve the referral needs.

Chip Halbach, Minnesota Housing Partnership

All the sectors have important roles to play in meeting the region’s housing needs. In terms of leadership role, Central Minnesota Housing Partnership is the logical choice. This agency serves the entire area of Region V and has expertise ranging from addressing homelessness to supporting home ownership. If CMHP did not want this role I would suspect that an unincorporated group representing the range of housing interests could serve in a leadership capacity. This body could be aligned with the Initiative Fund or RDC.

Mary and Erik Warner, Little Falls, Morrison County Historical Society

This question leaves out a key partner in affordable housing – the tenant. By assuming that only government, nonprofit organizations or landlords are responsible for affordable housing, the stereotype of the dumb, lazy poor person is reinforced and it takes power away from those seeking affordable housing.

As for deciding who takes a leading role among those listed, currently all are working together. The government provides funding for affordable housing (from the perspective of homeless prevention programs) to nonprofit agencies, which then pay landlords to keep the tenants in their homes. This government funding is actually a business subsidy, with the tenant receiving some benefit in the middle.

Nonprofit organizations are tasked with administering the funds, but often don’t have enough time to provide the case management needed to create permanent change in their clients’ lives. No one really wants to pay for administration for housing programs, but this is a crucial part of the process.

The other option is to have a government worker stand on a street corner with a bowl of money and hand it out to those in need, which would keep the administrative costs to a minimum. (We’re not being serious about that last option, btw.)

Deanna Hemmesch, Central Minnesota Housing Partnership in St. Cloud

Ideally it would be good for local government to take a lead to contact a non-profit organization to work with them to address the affordable housing issues within their community. However, this does not always happen. Non-profits maintain a mission and vision to assist with affordable housing issues where needed. I may be a little biased as I work for a non-profit to address affordable housing needs.

Art and Jan Warner, Morrison County Historical Society

There should be a cooperative effort to include local government, private sector and non-profit organizations. Each group has unique talents, backgrounds, and abilities to offer, and a unified approach will bring more people and ideas to work on the problem. Although government, private and non-profits all play a role, there should be a central resource to assist people with housing issues. Something similar to the Workforce Centers could act as a clearinghouse.

Jason Edens (image courtesty of Jason Edens)

Jason Edens, director, Rural Renewable Energy Alliance

Collaboratively, all three sectors should strive to ensure residents have access to affordable housing. Each of the three sectors has its own set of strengths and opportunities. Together, the three sectors possess the ability to ensure access to affordable housing. Alone, each of the sectors can only provide a partial solution; no single sector offers a silver bullet. Government agencies, private enterprise and nonprofit organizations should cooperate to provide the leadership necessary to ensure access to affordable housing.

2) Should the leadership response to affordable housing questions be different in rural areas like central Minnesota than it is in urban areas like the Twin Cities?

Dale Parks, Brainerd, financial assistance supervisor for Crow Wing County

There has to be a different response because rural areas generally do not have access to the same number or kind of resources available in urban areas.

Karl Samp, Brainerd, consultant

Yes. It should focus more on home ownership.

Gary Walters, Brainerd, owner of insurance and investment firm

I don’t see why location should matter.

Craig Nathan, Brainerd, Rural Minnesota CEP, a jobs preparation non-profit
Yes, affordable housing issues are issues are different in rural areas primarily due to the fact that employment opportunities are fewer and farther part geographically, and affordable housing needs to be close to employment for low-income households.

Chip Halbach, Minnesota Housing Partnership

Not really, the needs and approaches in Region V and the Twin Cities are pretty much the same. The major differences are that Region V does not have locally controlled resources for housing compared to a body such as the Metropolitan Council and that there is a much greater specialization of agencies in the cities. This requires the Region V housing leaders to better leverage volunteer resources than is required in the Twin Cities.

Mary and Erik Warner, Little Falls, Morrison County Historical Society

In general, no, but when it comes to specific programs to prevent homelessness, yes. In rural Minnesota, housing workers have to search for the homeless because there aren’t enough homeless shelters, whereas housing workers in metro areas have offices in places the homeless can access. Yet both workers are often required to meet the same housing goals, even though the rural housing worker needs more time to find the homeless, who could be camping at a state park or some other far-flung place. The urban versus rural response will depend on each housing program and the specific needs of the clients involved.

Deanna Hemmesch, Central Minnesota Housing Partnership in St. Cloud

They should be different as the regions maintain different affordable housing issues. Rural communities vs. metro areas like the Twin Cities may have different funding sources, priorities, rent limits, income limits and clients.

Art and Jan Warner, Morrison County Historical Society

Yes! Over 50% of the population of the world now lives in urban areas. Housing concentrations and availability of public transportation are generally much different between metro and out-state areas. A different review and development of solutions is needed for each area. The term affordable housing is too often used in association with low income, and assumes subsidized housing. Affordable can be applied to any income level. Housing is an individual circumstance and can apply to many different needs.

Jason Edens, director, Rural Renewable Energy Alliance

Regardless of whether it is an urban or rural setting, collaboration is the key to success with a complex issue such as affordable housing. Although housing stock, style and density differ between rural and urban environments, government, for profit and nonprofit affordable housing providers must still collaborate to provide solutions.

3) Is it better for leaders in central Minnesota to deal directly with shortages of affordable housing or instead to deal with education, health care and other community issues on the theory that housing problems can be fixed that way?
Dale Parks, Brainerd, financial assistance supervisor for Crow Wing County

In today’s economy I feel that it is better to deal with the shortages. As the economy starts to rebound, we then need to look at changing gears and work with low-income to overcome the employment barriers that traditionally bar these people from obtaining affordable housing.

Karl Samp, Brainerd, consultant

I’d say in priority — education, housing, health care. I don’t believe local leaders can have as much impact on health care as the other two issues, and probably education even less than housing.

Gary Walters, Brainerd, owner of insurance and investment firm

Yes, if family incomes can be raised, then the need for affordable housing would decrease, so more attention to what would allow for more jobs and job opportunities should be worked on. This would decrease the affordable issue. Not sure how health care effects affordable housing.

Craig Nathan, Brainerd, Rural Minnesota CEP, a jobs preparation non-profit

Housing comes first because shelter is a basic human need. We have found that once adequate housing is achieved, then other things are “humanly” possible. If basic needs are not met, little else is possible.

Chip Halbach, Minnesota Housing Partnership

The problems of lack of affordable housing and education and health care are intertwined. For instance, lack of stable housing interferes with progress in education. And unhealthy housing contributes to poor health. The key is to create an integrated approach that does not neglect any one of the thorny community issues and does reflect how these issues play off of one another. At any given time greater priority might be placed on addressing one need, but the overall approach to enhancing the region should account for all of the issues.

Mary and Erik Warner, Little Falls, Morrison County Historical Society

This is a false binary. We have to do both, not one or the other. Here’s an example that points to the difficulty of solving certain housing problems. Felons, particularly convicted sex offenders, aren’t allowed in income-based housing. Often, they can’t find jobs that pay enough to afford something more expensive. When they are released from prison, they are sent back to the place where they committed the crime and are told to find a job and housing. Typically, the place they committed their crime is not their hometown, so they are being sent into a situation without any support from family and friends and told to make a go of it. All of these factors lead to recidivism. They re-offend because they have no other options. A mentally ill person who has a violent outburst can also be barred from moving into income-based housing.

We, as a society, must decide that everyone deserves housing, but with the rules that are currently in place, we’ve obviously taken the position that certain people don’t deserve income-based housing, which means they don’t deserve ANY housing unless they can afford it. That’s deeply problematic.

Deanna Hemmesch, Central Minnesota Housing Partnership in St. Cloud

It has been my experience that people (especially families) are more capable to deal with education, health care and other community issues when they have a stable, decent and affordable place to live.

Art and Jan Warner, Morrison County Historical Society

Leaders must deal with all of the issues mentioned, and more, simultaneously if any real growth and development is to occur. Housing needs are fluid and in constant need of alteration. i.e.- elders moving from their homes to apartments, opening up housing for others.

Jason Edens, director, Rural Renewable Energy Alliance

It isn’t possible to simply deal with the shortage of affordable housing without addressing the systemic and structural issues that lead to a need for affordable housing. In parallel, we must address the housing shortage and the root causes of poverty which include a lack of education, health care and other community issues.