Affordable housing shortage hits state

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) — Sometimes having a job just isn’t enough.
The number of people living at the homeless shelter in this central Minnesota town isn’t unusual. But the growing number of the residents who work 40-hour-a-week jobs is becoming worrisome, local officials say.
“The gap between what people make and affordable housing is great,” said A.G. Huot, who runs the shelter, in a 107-year-old house a couple of blocks from downtown. “We’re seeing more and more people who are working who just don’t have housing.”
St. Cloud’s housing problem is far from unique, according to the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, and it could hurt Minnesota’s growing economy.
Communities across Minnesota are experiencing a serious shortage of affordable housing. And the shortage comes at a time when the federal government is cutting back or eliminating many of its housing programs for low-income people.
“A job alone doesn’t solve a housing problem,” Tom Fulton, president of the Family Housing Fund, told a state Senate committee studying the issue in December. “Wages available to low-income workers haven’t risen as fast as the cost of rental housing or home ownership. The shortage of affordable housing is really interfering with the economic vitality of the state.”
The Minnesota Senate is considering a $70 million proposal to build new housing, protect what’s already out there and spur employers to help with the problem. The first hearing on the bill is set for Thursday.
Businesses are concerned because the housing shortage threatens to stunt an economic boom in Minnesota; employers have trouble attracting workers if there is no place for them to live.
“I think we can say, yes, it has been an issue. It’s probably one of the larger stumbling blocks for outstate industry,” said Jim Rieth, president of Jennie-O Foods Inc., a Willmar-based firm with seven plants throughout the state employing 4,000 people.
Since the problem first began drawing attention in the early 1990s, state government, local communities, private industry and citizens have tried a number of programs to address the issue. Despite these efforts, the housing gap persists and will get worse, experts warn.
“On one level, it’s an almost overwhelming need,” said Warren Hanson, head of the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund. “We’re way far away from being able to solve that problem.”
At the Community Shelter in St. Cloud, Huot sees the frustrations of finding affordable housing etched in the faces of the men, women and children who come through the door.
“We’re always full,” Huot said. In 1992, the shelter turned away 11 families and 113 individuals. Last year, she had to turn away 180 families and more than 1,000 individuals.
The irony of the housing shortage in rural Minnesota is that it comes during a time of prosperity. The economy is booming, and as many as 25,000 new jobs have been added to the state’s workforce each year since 1992.
While a lot of jobs have been created, most of them don’t pay well enough to afford the housing that is available, said Pauline Carlson, head of the Central Minnesota Housing Partnership.
Almost six of every 10 new jobs created pay about $7.50 an hour. Thirty-three percent pay about $13.75 an hour, and 8 percent pay $18.75 or higher, she said.