Housing-cost debate ethical, economic issue

by Tammy Tucker

How to address the regional affordable-housing crisis was the topic of a lively debate among a group of passionate citizens, activists, scholars, nonprofit directors, religious leaders and lawmakers Friday.
The lack of affordable housing is tied to low wages, capitalism, poverty, decreased federal assistance, racism, classism and a lack of public will to fund housing projects, said speakers at the People of Good Will and the Challenge of Affordable Housing Conference. The event was sponsored by the College of St. Catherine, the University of St. Thomas and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Affordable housing is both an economic and an ethical issue.
“Suburbanization, the history of segregation and modest … public investment in housing all came together to cause our present situation,” said former St. Paul mayor and current Macalester urban studies professor George Latimer.
“I think the single-most difficult family to rent property today is a single African-American woman with a 16-year-old boy,” commented Peter Bell, Hazelden Foundation corporate new venture vice president and the conference’s only speaker of color.
Some people have “the belief that if someone different than they are moves in next door, they will lose something,” said Rep. Dan McElroy, R-Burnsville.
“We have to break down some fears to cause change,” he continued.
While most of the solutions proposed to alleviate the affordable-housing crisis were long-term, one immediate action was proposed.
Gov. Jesse Ventura has proposed using $83 million for affordable housing through federal frunds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Work Program.
The Senate bill includes the governor’s proposal, but the House version has no provisions for affordable housing, according to Metropolitan Interfaith Council on Affordable Housing.
The House bill instead calls for tax cuts and rebates.
The pending budget legislation was a timely backdrop to the conference, which was planned nine months ago.
“At a time of economic prosperity, housing rents go up, and the poor get hurt,” Vice President Al Gore said while campaigning in Iowa in January. “We need to increase the supply of affordable housing by increasing the budget for it.”
Each level of the government has a role to play in providing affordable housing.
But while Minnesota has increased spending on affordable housing, the federal government has decreased state aid for it, said Kit Hadley, Minnesota Housing Finance Agency commissioner.
“It’s just a huge gap,” said Barbara Lukermann, research associate at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs.
Lukermann did not attend the conference, but was a member of a 1998 affordable-housing task force.
Up until the 1980s, the federal government took responsibility for affordable housing, but under President Ronald Reagan, the budget was slashed, she continued.
Today, even those who do get aid can’t find people willing to rent to them, Lukermann said.
More than 400 people attended the daylong seminar and town meeting facilitated by Latimer.
In the last 10 years, regional vacancy rates of affordable housing have gone from 9 percent to less than 1 percent, Latimer said.
In that same time, rental rates have gone from $450 a month to $685, he continued.
Wages have not kept pace. Over the next 15 years, about 300,000 jobs will be created in the Twin Cities, Latimer said.
“One-half of those jobs will pay less than $22,000 per household,” he concluded.
Affordable housing is defined as housing that does not cost more than 30 percent of a family’s adjusted gross income.
Motivating people to get involved in the debate — not finding immediate solutions — was the goal of the conference.
Friday was the fourth in a series of symposiums called “Dialogue of Faith and Culture,” said Mary Kay Medinger, symposium steering committee member.
“The purpose is to bring together interested people who are willing to listen to each other about these issues,” she said.
Many of the speakers echoed this sentiment.
Building coalitions of policy-makers, advocates, the business community and those affected by poverty and the lack of affordable housing is the only way to create long-term solutions.
“It’s really a partnership,” Lukermann said.

Tammy Tucker covers religion and welcomes comments at [email protected]