MSA, city looking to include students in affordable housing policy

The interim inclusionary zoning ordinance passed in January excludes student housing.

Illustrated by Abby Adamski

Abby Adamski

Illustrated by Abby Adamski

Mohamed Ibrahim

Minneapolis city officials and student government members are working to define where students fit in affordable housing policy. 

The Minnesota Student Association is working with the city this fall to include student housing in an inclusionary zoning policy after it was excluded from the interim ordinance. City officials hope updating the policy to include students will provide more affordable housing options on and around campus.

The interim ordinance, which went into effect Jan. 1, requires developers seeking city approval for large-scale developments to reserve 10 percent of the building’s units as affordable housing.

The policy defines households with an income at or below 60 percent area median as eligible for affordable housing. But students as a demographic present unique challenges because federal regulations prevent them from being eligible for affordable housing programs. 

The interim ordinance excluded developers of student housing, which is defined as properties owned by or close to a college that requires 60 percent of units to be leased to students.   

As discussions between MSA’s new administration and Ward 3 City Council Member Steve Fletcher continue into the semester, they hope to find a solution that benefits students, city officials and developers alike, said Rebecca Cowin, MSA’s local government and advocacy coordinator.

“We want to make sure that it’s an accessible system that students can access, but we don’t want to make it too complicated so that property managers are discouraged,” Cowin said. “It’s definitely a balance of making sure that both sides of the parties can access it.”

Cowin said potential solutions to navigating that gray area include other affordable housing qualifications for students outside of income. These could include students’ eligibility for Federal Pell Grants or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, she said.

Students may surrender safety or affordability to find a place before the semester starts, which can negatively impact both their University experience and well-being, Cowin said.

“When you get past your first year, there’s not a lot of opportunity to stay on campus in the few apartment buildings that they do have,” Cowin said. “I frequently hear stories of people sacrificing either their academics or their mental health to maintain their living situation, and many others sacrifice sometimes privacy and safety to stay in a place that has lower rent.”

Fletcher, whose ward includes Dinkytown and the rest of Marcy-Holmes, said providing affordable housing for students who need it could potentially benefit all students seeking housing around campus. 

“In general, people are looking for the cheapest option they can get,” Fletcher said. “If some people who have the option of getting into that student housing take it, then that’s going to also take some pressure off the competition for all other units and hopefully bring prices down overall.”

Fletcher said he hopes the updated policy will go into effect alongside the city’s comprehensive Minneapolis 2040 plan in November. The updated ordinance, along with a proposed $31 million allocation by Mayor Jacob Frey’s 2020 budget, are various avenues city, state and federal officials are taking to increase affordable housing options. 

“We are maintaining our commitment to capture and dedicate as many state and federal resources for affordable housing as possible,” Frey said in his budget address Aug. 15. “And we’ve been successful.”

As the ordinance progressed, more opportunities for student input will play a part, Fletcher said.

“Students organizing and really demanding more affordable housing — demanding it of developers, demanding it of the University and demanding it of the City — is the way that we’re going to get things done,” Fletcher said.