Our View: 1st Ward candidates adddress housing issues

July 29, 2018
Affordable housing in Olmsted County

Source: “2016-2020 Housing Framework,” from Olmsted County and Rochester Area Foundation

Affordable housing is at the top of every Rochester leader’s to-do list, and it’s at the top of our list of issues that candidates for Rochester mayor and City Council need to address.

According to a 2016 report, Rochester and Olmsted County will need about 4,500 additional units of affordable housing by 2020 to keep pace with demand. At the rate we’re going, we won’t nearly hit that mark.

The candidates for the 1st Ward council seat — Patrick Keane, Heather Holmes, Paul Myhrom and Kim Sin — met in a League of Women Voters forum Monday, and while we didn’t hear any brainstorms, here are some key themes, what candidates had to say, and then our take.

The housing issue is intrinsically linked to the area’s ability to attract and retain workers: Holmes, a marketing consultant who has worked with the economic development program Journey to Growth, said housing, child care and transportation challenges are intertwined as a “three-legged stool,” and it’s vital for “bringing in and attracting talent” that all are addressed.

Holmes was articulate and informative on the topic and returned to it more than once during the forum.

Keane referred to the city’s involvement in the new Coalition for Rochester Area Housing, along with Olmsted County, Mayo Clinic and the Rochester Area Foundation and said, “The positive side of this is, we have a lot of demand for employees,” which increases pressure on housing options.

Sin, in his opening statement, told of how he was a refugee from Cambodia who came here at age 6 — “the Rochester community has given me so much to achieve the American dream,” he said. His experiences have made him “passionate about affordable housing, access to transportation for all, and a livable wage.”

There’s an easy definition: Some candidates and many voters get hung up on the definition of “affordable housing.” Here’s an easy response: “It’s a quality, safe place to live that costs about 30 percent of your income.”

It’s not “general welfare housing” or subsidized housing. It’s an apartment or house that working people can afford.

In 2016, the average market-rate rent in the city was about $950 — it’s likely higher now. That’s about $11,400 a year, which would take an annual income of $38,000 to keep the housing share at 30 percent. And with the average price of a single-family house topping $200,000, houses are “increasingly out of reach for many working individuals and families.”

Myhrom said he believes “Ward 1 is already quite affordable. We’ve got houses between $100,000 and $200,000, we even have trailer courts. You can rent an apartment in the 1st Ward for between $500 and $1,000 a month, and there’s even Section 8 housing that people can steer to.”

The 1st Ward certainly has houses in that category, but like everywhere else in town, not nearly enough are on the market to accommodate demand. And as of 2016, the rental vacancy rate citywide was about 1 percent, the report says.

Is government the problem? While saying that “affordable housing is a big issue,” Myhrom said that “watching the taxes and fees we impose will go a long way” to resolve it — “cutting the red tape to get these projects through timely, with less expense.”

Beyond that, he apparently doesn’t see an activist role for the council in this area. Likewise, regarding the child care shortage, he said, “I hope we get some good entrepreneurs out there” to open more child care facilities. “I like free markets.”

We do, too. We also believe there’s an indispensable role that only the city can play, in partnership with other layers of government, private investors and nonprofits, to address problems such as housing and transportation. That’s what public leaders do.

If the city is just going to eliminate some red tape — some of which is there for good reasons — and leave it to the free market to address, little will change.

Could rent control become a campaign issue?: The question came up and two candidates (Myhrom and Holmes) addressed it and two didn’t. Holmes acknowledged, “I don’t know enough about that to comment, but I’m definitely open to learning as much as I can.”

Myhrom, not surprisingly, said, “I say no to rent control policies. I don’t like that government involvement if we can avoid it.”

Rent control involves regulating the amount charged for rental housing, and Minnesota law generally prohibits it. Though the city charter apparently could be changed to allow it, we’ll agree with Myhrom on this one.

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