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He’s no longer a candidate, but Chris Coleman still stumps hard — for affordable housing

August 4, 2018

From his new perch at the helm of Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, Chris Coleman has been keen to hear what the candidates in the race he left behind in February the contest for governor say about what he deems one of the most pressing issues of our generation, the shortage of affordable housing.

He has seen traces of the issue on the websites of DFLers Erin Murphy and Lori Swanson. From the other leading candidates DFLer Tim Walz and Republicans Tim Pawlenty and Jeff Johnson theres nary a mention online. And very little housing talk from any of them on the stump.

Would this summers campaign patter include more discussion of how to meet the states housing needs if Coleman were still running for governor?

You can count on it, he told me last week.

Thats not just because housing is the heart of his new gig as Habitats CEO. Its also explained by Colemans 12 years as mayor of St. Paul and his stint on the City Council before that. In those roles he became accustomed to talking a lot about his citys housing needs. The same goes for most mayors and council members of Minnesota municipalities, he said.

You just get [the housing issue] when you are on the municipal level, Coleman said. Compared with other levels of government, its the difference between knowing about health care from what you read in the newspapers vs. working in an emergency department. When youre at the local level, you are in the emergency room.

Local officials see up close what happens when 1 of every 4 households in this state devotes more than 30 percent of its income to housing. That was the tally made last year by the Minnesota Housing Partnership in its most recent State Housing Profile. That cost burden is felt by renters and homeowners alike and reaches into the middle class. Nearly 1 in 10 Minnesota households with incomes exceeding $50,000 pays more than 30 percent of its income for housing, the study found.

Why? Demographics are part of the story. The big millennial generation is moving into prime household-forming and childbearing years, ramping up demand and hence the price of starter homes. The supply of such properties is stagnant or shrinking in many places, while it seems at least in the Twin Cities that developers believe there cannot be too many high-end condos and luxury apartments.

The housing squeeze is felt by seniors, too. The Housing Partnerships count of cost-burdened Minnesotans includes 150,000 households headed by people past age 65.

The wage trend line since the Great Recession also explains why the label crisis is often attached to affordable housing. Between 2000 and 2015, the median renter wage in Minneota decreased by 11 percent, yet the median gross rent for the state increased by 9 percent, the State Housing Profile reported.

The consequence for many families is that keeping a roof over ones head makes it difficult to afford other necessities food, clothing, medicine, transportation, higher education. It means frequent relocation in the lives of young children who need stable homes for optimal brain development. For employers, it translates into difficulty finding and keeping workers. For communities, its deterioration and disunity.

Every gubernatorial candidate is advancing ideas for vital communities, good jobs, better health care and quality education, Coleman noted. By his lights, they arent saying enough about how crucial more affordable housing is to achieving those goals.

There isnt an issue that they talk about that doesnt come back to decent, safe, affordable housing, he said. Im not saying you cant get there without addressing housing first, but its going to be a lot more expensive.

Getting people into stable housing is a tonic that eases a lot of other ills. Twin Cities Habitat for Humanitys data make the point: A 2015 Wilder Research survey of 200 households that either own a Habitat-built house or are the beneficiaries of Habitat-funded mortgage assistance found that their reliance on food stamps dropped from 57 percent to 27 percent after becoming homeowners. Their enrollment in cash-grant welfare programs fell from 25 percent to 3 percent, and their reliance on Medicaid for health insurance dropped from 74 percent to 55 percent.

The bottom line for taxpayers: Those 200 families receive between $6.4 million and $9.3 million less in government support than they did before owning a home, the study found. That says that increasing Minnesotas supply of affordable housing should be part of any strategy for easing Minnesotans reliance on welfare.

For all his passion for housing, Coleman doesnt have a tidy action plan to recommend to the next governor. He sees merit in a lot of approaches incentives for affordable housing developers, creation of more community land trusts, mortgage discounts for low-income buyers among them.

I dont think theres a more complicated animal in all that government does than affordable housing, he lamented.

The current governor doesnt have a housing action plan, either yet. But Gov. Mark Dayton has appointed a housing task force whose recommendations are due to be released soon. When that happens, the report deserves the attention of everyone who aims to succeed Dayton, and every legislative candidate, too.

For decades, state policymakers have dabbled in housing support. In recent years, theyve done more than dabble, using bonding bills primarily to improve housing for the very poor. But the thinking has been that housing is primarily the bailiwick of local and federal governments.

That thinking needs to change. As the New York Times reported last week, the Trump administration is on the sidelines with proposals that would make matters worse for low-income Americans. And local governments in Minnesota are constitutionally bound to state government and habituated to expect the state to be their partner in tackling their toughest problems. Increasingly, that includes affordable housing.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.

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