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Zeroing in on remedies for Minnesota’s housing crunch

August 23, 2018

Anyone expecting Gov. Mark Daytons Task Force on Housing to recommend a silver-bullet remedy for the housing shortage that threatens to throttle Minnesotas economic growth will be disappointed by the report it released Tuesday.

But anyone given to such unrealistic expectations would do well to better understand the complex nature of the housing dilemma that has emerged in every part of the state in recent years. For them, the housing task forces 70-page report offers illumination, both in what it proposes and in what it does not.

Absent from the recommendations are calls for dramatic public-sector intervention in the private housing market. Rent control a proposal that surfaced in some Minneapolis City Council races last year doesnt get an endorsement. Neither does a major increase in the supply of publicly owned housing.

Inclusionary zoning requirements that a share of new residential developments include housing affordable for low-income residents gets only a brief mention as one of many options local officials might study as they consider best practices for addressing their communities needs. As Star Tribune business columnist Lee Schafer explained in an Aug. 18 column, such requirements can be development killers.

Rather, the task forces ideas appear to be grounded in a belief that with comparatively lesser public policy adjustments and better coordination of public, private and nonprofit efforts, the private housing market can be made to work for more Minnesotans. But more than a few such changes are in order, the report says, and it recommends 30.

Among them, those that would tap tax dollars likely hold the most promise for positive results, but also face the highest political hurdles. For example, the task force calls for the creation of a new dedicated public funding stream for affordable housing purposes, arguing that affordable housing is essential community infrastructure, much as transportation is. The perennial struggle at the State Capitol to increase dedicated funding for transportation illustrates the difficulty that recommendation faces. It may explain why the task force declined to specify how large the fund should be or what tax or fee should supply it. We wish the 15-member panel had been bolder in that regard.

The task force also called for enlarging subsidies that flow directly to low-income renters, noting that federal housing vouchers are effective and powerful tools but reach only one in four of the households that are income-eligible to receive them. Again regrettably the task force did not specify the size of the increase it favors or the funding source. But it noted that the cost of such programs would likely be less than the savings they would generate in other public support programs. Studies have shown that stable housing improves families incomes and health and childrens school attendance and performance.

The task force and the governor who made it a priority deserve credit for making a timely case for more effort to increase the supply and affordability of one of lifes necessities. As the Metropolitan Council recently reported, Minnesota is at risk of losing an affordable-housing advantage it has long enjoyed in the competition to attract and keep a talented workforce. It would be a particular pity if that were to happen now, just as a labor force shortage is pinching the states economy. It behooves the next governor and Legislature to get to know the housing issue well indeed, and the task forces report offers a fine starting point.

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