March 28, 2023

The Anti-Poverty Soldier
By Clarence Hightower

Clarence Hightower, Ph.D., Director, Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties.

What we see out there is an affordable housing crisis, particularly in the rental market in cities big and small, and we don’t have the resources necessary to fill that gap. Julian Castro

People tend to think of affordable housing as a problem that uniquely affects the poor and the homeless. However, in the last five years…we’re seeing this problem has spread to working-class people who are priced out of the market.  Annu Mangat

This country is in dire need of affordable housing. We have to use every single tool we have to put affordable housing anywhere it can be. Burt Aaronson

During the last few years The Minneapolis Star Tribune has published a multitude of articles that address the lack of affordable housing in Minnesota, a crisis that is particularly devastating in the Twin Cities metro. And, an April 2017 piece documented the increasing intensity of this problem in suburban communities such as Eden Prairie.

Then, this past June, TPT Minnesota and the Minnesota Housing Partnership debuted the documentary Sold Out: Affordable Housing at Risk. The one-hour film examines, among other market shifts, not only the general lack of affordable housing units but also the sharp loss of previously existing units. A prominent example of such a trend highlighted by the filmmakers is the 2015 redevelopment of the former Crossroads apartment complex just north of Interstate 494 in Richfield. Now known as The Concierge, this renovation project displaced hundreds of low and moderate income households.

As president of the St. Paul-based Housing Justice Center, Timothy Thompson states in Sold Out, “In 2014, the region was able to build 770 new affordable units, using all of our resources and all of our efforts. When the 700 units in Crossroads were converted, that in effect cancelled out virtually all of that gain from that year’s worth of effort.” Furthermore, the tragic impact of such redevelopment projects is not limited to the families and individuals that are forced from their homes, but the larger community as well. MinnPost author Peter Gallaghan notes that in the aftermath of The Concierge, a small local business was shuttered and the related loss of enrollment in public school District #280 causing the layoff of nearly three dozen faculty, administrators, and support staff.

While Sold Out concludes by revealing $25 million in new investments to preserve affordable housing units throughout the Twin Cities, critics suggest that it is not adequate to abate the ongoing crisis.

The extent of this crisis was again affirmed last month when the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) released its Out of Reach 2017 report. Minnesota slid back to its ranking as the 21st (from 22nd in 2016) most expensive state in which to live and the second most expensive housing market behind Illinois in the 12-state Midwest/Upper Midwest region. To afford a Fair Market Rent (FMR) two-bedroom apartment in Minnesota and be classified as cost-burdened, a household must earn $3,225 per month which equates to an hourly wage of $18.60. This represents an increase of nearly $1 over the previous year and nearly $3 since 2013. It also means that a single parent earning minimum wage with one child  – placing the household more than $3,000 above the federal poverty guidelines –would need to work nearly 80 hours a week to afford a fair market two-bedroom apartment.

In the Twin Cities region alone, the average hourly wage required to afford an FMR two-bedroom apartment in 2017 is $20.88. And as the Minnesota Housing Partnership  (MHP) documents several zip codes within the city limits of Minneapolis and St. Paul require wages of between $26 and $36 for a FMR two-bedroom. Needless to say the affordable housing gap in the metro seems poised to continue widening.

In the MHP’s 2017 State of the State’s Housing report, Executive Director Chip Halbach states:

Historically, Minnesota has been recognized as a national leader for its commitment to helping families with affordable ownership and rental homes. But much more needs to be done to keep pace with the growing need for affordable housing that we see across the state. From racial disparities to cost burden, many housing trends are going in the wrong direction. If policymakers want strong, equitable communities, they cannot ignore the central role of adequate, affordable housing.

The MHP report also reveals that since 2000 inflation-adjusted rents have increased in 83 of the state’s 87 counties with a median rent increase of nearly ten percent. During that same period, the median inflation-adjusted income for Minnesota workers has decreased by eleven percent. Mr. Halbach is right; we are going in the wrong direction.

I have noticed a phrase in our industry that has become part of the daily lexicon. That phrase is “poverty is not a character flaw; it is a math problem.” It’s difficult to determine who first coined the saying as it seems to have initially appeared around fifteen years ago. Just a few months ago, the Dutch economic philosopher and historian Rutger Bregman even used a variation of the phrase (“Poverty isn’t a lack of character; it’s a lack of cash.”) as the title of his TED talk which has been viewed by more than a million people around the world. It seems to me that the data garnered from the NLIHC, MHP and other sources corroborate both the title and the sentiment of Bregman’s presentation. We must continue to spread that word.

Clarence Hightower, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104

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