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Make affordable housing a priority

With so much noise in St. Paul over taxes, fixing Minnesota's opioid crisis, protecting seniors in care facilities, funding transportation and public infrastructure, and more, advocates for affordable housing fear they're being forgotten.

So they fanned out over the past couple of weeks, representatives from the 214 organizations statewide that make up the Homes for All coalition, to meet with newspaper editorial boards and reporters.

"To make sure that affordable housing stays relevant in St. Paul," Housing for All activist Matt Traynor, a community organizer at CHUM in Duluth, said in a meeting with News Tribune Editorial Board members last week. "We don't want affordable housing to get lost at the Legislature right now because there are so many other great priorities going on."

With rents on the rise (up 20 percent from 2000 to 2015 in St. Louis County), salaries slipping (down 4 percent in the county during the same time period), and, especially in Duluth, vacancy rates in the super-tight, super-tenant-unfriendly low single digits, affordable housing advocates are able to make a compelling argument for urgency.

The need is worse on the Iron Range, they said. And in Duluth, nearly a third of households is earning less than $25,000 a year, making housing affordability an ever-present challenge for many of us.

"The lack of housing stock in Duluth is a tragedy," said Erich Lutz of Life House, which helps homeless and at-risk youths in Duluth. "It's housing first ... When they're housed and they're stabilized, they focus on education and employment and all those other things. The cost on the community goes down."

The request of the Legislature this session is $140 million to create or preserve housing for more than 4,600 households across the state. The funding also would support 2,000 jobs in Minnesota, advocates claim. Such investments, they argue, have to be ongoing, with state support year to year, to keep up with the need and demand.

And Minnesota simply isn't keeping up, they said.

"We could use the whole $140 million just in Duluth," said Lee Stuart, executive director of CHUM. "So the ask is a big ask, but it's nowhere near the need that we have for housing in this state ... Maybe we should ask for $600 million and settle for $150 million. I think that's a strategy we ought to use, to say what the need really is. You won't get it, but people will know this is really a $600 million problem."

As of late last week, getting anywhere near the asked-for $140 million for affordable housing was in jeopardy. The House bonding bill proposal included only $56.7 million for new housing and rehab. "Very disappointing," Stuart told the Opinion page in a follow-up note after the interview.

Affordable-housing efforts received $77 million from the Legislature last year. Since 2014, 580 homes statewide have been built or were saved thanks to the state bonding funds, Traynor said. To put that in perspective, the recent renovation in downtown Duluth of Gateway Tower Apartments cost $18 million and ensured the future of 150 units.

Investing in affordable housing spurs additional investment, the advocates argued. Last year, $126 million from state and federal resources leveraged another $346 million of private and local funds statewide, they said.

"Local governments can't do it on their own," Traynor said. "Private foundations can't do it on their own. We need the state."

Right now, with less than two weeks left in the legislative session, advocates said that what they need the most is for the state simply to not forget them — or the ongoing need for stabilizing funding for affordable housing.

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