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Urban innovation: Three ideas for Twin Cities, suburbs to consider

Here are a few programs from among the 15 suggested for New York that might be worthwhile for Minneapolis, St. Paul and their suburbs to consider.

A mandated commuter tax benefit: To promote the use of public transit, to decrease congestion, to decrease employers' payroll taxes and to provide commuters with tax savings.
MinnPost file photo by Raoul Benavides

In New York City, just as in Minneapolis, the mayoral candidates are off and running. Both cities have flourished under the leadership of highly respected mayors. In the Big Apple, Michael Bloomberg, who came to office in 2002, brought a series of innovations to his city: an initiative to create micro-housing for single people; a competition to recruit a new applied-sciences campus; a first-in-the-nation Office of Financial Empowerment; and an unsuccessful and over-reaching bid to ban sugary drinks over 16 ounces.

Here in the Mini-apple, some bold new programs have come to life under R.T. Rybak, who also became mayor in 2002: the launch of the 311 phone system, which allows citizens to reach more than a dozen city departments by dialing one number; the Downtown 100, a crime-cutting strategy for the central business district; and creation of Offices of Sustainability and Culture and the Arts, ensuring that the activities of other government agencies are informed by those two considerations.

To make sure that New York City continues on its trajectory of innovation, the Center for an Urban Future and NYU Wagner, a public service graduate school, created a Mayoral City Policy Lab. It sifted through hundreds of new policy ideas from mayors and city officials around the world, foundations, philanthropists, institutes, corporations, labor unions and advocacy groups.

Ultimately, that list was winnowed down to 15 ideas that seemed suitable to New York. But the group’s report went on to point out that “New York is not the only city that can benefit from this inventory of innovation. Los Angeles and Minneapolis will [also] be electing new mayors.” The hope seemed to be that the ideas would inspire those and other cities to try new stuff.

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Here are a few programs from among the 15 that might be worthwhile for Minneapolis, St. Paul and their suburbs to consider:

Kindergarten-to-college savings

The purpose: To “seed” savings for college by all public school students to help them finance a four-year degree, which has been priced out of the reach of low- and middle-income families.

Under way in: San Francisco.

How it works: The city provides each kindergartner with a kickstart deposit of $50 for a college savings account; low-income students (those who qualify for free and reduced lunches) get an extra $50. The San Francisco Foundation and other nonprofits have raised a pool of money to match family deposits dollar-for-dollar up to $100 a year. And families who agree to deposit $10 a month for six months earn an extra $100. Introducing “unbanked” poor families to mainstream financial institutions may, the program’s backers hope, provide a collateral benefit. Withdrawals, by the way, may be used only for legitimate higher education expenses:  tuition, books, fees and so on.

What it might do for the Twin Cities: Income inequality has grown in our state, according to the Minnesota Budget Project, an initiative of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. Greater access to higher education could help to narrow that gap at a time when a four-year degree has become a standard requirement for a decent job. I don’t kid myself that $100 in starter funds and $10 a week will provide enough for a four-year degree, but the leg up can tilt families in the right direction.

Accessory dwelling units and basement conversions

Purpose: To allow smaller homes and apartments to be built in back yards, above garages and in basements to expand the availability of affordable housing and accommodate seniors, students and single people in residential neighborhoods. Zoning codes in most localities prohibit such ADUs or accessory dwelling units, and many that already exist illegally do not meet local safety requirements.

Under way in: Seattle, Vancouver and Santa Cruz, Calif.

How it works: In Seattle, as an example, owners of one- and two-family houses are permitted to build a “self-contained residential structure” on their lots if it doesn’t exceed 800 square feet. To ease its housing shortage, Vancouver changed its zoning code to allow ADUs of at most 500 square feet as well as conversions of basements to apartments. In addition to allowing the dwellings, Santa Cruz also offers homeowners advice and loans help to bring illegal units up to code.

What it might do for the Twin Cities: According to the State Demographic Center, the number of Minnesotans over age 65 will grow by almost 47 percent or nearly 320,000 between 2010 and 2020, and between 2020 and 2040, it will increase by about 122 percent or 850,00 people. Finding affordable housing for these folks that also provides them some kind of social and tactical support (transportation, help and so on) won’t be easy. With ADUs, both city and suburban homeowners would be able to offer their elderly parents a way to “age in place,” instead of moving to senior housing or assisted living. Similarly, downsizing families could save thousands a month by moving to a backyard cottage and renting out the larger house. ADUs might also accommodate the increasing number of immigrant families, who sometimes prefer to keep their housing inter-generational.

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A mandated commuter tax benefit

The purpose: To promote the use of public transit, to decrease congestion, to decrease employers’ payroll taxes and to provide commuters with tax savings.

Under way in: San Francisco.

How it works: The federal government has for years allowed businesses to offer employees the option of saving on transit by setting aside pre-tax dollars (currently up to $245 a month) to pay for subway, bus and commuter rail travel.

In 2009, however, San Francisco passed an ordinance requiring businesses with 20 or more employees to offer tax-free benefits. Depending on their tax bracket, commuters can save up to 40 percent of the cost of their fares.

What it might do for the Twin Cities: For starters, in this time of rising gas prices, such a mandate would likely nudge more people out of their cars and onto trains and buses. Fewer people in cars translates to a drop in greenhouse gas emissions and less traffic. As important, local businesses save on payroll taxes because employees are deducting income on a pre-tax basis. Better yet, those tax savings stay here in the local economy instead of being sent to Washington.