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What is ‘affordable housing’?

The definition is not as straightforward as it might seem.

Chip Halbach said the federal government defines housing as “affordable” if it does not exceed 30 percent of a person’s gross income.
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

Affordable housing: On the face of it the phrase is pretty straightforward and often makes an appearance in news stories about housing the homeless, as in there’s a lack of it.  

Yet, coming from those who advocate for low- and moderate-income people, the definition is more complex.

Prompted by a reader asking: “What do you mean by ‘affordable housing’?”, I called Chip Halbach, who heads the Minnesota Housing Partnership, a nonprofit that works with communities and housing developers around the state to create and preserve housing for lower-income people.

“I’ve been working on that answer for coming up on 30 years,’’ said Halbach, who nevertheless plowed ahead to define it as housing that is created to “bridge the gap” between market-rate housing and what lower-wealth people can afford.  

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Some call it workforce housing or senior housing, he said. Others consider it anything low-rent, which could include so-called “slum” housing, which category he rules out.

Halbach said the federal government defines housing as “affordable” if it does not exceed 30 percent of a person’s gross income, although wealthy households can afford to pay more. This means persons working full time for $10 an hour — which exceeds the $7.25-an-hour federal minimum wage most often paid in Minnesota — should be able to afford to pay $500 a month for rent.

In the Twin Cities and outstate Minnesota there is not enough of that priced-right housing, even with financial assistance from government and philanthropic housing programs. That means the need to create more.