As the saga of the proposed Atalus development in St. Paul unfolds, competing visions for solving the affordable housing crisis take the spotlight. A quick summary: Neighborhood activists succeeded in thwarting the apartment project, with the backing of a divided City Council, on the grounds that it could lead to the displacement of nearby low-income residents. Then Mayor Melvin Carter vetoed that vote on the grounds that the development will decrease pressure on naturally occurring affordable housing. We are divided on how to solve this complex housing crisis, and our lack of focus is hindering true progress. How can we align a diverse group of stakeholders around a shared strategy?
There are more than 317,00 housing cost-burdened households in the metro. If coordination is needed to solve complex problems, our process of neighborhood engagement may be part of the problem. Decisions about housing and infrastructure have been trending away from central decision-making since the 1960s. There are good reasons for this. The destruction of the Rondo neighborhood to make way for Interstate 94 serves as a compelling example. What happens when we rely on neighborhood input to drive our development agenda? We can compare the response to Atalus’ project with another development just over a mile away. The owner of Dixie’s is proposing a luxury development on Grand Avenue, and the primary pushback that project received is about neighborhood character and parking. St. Paul’s public input process unintentionally amplifies voices of dissent, and neighborhood defenders are just as likely to be against density as they are displacement.
There are numerous planning documents in local government to address this crisis. Even though the St. Paul City Council and the mayor are divided in their approach, St. Paul does have some strategies outlined in the 2040 Plan. Ramsey County has its own affordable housing strategy, as does Minneapolis and Hennepin County. Add to that the complexities of affordable housing finance, and it’s no wonder that the construction industry is struggling to bring solutions to the table. Meanwhile, renters are so frustrated with the lack of progress that another group in St. Paul is proposing a rent control ordinance. Some studies show it increases affordability in the short term but creates negative outcomes in the long term. When everyone is focused on an issue but little progress is being made, it appears that the primary missing ingredient is coordination.
Here’s my proposal: Create a centralized cross-sector partnership to drive regional action for affordable housing. Stakeholders – from housing advocates, activists and developers, to employers, philanthropy, city, county, state and federal government – must align strategies with incentives and resources.
Fortunately, our region has a rich history of cross-sector collaboration, from the Itasca Project and Greater MSP to the Alliance of Alliances and the recent Construction Revolution Summit. We have the key players necessary to implement a coordinated response to the affordable housing crisis.
What’s possible if our region gets aligned? Tokyo achieved housing affordability by removing planning restrictions. New construction technology can stretch subsidy dollars further and increase the supply of new affordable housing. Economic development can combat displacement through wealth creation in BIPOC communities. What’s lacking is not ideas or talent, but cross-sector coordination. That is how we will solve the affordable housing crisis.
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