The following op-ed originally appeard in MinnPost on December 13th, 2018. You can read it here.
By Aaron Berc and Nelima Sitati Munene
The Twin Cities are in the midst of an affordable housing crisis. Just talk to anyone who’s had to find a new place to live in the past few years. We used to pride ourselves in our affordable, livable communities. But if we don’t change our current course, we’re on our way to becoming the next Seattle or San Francisco. Just about all of us agree we have to make a change — so who needs to be part of the solution?
It’s time to stop pretending developers can stand on the sidelines.
Over the past several years, the suburbs have led the metro in adopting mixed-income or inclusionary housing policies. These ordinances make a modest ask of developers: If you want us to help finance your buildings, you’ve got to help us provide affordable housing to those who need it.
Organizations like African Career Education and Resource Inc. and Jewish Community Action have mobilized tenants and residents, from Bloomington to Brooklyn Park, to address the housing challenges that burden thousands of hardworking families every day. Homeowners, landlords, tenants, organizers, activists, elected officials, and public servants are all working toward a more affordable community.
But the urgency of the crisis compels us to demand more of those who build and profit in our communities. And Minneapolis is finally poised to move forward and provide leadership that could move other cities in our region to take stronger action, as well.
Last week, the City Council passed an inclusionary housing policy framework that makes sure all developers are part of the solution. While many regional policies only trigger affordability requirements when a developer asks for financial concessions from the city, Minneapolis extends that participation to all new development. This is the approach we need regionwide.
We’re not asking the private market to solve our complex housing challenges singlehandedly. Minneapolis’ policy ensures just 10 percent of new units are moderately affordable, like one-bedroom apartments renting for no more than $1,062. The requirements go up for developers asking the city for financial assistance: At least 20 percent of units at deeper levels of affordability — closer to $885 for one bedroom units.
A mandatory inclusionary housing policy articulates a city’s rightful role to prioritize the common good. Our neighborhoods have value. That means the whole community needs to benefit from new development — not just the developers and their investors. When new buildings go up or old buildings are renovated, the rents tend to go up, too. Families who have lived in the same place for decades can’t afford to stay; businesses that made the neighborhood desirable in the first place have to move or close. A mandatory policy provides a hedge against this displacement by keeping some rents affordable to those most vulnerable to being pushed out.
Most important, though, it insists that developers do their share to address an urgent issue that requires all hands on deck.
But it also dispels the fallacy that the housing market is an entirely freewheeling entity. In fact, it is fundamentally shaped by where policy drives it, and cities have a responsibility to direct growth and development in a way that serves its residents. All its residents. Developers may argue that building more luxury or high-end units will ultimately result in more affordability — once those units age and decline and demand lower rents. But our neighbors don’t have time to wait for trickle-down housing. We need solutions now.
Developers will insist that inclusionary housing policies will hinder new production, an assertion that has been debunked by numerous national studies. But, national research aside, our region has already proven this is a hollow threat. Just look at St. Louis Park. Since the passage of inclusionary housing in 2015, St. Louis Park has built over 50 affordable units because of the ordinance, with over 100 more in the development pipeline.
By passing a strong, permanent policy in 2019, Minneapolis will play a critical role in stemming the displacement of central city residents as rents continue to climb and new development serves only the highest income households. But it also can accentuate the momentum across the region. The list of inclusionary communities is growing, with the prospect of Brooklyn Center, Minnetonka and others joining ranks in 2019, as well. And, following in Minneapolis’ footsteps, cities that have policies on the books are looking to strengthen and expand their impact. For instance, with the coming light rail line, Brooklyn Park is exploring mandatory inclusionary housing in transit-oriented developments.
Inclusionary housing alone won’t solve the housing crisis. But policies like Minneapolis’ don’t just increase the number of affordable units; they shift the landscape of stakeholders. Inclusionary zoning ensures that development in our community, especially by those seeking to turn a profit, will need to play by reasonable and predictable rules that serve the public good: more opportunities for all residents to access affordable homes.
Nelima Sitati Munene is the executive director of African Career Education and Resource, Inc. Aaron Berc is a community organizer at Jewish Community Action.