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Housing Is a Big Problem




            A lack of decent, affordable housing is a problem across the country. In metro areas, developers would rather build high-end condos and McMansions than construct housing that people of moderate means can afford. In rural areas, the lack of affordable housing can make it difficult to recruit workers. Meanwhile, housing that was built during the great boom that began after World War II is showing its age, and landlords take little interest in maintaining rental properties.

            The problem in Moorhead and Clay County is not nearly as acute as it is in other parts of the country, but it is bad enough. There are few attractive options for renting, and higher interest rates put homeownership out of reach for many. It is a particular problem for young families. My wife and I bought over first houses more than thirty years ago when neither of us was exactly raking in big bucks. My daughter is about the same age as I was then, but she has not been so lucky.

            Important progress was made toward addressing these problems at the last session of the Minnesota legislature, thank to our DFL trifecta. I recently printed off a document about the housing budget, and it runs to six pages. It touts the housing omnibus bill as “the largest single investment in housing in state history” with an appropriation of over a billion dollars. Assistance for both renters and homebuyers is included. There are incentives for both new construction and preservation of existing stock.

            Our own Rep. Heather Keeler played an important role, particularly in addressing the problem of homelessness. She authored the Pathway Home Act, which supports shelter construction, transitional housing, and outreach to homeless youth and victims of sex trafficking.

            These are positive steps, but there is still much more that needs to be done. The city of Moorhead has taken some initial steps to require below-market rental units in new construction, but the bigger problem is the cost and condition of existing apartments. Right now the market is dominated by management companies that are notorious for putting the squeeze on renters with a host of junk fees while doing as little as possible to maintain their buildings.

            How to remedy these problems presents an enormous challenge. Can we make renting more affordable through rental assistance and/or cost controls? Can new regulations and better enforcement of existing regulations compel companies to fix up their properties without causing rents to soar even further? Are there incentives that would be sufficient to induce landlords to make upgrades? For example, the Inflation Reduction Act includes tax breaks and rebates for homeowners to make their homes greener and more energy efficient, but it does little to address the needs of renters. If existing companies aren’t willing to invest, could new, non-profit management companies or more public housing create an alternative? Indeed, wouldn’t it make more sense to go back to building public housing instead of our current system of bureaucratically complex and cumbersome subsidies?

            Before we can expect real solutions, renters themselves need to become more politically engaged and find their voice. They are a difficult constituency to reach. Many are consumed by the demands of work and family and feel little connection to politics. On the most practical level, it is difficult to campaign in apartment buildings, which are typically locked.

            One of my goals this year is to see what can be done to reach out to these folks. I am looking for people who have an interest in the issue and can help to build a political agenda. If we can come up with something that gets people a little excited, my goal is ultimately to build a network of people spread among many buildings who can serve as a point of contact with their neighbors.

            If you are interested in being part of this effort, I’d love to hear from you.

 

Paul Harris

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