Affordable housing is on the minds of East Siders

Marjorie Otto
news editor

The Housing Justice series, hosted by the East Side Freedom Library, wrapped up on Aug. 13 with a conversation between community organizers, storytellers and state and city leaders about housing.

The goal of the series was to learn more about historical policies that created housing discrimination in the Twin Cities, how those policies affect housing today and how to make housing fair and affordable.

It was organized by ABC Realty broker and East Sider Seanne Thomas, along with the Metropolitan Interfaith Council on Affordable Housing — MICAH — the Minnesota Homeownership Center and Cookie Cart.

Events in the series held earlier this summer included screenings of the documentaries “Jim Crow of the North”ù and “Sold Out: Affordable Housing at Risk.”

The final event started with a discussion between Minnesota Housing Finance Agency Commissioner Jennifer Ho and St. Paul Planning and Economic Development Deputy Director Kristin Guild. 

Both women described how their agencies operate and the types of things they are working on to address statewide and citywide affordable housing crises.

Ho described the Housing Finance Agency as the “state’s housing bank.” She became head of the organization back in January as a part of Gov. Tim Walz’ cabinet. 

She said the agency serves a number of purposes, from helping first-time homebuyers purchase homes to supporting developers and subsidizing affordable housing. 

For example, Dayton’s Bluff Neighborhood Housing Services has applied for and received funding from the Housing Finance Agency for some of the homes in the Village on Rivoli development in Railroad Island. The agency also partners with organizations that offer homeownership classes, credit rebuilding and other education programs. 

Ho said one of the major goals of the agency is to find more ways to increase home ownership for households of color, which she said it’s doing with a three-pronged approach: being more intentional about whose voices are listened to by the state, getting better and more detailed data, and taking a look at the agency itself and its inclusivity. 

 

Cost-burdened in St. Paul
From the city’s perspective, Guild shared a number of statistics specific to St. Paul and its afforadable housing shortage. 

She said about one-third of St. Paul households are cost-burdened, meaning they spend 30% or more of their income to pay for housing. About a quarter of St. Paul households spend a greater share of their incomes, some 50% for housing costs. 

Guild said that 48% of households of color are cost-burdened and that 50% of renters as cost-burdened as well.

She said the statistics are “sobering,” pushing the city to create policy changes to address the cost of housing in St. Paul. In the 2019 city budget, the city council approved a plan to contribute $71 million to the Housing Trust Fund, which was funded by a one-time $10 million investment and will continue to be funded by a $2 million annual investment.

The scope of the fund is broad, with the city saying it can be used to “produce, preserve and protect housing affordability for St. Paul residents.”

Guild said a new city Affordable Housing Incentive Program has used money from the fund, giving landlords a tax credit for keeping rents affordable for those at or below 50% of the area median income. 

She added that this fall the city will partner with St. Paul Public Schools to roll out a new school stability program that will connect with families at risk of eviction.

 

Storytelling for policy change
For the second half of the event, audience members were able to speak with Daniel Bergin, who produced “Jim Crow of the North,” about racist real estate covenants in the early 20th century that limited where people of color could buy homes. 

The conversation also included Kevin Dragseth, who produced “Sold Out,” which is about the upscaling of apartments in the Twin Cities and how it’s displacing tenants, John Slade, an East Sider and organizer with MICAH, and Caitlin Magistad, a policy advisor for the Metropolitan Consortium of Community Developers

They talked about how getting stories out, like those heard in the documentaries, can help drive policy change. Magistad said specifically that stories like those shared in the documentaries are what help her work lobbying for policy changes at the Legislature. 

An audience member who works with youth in foster care in Ramsey County wanted to know how stories about kids affected by the affordable housing crisis are getting out and being heard by policy-makers.

Bergin said that years ago he worked on a project at Twin Cities Public Television with Wilder Research about homeless youth and that he will consider returning to that story to update it.

Slade said one of the driving forces behind his work at MICAH is the approximately 2,100 kids in the St. Paul Public School system who deal with homelessness in the city. 

Other topics that came up included the loss of manufactured housing communities, such as Lowry Grove in St. Anthony, and how the City of St. Paul could make changes to its zoning code to allow for more types of housing, like tiny homes. 

Thomas, realtor and the event’s organizer, ended the evening discussing the Hillcrest Golf Course site, 112 acres on the East Side now owned by the St. Paul Port Authority, which could become a major development and create more housing stock in the city. 

Guild said the city is looking for residents to join the Hillcrest Community Advisory Committee to provide feedback as it creates a master plan for the site. To apply for the committee go to www.stpaul.gov/hillcrest-community-advisory-committee.

– Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com.

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