Businesses need people. People need homes. For many Minnesota communities, this simple reality is now a front-and-center economic issue, impacting families and employers alike.
On November 16, more than 100 affordable housing sector leaders gathered at Carpenters Hall to discuss the gap between Minnesota’s growing workforce and our supply of affordable homes. Panelists included Lee Schafer, business columnist for the Star Tribune (moderator); Skip Duchesneau, President of Greater Minnesota development company D.W. Jones; Jonathan Weinhagen, President & CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce; and Mark Borseth, Public Works Director at the City of Thief River Falls.
According to Weinhagen, many Twin Cities region business leaders have shifted from taking housing for granted, to seeing housing as a key ingredient to their success. “With a 100,000 worker shortfall, we're in crisis mode,” Weinhagen said, “For the first time, we’re pivoting as a business community to think about housing as an economic competitiveness issue and a workforce issue.”
However, to take advantage of this shift in a complex housing sector, education and clear solutions are necessary. “I think I know about two percent of your acronyms [in the affordable housing sector],” Weinhagen joked. “When I talk to business leaders about actually investing, their faces go blank. We haven’t spent a lot of time educating our business leaders about how this process works. That said, I think there’s absolutely an opportunity and the appetite to begin this investment.”
Duchesneau pointed to MHP’s legislation to create a Tax Credit Contribution Fund in Minnesota as one clear, straightforward solution. The legislation provides that when businesses or individuals contribute to a specific development or general loan pool, they receive credit against their state tax liability equal to their contribution.
“Employers and community members don’t want to get involved with in the complexity of a tax credit deal,” Duchesneau said. “The simplicity of the Tax Credit Contribution Fund — that’s a no brainer. It’s an exciting, new opportunity for employers who have been sidelined, as they have been working to create great jobs, to get involved.”
In Thief River Falls, a community of 9,000 people in Northwest Minnesota, employers Arctic Cat and DigiKey Electronics have created thousands of jobs — DigiKey alone has 4,100 employees, 3,500 of which call Thief River Falls home. Borseth explained that matching up existing resources for affordable housing with employees’ starting wages makes development challenging.
“Some DigiKey employees are making just about $70,000 annually starting salary, so we’ve had to get a little bit creative on how we get housing started,” said Borseth. He said education and long-range planning are key to making housing development work.
Weinhagen agreed, adding that educating local lawmakers and business owners is essential. “I’ve seen countless projects fall to a city council that didn’t want to have development in their community despite the need,” he said. “The business community hasn’t shown up in the way they should. Their are some new opportunities, however. Opportunity Zones are a place folks can make new investments that can be leveraged to build housing in our communities.”
Panelists agreed that there’s a growing consensus — and urgency — around Minnesota’s shortage of homes affordable to working people.
“Opportunity and affordability are diverging,” said Schafer. When he conducted interviews for a 7-column series on affordable housing, “nobody really questioned that the affordability of housing is an economic opportunity issue,” he said. “The idea of affordable housing near where you work is really important as our economy continues to grow. And it’s really important to our employers.”
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See more photos of the event on Facebook.