Halbach challenges condemnation of Met Council housing plan

Once again Katherine Kersten shares a vision for regional growth in which all roads lead to less regulation and lower taxes. Kersten’s alarmist piece includes numerous misleading or misplaced condemnations of the Metropolitan Council, affordable housing, and the planning profession. I’ll focus on two of her examples given as reasons to feel very bad about public life in the Twin Cities.

First, Kersten charges that the unelected Metropolitan Council is dictating that each metropolitan city “accommodate a precise, arbitrarily determined number” of housing units for low-income people. What Kersten is referring to is the state’s Metropolitan Land Planning Act. Through this act individual communities are required to complete 10-year comprehensive plans that, in part, include a housing program that will “provide sufficient existing and new housing to meet the local unit’s share of the metropolitan area need for low and moderate income housing.” The Council’s role, assigned to it by the legislature, is to help the communities with this task and review and comment on the extent to which community comprehensive plans meet the obligation. Kersten should not be going after the Council but direct her charges at the state legislature; she would have to drop the unelected part of her charge however.

Second, Kersten states that affordable housing has gotten way too costly and she cites the Pillsbury A-Mill development, in Minneapolis, as her prime exhibit. Readers should know that this development is very expensive but that is because of the cost of historic restoration. This property was only redeveloped because government promotes preservation through the provision of historic tax credits. The Minnesota legislature’s 2010 passage of state credits to match those of the federal government provided enough return for a developer to take the risk of moving forward with the very risky A-Mill investment. Housing subsidies contributed a lesser portion of the overall project budget; and this enabled the building to house moderate income families as opposed to just sitting there as a historic artifact. Instead of looking at this as an example of too high costs of affordable housing, Kersten should be directing her ire at elected government bodies for spending so much on historic preservation.

In fact, the metropolitan area has done very little to invest in housing affordability while the need for housing assistance increases, particularly in suburban communities. Yes, education and stable family structure are critical, as Kersten writes is the real solution; but education, family stability and housing affordability are deeply connected. It’s not either-or with respect to these important concerns. That’s why during the last state legislative bonding session superintendents of five school districts signed a statement which included: “Housing is one of the best investments the Legislature could make if it wants to help education. Our students’ future quite literally depends on this foundation, and our community’s future depends upon these students.”