During his first year in office, the congressman said, affordable housing is a topic that has come up many times during conversations with constituents, community leaders, businesses and advocacy organizations. In that time, Phillips said he’s seen how access to affordable housing impacts people and how it compounds complicated issues like domestic violence, achievement gaps and workforce shortages.
Phillips mentioned some of his efforts in Congress advocating for affordable housing programs, including his work on a bill to make federal home loans more affordable and his support for increased funding for the Housing Counseling Assistance Program, which provides guidance to consumers on seeking, financing, maintaining, renting or owning a home. The congressman also supported the expansion of the Community Development Block Grant program, which ensures access to decent affordable housing. For fiscal year 2020, the grant program will receive an increase of $100 million and Minnesota will receive about $3 million more than last year, Phillips said.
“Programs like this are imperative in our efforts to support projects in our communities that will expand access to affordable housing,” he said.
Joining the congressman for the community conversation was a panel of experts, who each discussed their work in the area of affordable housing.
The panel featured Minnesota Housing Commissioner Jennifer Ho. Minnesota Housing is the state’s housing finance agency and works to provide access to safe, decent and affordable housing.
“The creation of housing for folks that make the least money is an extraordinary partnership between the federal government, the state government and private developers. The largest engine of federal investment is the low-income housing tax credit, but the state also invests significantly,” Ho said, noting that Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz recently announced that his recommended $2 billion bonding proposal for public construction projects includes $276 million for housing investments.
“It really just reflects the fact that we need a lot more [housing],” Ho said, adding that the bonds are meant to act as an incentive for developers to create housing for people who make the least amount of money, whether they’re a disabled veteran, a senior on a fixed income or a family living on minimum wage.
The commissioner noted that 300,000 additional housing units are needed in the next 10 years statewide to keep pace with growth.
“There’s much more demand for housing than there is supply,” she said. “That’s the core of it.”
Also on the panel Judy Johnson, Metropolitan Council member and former Plymouth mayor and council member, who said her work in affordable housing involves establishing regional housing policies and planning throughout the seven-county metro area.
“We work with local communities, city governments, county governments, townships and housing elements or their local comprehensive plans and setting goals on helping them understand the tools that they have so that they can be successful not only in the planning but in the implementation,” Johnson said.
The council also funds housing development through the Livable Communities Act grant program.
“We’re able to put that money back into housing projects that really help to serve people … our low- to middle-income families,” Johnson said.
The Metropolitan Council also administers the state’s largest Section 8 housing trades budget program through its Metro Housing and Redevelopment Authority, she said, noting that the program serves more than 7,000 families.
Johnson is also project director for Prosperity’s Front Door, a statewide network of business, government, community and nonprofit leaders working to create and sustain an affordable and diverse inventory of homes in communities.
Also on the panel was Nelima Sitati Munene, executive director for African Career, Education and Resource, a nonprofit working to engage African immigrants living in the north and northwest suburbs of Minneapolis to advance equity and eliminate disparities for the area’s large and growing African community. The organization also works with partners to save threatened affordable housing and develop tenant leadership.
“We view ourselves as doing the work of changing the narrative around housing, especially the conversation about affordable housing,” Munene said. “We believe that the folks who are most impacted by this issue are the ones who are the experts in coming up with the solutions.”
Munene said tenant organizing is important in the rental market, especially during a time when there are low vacancy rates and the market is losing naturally occurring affordable housing, which are rental properties that maintain low rents without federal subsidy.
“We cannot just leave it up to the market to control housing,” she said, noting the two conflicting issues of housing. “Housing is a market commodity, but also housing provides shelter and shelter is a fundamental and basic need.”
Wages, Munene said, is another area that must be considered when talking about affordable housing.
“We’re never going to able to build our way out of this. … We have stagnant wages. The wages that people are making have not kept pace with the cost of living,” she said.
Also asked to be on the panel was Elizabeth Glidden, director of strategic initiatives and policy at Minnesota Housing Partnership, a nonprofit that advocates for policy and produces research related to housing. The organization also works to fund and implement affordable housing in urban, rural and tribal communities.
“What do we need to do? There are so many different things we can do, so many different areas we can work on and so much data, but the big picture is that the federal government used to really take on housing as a major initiative and it has over the decades been backing away and backing away and backing away from that responsibility,” Glidden. “In the state of Minnesota, we know that our state agency is respected throughout the nation and yet we know they need to do more. And local governments are being asked to do things they’ve never done before and we need them to step up too.”