Editor’s note: The piece below is authored by Marion Greene, Hennepin County Commissioner; Sheila Kiscaden, Olmsted County Commissioner; Emily Larson, mayor of Duluth; Andrea Lauer, mayor of Royalton; Jim McDonough, Ramsey County Commissioner; and
Kim Norton, mayor of Rochester.
In early January, housing was poised to be a top tier issue at the State Capitol this legislative session. Coming off a turbulent summer where homelessness was front page news, housing advocates debuted their biggest and boldest agenda yet, a grand alliance of statewide, bipartisan and cross-sector stakeholders prioritized critical investments in affordable housing, a state-led housing task force provided a road map to success and local government representatives like us urged the state to prioritize solutions.
While the Walz administration has made a significant effort to prioritize housing this session by proposing $170 million to create new and preserve existing homes and visiting with housing providers and advocates across the state, housing has all but fallen off the radar for many at the Capitol.
But the same cannot be said for local government or everyday Minnesotans who are left to deal with skyrocketing housing costs, low inventory and fewer emergency resources for those most in need. Without serious and smart investments from the state, we are all but certain to have encampments again this summer. There are already tents popping up in communities around the state.
The number of people experiencing homelessness who are unsheltered is growing in Minnesota - and quickly. Statewide, the population has grown 62 percent since 2015, according to recently released data from Wilder Research. The trend is even more alarming in the Twin Cities, where the rate of unsheltered homelessness has doubled between 2015 and 2018 - a rate five times as high as the rest of the country, according to Minnesota Housing.
The increase in Minnesota’s unsheltered population has resulted in historic encampments across the state, people seeking shelter in bathrooms, lobbies, parking lots, trains and other places not meant for human habitation, and an increased demand on the existing shelter system.
In response, cities and counties across the state partnered with nonprofits, businesses, faith, cultural and advocacy groups to create temporary emergency shelters from life-threatening winter weather. In the Twin Cities, this effort resulted in the Navigation Center, Winter Safe Space and repurposed public spaces that have already or will soon close for the season, leaving hundreds without stable shelter. Local government officials are currently in urgent discussions to develop dignified solutions for those who will be without shelter.
In Greater Minnesota, where 63 of Minnesota’s 87 counties operate without any form of fixed site shelter, options are more limited. Church basements opened their doors to shelter families on a rotating schedule, hotel vouchers were used to provide temporary respite from the harsh winter conditions and in some cases, government buildings were used as emergency shelter.
The statewide need and community response was unprecedented - and something we should be proud of - but Minnesota can, and must do better.
The state has just a few weeks left of session to commit to critically important investments in affordable housing. For example, investments in Housing Infrastructure Bonds will leverage private investments and ensure “shovel ready” projects can proceed as early as this fall. Creative new financing tools, such as the proposed Housing Tax Credit, will expand housing opportunities. Tried and true funding sources like the Emergency Services Program will provide flexible funding to Minnesotans experiencing homelessness.
Our communities are vastly different. We have different needs, different challenges and different opportunities. But one important thing is the same in every city and town across the state - we are the place someone calls home and that sense of home is what defines our communities. It is where children grow and learn, where families put down roots, where workers pursue new job opportunities and businesses thrive. Homes are truly the heartbeat of our communities.
We know the need, and we know what works. We have asked so much of our community partners, and they have boldly and proudly stepped up to serve their fellow Minnesotans. It’s time for the state to do the same. Don’t let housing fall victim to end of session politics and partisan gridlock. Our communities depend on your leadership.