A Renter’s Blueprint for Addressing St. Paul's Affordable Housing Crisis

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Affordable, quality housing is a universal human right.

I’m running for City Council to address our citywide affordable housing crisis. This issue deserves proactive leadership with empathy, urgency, and tangible solutions that ease the costs of rent and homeownership in our city.

Our city is growing, and that’s a good thing. It’s also our collective responsibility to ensure that every resident benefits from that growth. Saint Paul led the seven-county metro in population growth in 2017. In the past several years, we’ve gained more than 20,000 new residents as a city, but we have only created about 4,000 additional affordable housing units. Ward 4, where I live, is an epicenter of this growth, with one of the fastest-growing renter populations in our community. It’s also an exciting time to be in our Ward, with opportunities in our future connected to the stadium; assets like our light rail and other essential transit investments; our status as home to multiple universities and colleges; and the many storied neighborhoods that generations of Saint Paulites call home - or aspire to.

I’m running for Ward 4 City Council because the future of our city is connected to the future of our Ward. I’m also running as a renter in a city where over 50% of our neighbors are renting, but no renters are yet on our City Council. Within the 50% of our city who rents, another half of those residents, myself included, are renting in cost-burdened households. This means they spend more than 30% of their income on rent -- and often, it’s upwards of half. When people spend most of their income on housing, they’re forced to buy fewer groceries, skip a doctor’s appointment, forego school supplies, and spend less in Saint Paul businesses. Foregoing action on this issue is holding our city back.

Renters are also among the most diverse groups of residents in our city, but among the least represented in city government and on district councils. In Saint Paul, renting households include white residents, Asian-American, Indigenous, Latinx and Black residents -- and within Saint Paul communities of color specifically, renters consistently make up the majority of households. Renters also represent people in every stage of life and from every background, from college students, to young professionals, to working families and seniors. Tenant organizing across geography and living situations is critical to center these voices and serve everyone in our city effectively. Tenants in our city live in a wide range of places, from large upscale apartment buildings, to public housing high-rises and senior living communities, to smaller buildings and homes that have been converted to duplexes and triplexes, and much more. I am running to build a coalition of residents in every living situation, and to be a voice on our Council for over half of the city who rents.

Our citywide housing conversation also can’t be carried out entirely between developers and planners. Increasing our supply of housing is essential, but a supply-side strategy of “trickle-down housing” alone, without designing for our residents most in need, will exacerbate the problem. An intensive community engagement strategy, upheld by watchful Council leadership, must ensure that each proposal meets aggressive affordable housing goals and actually benefits every resident living in our city - especially those who need it the most.  

Ultimately, if we want to be a city that works for all of us, it’s our responsibility to champion housing for all. We can build for the future, acknowledge our neighborhood history, and make sure generations to come have a place here. All of these things can and must happen together.

As Saint Paul embarks on its 2040 Comprehensive Plan community input process, we have a chance to shape these issues for the very future of our city. I would be proud to work with my Council colleagues to support the good work already happening, and continue advancing progress for our future.

We can also do even more to connect people to resources that we already have. A number of state, county and local housing resources exist to support people in a range of living situations - but many aren’t aware of them. On the City Council, I will push for investments in staff navigators, community engagement strategies and translation services to help people of all backgrounds make the most of programs that city leaders have worked hard to create.

Lastly, opportunities already exist for us to take bold action with large-scale potential. Our city zoning code guides the development of housing throughout our entire community. On City Council, I will push for a comprehensive analysis of citywide zoning rules to identify opportunities to better prioritize housing for all in every corner of Saint Paul.  

We are at a pivotal moment in our city that is full of possibility. We have an opportunity right now to plan boldly for the future; to lead with an equity lens, anticipate and embrace growth, and combat rising inequality and displacement.

We have a chance to make Saint Paul a model housing city. I am excited to dive into these issues on City Council, and to pursue the following priorities that can help lead us forward on affordable housing. I’m also actively open and listening to all in our community for even more ideas. 

Grow our density for the future of our city

We need to anticipate and embrace growth, and seek always to thoughtfully grow our density as a city. Saint Paul’s revenue challenges fundamentally require us to help people live here and stay here, through affordable housing and homeownership across our city and across the full range of income levels.

  • Upzoning key areas throughout our city helps us maximize the opportunity we have to grow through zoning requirements that let us build more

  • Inclusionary zoning, which sets affordability requirements for any new proposals, helps the city demand affordability alongside greater density

  • These zoning changes also help us convert existing homes into duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes, which are a great way to increase the number of units available while maintaining neighborhood character

  • Empty lots owned by the city present additional opportunities for the city to directly spur thoughtful development that meets immediate housing needs

  • Changes to the way the federal low-income housing tax credit is applied can be leveraged to create more units for the poorest families in our city

  • As we push for state-level dedicated sources of affordable housing funds, Local Housing Trust Funds can be implemented at the city level and/or through Ramsey County, with non-profit and private sector partners

  • At a time when our residents so desperately need affordable housing, we should examine and use sparingly costly city processes like historic preservation reviews, studies and moratoriums that can stall the creation of more housing stock

Promote affordable homeownership

As a renter who is also a future aspiring homeowner, I’ve heard from many residents in my position who struggle to transition from renting to owning a home. We can and must do more to support aspiring homeowners as a key strategy toward building generational wealth and expanding the property tax base.

  • City government can work with Ramsey County to rehab tax-forfeited or vacant lots in the city so they can be resold at a dedicated affordable rate

  • Responsible lease-to-own programs through Saint Paul Public Housing Authority or other non-profits can help low-income buyers work toward homeownership over time

  • Downpayment assistance and mortgage buy-down programs can help ease the up-front costs to buying a home

  • Community land trust models like the Rondo Community Land Trust essentially help create protected, community-owned housing markets that sustain affordable homeownership across generations

  • City-backed programs that support seniors who want to rent out part of their home, or sell it as part of downsizing for retirement, can connect them to aspiring renters and buyers, solving intergenerational housing needs simultaneously

Preserve our naturally-occurring affordable housing (NOAH)

Ensuring we preserve existing affordable housing is a must to maximize what we also build. Older buildings with higher maintenance costs are often bought and upscaled, which can push current residents out and decrease our affordable housing stock. We can adopt strategies to preserve existing affordable housing that both saves us significant expense over time and supports immediate needs now.

  • The Rental Rehabilitation Loan program and other energy-efficiency programs help improve housing conditions in some of our poorest neighborhoods

  • The city can help landlords keep rents down by covering application fees for eligible buildings to become 4d classified, a low-income rent classification status with accompanying tax exemption

  • We should encourage and support more community members in becoming licensed, educated and socially responsible local landlords, and maintain programs like the city’s Landlords 101 certificate course

  • The city’s Small Building Landlord Program provides loans to property managers with small (2- or 3-unit buildings) that helps them make needed upgrades in exchange for keeping rents low 

Increase representation, protections and resources for renters

Current Minnesota state law affords little to renters in terms of protections against rising rents or displacement. Our city can and must do more to support the needs and empowerment of tenants, from easing the suffocating 2.5% citywide vacancy rate, to passing ordinances that better insulate renters from market turmoil as some of our most economically vulnerable residents.

  • Pass a city ordinance making Section 8 voucher users a protected class from landlord discrimination to prevent voucher users from being screened out, as they currently routinely are

  • The vast majority of evictions are carried out on the basis of inability to pay rent - we need short-term targeted support to people facing eviction, including community programs that help tenants pay their back rent

  • In instances where tenants are the victims of bad landlords, the city can take action against the landlords (not the tenants) by taking the property into receivership so that people can keep their homes

  • Explore a city or county landlord risk mitigation fund, which partners local governments with participating non-profits to support tenants who are at highest risk of being discriminated against; community funds like these incentivize landlords to accept renters’ applications through providing funds and casework support for each tenant

  • Our affordable housing crisis is especially acute for seniors and people with disabilities who rent; we need to create dedicated affordable housing with these residents’ unique needs in mind

  • Seniors moving out of their homes can be supported by programs that help them convert their housing, create Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) and other affordable senior housing options so they can continue to live nearby

  • Ordinances like the recently adopted one in St. Louis Park put the onus on landlords to pay for the costs of displacement incurred on tenants by sudden spikes in rent

  • Our city can create a formal renter’s rights commission that regularly advises City Council and the Mayor on the “state of the tenant” in our city

  • Our city should invest in community education and tenants’ rights organizing, including an easy-to-find, multilingual renter’s rights manual

  • The district council system should be reformed to connect increased funding for organizing to greater renter representation requirements

Learn more about Mitra's position on Attainable and Affordable Housing >