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Developing affordable housing strategies along the Central Corridor
The city of St. Paul is trying to "manage growth and change" that is expected to arise from the future Central Corridor Light Rail transit line, Nancy Homans, policy director to Mayor Coleman, told a group that gathered as part of a monthly discussion series hosted by the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota on Friday, September 18.
Maintaining affordable housing along the nearly $1 billion line that will link Minneapolis and St. Paul is a priority, but opinions on how to do so vary, Homans said. Some people advocate for a hands-off approach, she explained, adding that they theorize that "public investment is enough and the market will do the rest," she said.
Others say it's the other way around, and that without planning ahead, "opportunities could be lost...It's a free enterprise debate as well as a government spending debate," she commented.
Data on the subject is mixed, Homans said, and it's tough to predict to what extent the line will bring market changes, especially in light of the economic downturn. Construction of the line, which will run down University Avenue, is supposed to begin in the summer of 2010. Meanwhile, some people still aren't convinced that light rail is the right transit system for the region, a point one attendee at the meeting made, adding that streetcars would be more ideal. Homans said the city's response to the affordable housing question and others needs to be specific and targeted to different communities, or what she called "areas of stability" and "areas of change."
Some affordable housing proponents see land banking, or accumulating property now, either by the city or a nonprofit as an answer, as long as there are provisions for affordable housing. What kind of financial incentive might be created to enforce it is up in the air. Another suggestion, according to a recent MPR report, is to have the city's zoning code require developers to build affordable housing in exchange for high density projects. In turn, high density development might help keep housing costs down. As it is, developers that get city funding have to meet affordable goals, Homans said. "But what happens if this takes off and developers don't need city funding?"
Recently, the city received a $2 million loan from the state to address some of these things, but it is also grappling with a $20 million shortfall. The MPR story goes on to say that one land bank, called the nonprofit Family Housing Fund, has already sprung up. Currently the city is working with a number of community partners, including a coalition for affordable housing and it has hired consultants to help determine the best course of action. It's tricky, but "People are pulling together to come up with a common vision and a development investment strategy," said Homans.
Nieeta Presley, Executive Director of Aurora/St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation in St. Paul, underscored that the city needs to ensure that current residents, many who are low-income, aren't priced out of the area. The corridor needs to accommodate people "who don't have the best options...to be able to stay instead of getting shuffled to poorer neighborhoods...and have great access to transit," she said.
Some people may want to relocate within the neighborhood. "For some folks, home ownership is the only way to pass along wealth. That's important to them, especially seniors," she said.
She agreed that land banking is a good idea, adding that developers should help shoulder the responsibility for affordable housing. All in all, the city needs to find a way to achieve balance. The resulting housing "can't all be high-end or low-end," she said, adding, "There needs to be mixed-income housing."
Anna Pratt (email annaprattjournalist [at] gmail [dot] com) is a freelance journalist living and working in Minneapolis.
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©2009 Anna Pratt