Every two years, the Minnesota State Legislature has the opportunity to decide where to invest precious resources to maximize benefit to the public. This year, housing should be given increased priority as a way to build healthier communities, including those here in Itasca County.
The scale of the problem speaks for itself:
• In Itasca County, a minimum wage worker needs to work 79 hours a week – all year round- to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment, according to a recent report from the Minnesota Housing Partnership and National Low Income Housing Coalition. This means that many of our citizens simply cannot afford a place to call home. We also have some of the oldest housing stock in the state that needs to be upgraded to stay on the market.
• For over 1,400 renter households in Itasca County, housing costs eat up more than half of their income, making the decision to put food on the table, purchase school supplies or pay the rent a difficult decision each month.
• And in a growing number of cases, our friends and neighbors in Itasca County are facing homelessness. On a particularly cold night in October, 2012, Wilder Research conducted a statewide count of people experiencing homelessness and found 319 people in Northeastern Minnesota (excluding St. Louis County). This was an increase of nearly 50 percent from three years earlier when the last study was done. Almost half were either children with their parents or youth living on their own. At our own GRACE House, our county’s only shelter, we serve over 200 people each year and turn away almost double that number because of a lack of beds. Most are Itasca County residents.
Again and again, we learn that families facing housing instability end up at risk for health and emotional problems. Children tend to fall behind in school. And if people do have housing, our poorest neighbors often live in substandard homes where mold and lead hazards are endemic.
With the scale and consequences of the problem so severe, smart state investment in housing appears to be a win-win solution. Among the thoughtful proposals currently at the legislature are:
• An increase of $25 million in funding for programs that would help retain existing affordable housing and invest in new or rehabilitated housing where the need is greatest, including Greater Minnesota;
• An increase of $25 million in funding for services to help people experiencing homelessness stay housed and prevent others from becoming homeless in the first place; and
• Bonding proposals that would accomplish many of these same housing goals, while putting people to work in home construction and leveraging other investments.
While lawmakers must grapple with difficult decisions about balancing Minnesota’s needs and priorities, investment in housing should be a top priority this year. The future of all of us who call Itasca County home depends on it.