Each month, Beth Ehresman has barely enough money to pay the pile of bills on her dining room table.
But Ehresman, who has a medical disability, is fortunate to live in an Edina apartment where her rent is based on her income. Without that assistance, she would be at risk of joining the growing ranks of homeless.
“It’s been so helpful,” she said. “I can actually afford groceries most months.”
With rents rising fast across the Twin Cities metro area, a growing number of suburbs like Edina are forcing developers to build less expensive rentals and implementing rules that protect renters who are finding themselves priced out of the market.
Residents, newly minted activists and some elected officials are driving efforts to address affordability, frustrated that many of the teachers, health care workers and service employees in their communities are living on the edge.
“Affordable housing has penetrated the public discourse in a way that has not been true in the past couple decades,” said Anne Mavity, executive director of the Minnesota Housing Partnership. “Right now it’s a top-tier issue, and it needs to be.”
Renting an apartment in the Twin Cities cost an average of $1,697 in February, according to Zillow. Rents here are among the fastest-rising in the country, and vacancy rates remain low despite the addition of almost 5,000 apartment units last year.
Making rent is a challenge for a lot of people in the Twin Cities. A growing share are paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent, with pockets northwest of Minneapolis and east of St. Paul paying upward of 40 percent, according to a Star Tribune analysis of new data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The political will to address the issue is intense. The new governor and new mayors of the two biggest cities in the state made affordable housing the cornerstone of their campaigns and have rolled out sweeping plans to help solve the problem.
For the first time in three decades, the Metropolitan Council established a regional affordable housing policy plan to meet a projected need for an additional 39,700 affordable housing units from 2021 to 2030. The agency hired a pair of policy planners with expertise in affordable housing and tapped developers, nonprofits and others to guide communities.
But it is community groups that are taking action in places like Brooklyn Park, a first-ring suburb where average renters pay 43 percent of their income on housing, the Star Tribune analysis found.
20 years ago an auto-immune disease caused Beth Ehresman, right, to have massive heart failure and now she is living on disability. She lives at an income-restricted townhome in Edina that runs by CommonBond Communities. She met with Joelle Sandburg of Restart who helps her weekly with her with paying bills and organizing at her home in Edina, Minn., on Thursday, March 28, 2019.
Nelima Sitati-Munene, a longtime resident of the city, has led a largely grassroots effort to combat the problem. She heads a nonprofit called ACER (African Career, Education & Resource) that in 2017 successfully advocated for a mixed-income housing policy that requires developers to include affordable units in new market-rate buildings. The group has broadened its support for such policies to other communities.
Already, a handful of communities including Minneapolis have adopted inclusionary housing and renter protection policies, many of which have been modeled after those adopted by St. Louis Park, where a collective of faith-based groups helped promote what’s become considered some of the most progressive policies in the metro.
It remains to be seen just how much relief cities can provide in an already stressed housing market. Critics warn that increased regulation could end up preventing the kind of construction that’s needed to ease the housing shortage and have other unintended consequences.
Kelly Doran, a Twin Cities-based developer, and others acknowledge the need for more affordable housing but worry that new rules will stifle construction in those communities or that rents on market-rate units will increase to subsidize the cost of the less-expensive ones.
“I think a lot of times in a political environment there’s this rush to try to come up with a simple answer to what is a very complex problem,” he said. “We have to look at raising incomes as much as we look at reducing the cost of living.”
Tara Beard, a Metropolitan Council housing policy analyst, said it’s too early to measure regional impact, but some cities are already seeing results. After Edina passed a 10 percent affordability requirement in 2015 for large multifamily housing projects, 98 of the 1,042 units that have recently been built meet the new guidelines, which are targeted to those who earn 60 percent or less of the area median income.
Those figures don’t include a pair of projects still in the works that will include a combined 132 units in buildings that are 100 percent income restricted. “I am confident they would not exist without this policy,” said Stephanie Hawkinson, Edina’s affordable housing development manager.
One of the newest in the city is 66 West, an apartment building exclusively for formerly homeless teens like Aleesha German, who graduated from high school at 17 and found herself living with a friend after she moved out of foster care. German is taking a break from college while she works full-time at the Shake Shack and volunteers as a youth advocate at the YMCA. She can’t afford her own apartment on her $12 hourly wage, so her rent is based on her income.
“Living here has really relieved a lot of stress and opened a lot of opportunities for me because I don’t have to worry about where I’m going to sleep,” she said.
Though Edina is one of the wealthiest cities in the metro, low-income housing isn’t new to the city. Yorkdale Terrace, where Ehresman pays about 30 percent of her $900 monthly income on rent, was developed 21 years ago by the nonprofit CommonBond Communities.
Shoreview is the latest city in the metro to adopt affordability policies, including a first-time home buyer assistance program and a requirement that 10 percent of its newly built apartments are income restricted. If adopted by city officials this fall, Shoreview would become the first city in Ramsey County to adopt such a policy.
In Bloomington, where low-paying service jobs are on the rise, the council recently adopted inclusionary housing rules that offer developers several innovative options for compliance.
That plan was largely endorsed by a cadre of residents who gathered in living rooms to organize and testified at council meetings. Jenna Carter, a nutritionist, joined the Bloomington Housing Coalition after volunteering at the local food bank, where she met families that couldn’t afford groceries because they were spending the bulk of their income on housing. She and others advocated for 108 Place, which when completed will provide 42 units of housing for people who earn less than 60 percent of the area median income. In Bloomington that’s $56,580 for a family of four.
“As a mom myself, it broke my heart to think of all those kids being put at such a disadvantage and losing so much opportunity because of circumstances beyond their control,” she said.
Even in communities that have yet to adopt a policy, some residents see the need for more housing options to cultivate retail and other services.
Leslie Roering, a senior project manager for Aeon, a nonprofit housing developer and manager based in Minneapolis, lives in Ramsey, a northwest suburb that’s been trying to develop its own town center. The city wanted more density to help support shops and restaurants, so she turned to her colleagues at Aeon. The result is Greenway Terrace, an entirely income-restricted development where residents pay only a portion of their income on rent. Even before the roof was on the building, 300 families had signed up on the interest list, and within a month of opening the building was full.
“More and more cities are realizing that there are cost-burdened households in their community and that they need to do something about it to retain those households,” Roering said.
Lolita Cole was one of the first residents at Greenway Terrace. Two summers ago, Cole, a 58-year-old personal care attendant, was forced out of her St. Paul apartment after the building sold and she was hit with a $200-a-month increase in rent. After living in a motel that cost nearly $1,100 a month, she now has stable housing and doesn’t have to worry about becoming homeless again.
“It was rough out there,” she said. “But now I don’t have to give up anything.”
Staff writer Shannon Prather contributed to this report.
Jim Buchta has covered real estate for the Star Tribune for several years. He also has covered energy, small business, consumer affairs and travel.
MaryJo Webster is the data editor for the Star Tribune. She teams up with reporters to analyze data for stories across a wide range of topics and beats.
Jeff Hargarten is a data journalist for the Star Tribune focusing on data-driven reporting and visualization. He has covered elections, technology, criminal justice, demographics and public health.