Is there an affordable housing shortage?
This afternoon, the Public Safety & Regulatory Services committee held a public hearing on the proposed Condo Conversion ordinance I've been working on for months. Many social service providers, tenants whose housing is threatened by condo conversions and others came to testify for the proposed ordinance. Those who spoke against it were, to a person, realtors or property owners.
What most surprised me was the debate among the Council Members. Opponents of the ordinance made an argument that I have trouble comprehending: that there is no affordable housing shortage in Minneapolis.
They did not argue that any of the facts we had arrayed were inaccurate. Here's a short list of those facts:
- According to the Minneapolis Consolidated Plan, which City staff prepared and the Council passed unanimously, there is a shortage of 13,499 dwelling units affordable to people who earn less than 30% of Metro Median Income.
- According to the 2000 Census, there are 27,992 renter households (35% of all renter households) spending more than a third of their income on housing - the accepted benchmark of affordability.
- There are over 10,000 households on the waiting list for Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA) subsidized housing.
- The Council passed the Heading Home Hennepin plan to end homelessness, which states that “shortage of affordable housing” is one of nine “root causes of homelessness,” and calls for the City to “ensure the preservation of current affordable and supportive housing.” This vote was also unanimous.
- The City spent millions of dollars last year to build new affordable housing, through the Affordable Housing Trust Fund (AHTF). If there is no shortage, how on earth can we justify shelling out that kind of money?
I agreed wholeheartedly with my co-author Gary Schiff's comment. When some Council Members question the City's numbers (the shortage of 13,499 mentioned above), they're basically saying that the City has misled the Federal Government in our requests for funding to build new affordable housing units. They are also speaking directly against their own votes for the consolidated plan. Either the numbers are wrong or they're right - facts don't change to suit the preferences of Council Members.
This inconsistency was quite visible in Council Member Johnson's arguments. On the one hand, she argued that the City does a lot (through the AHTF) to address the shortage of affordable housing. On the other hand, she argued that there is no shortage of affordable housing.
Most interesting to me were the "alternative facts" the ordinance's opponents relied on. They rejected out of hand the painstakingly quantified data that we pay City staff good money to track. Their replacement: anecdotes about how many "for rent" signs Council Members see in their neighborhoods.
This ignores the fact that a vacant apartment with a rent of $1000/month is not affordable to someone with $600/month to spend, no matter how long it remains vacant.
I believe that we should make public policy based on the best possible evidence, not unprovable, unquantifiable anecdotes.
I also believe that the "free market" often unjustly impacts the poor and powerless, and that one of the essential roles of government is to help keep the market from violating people's basic rights. My fellow co-author Ralph Remington brought up the spectre of Ronald Reagan to make this point - when our society lets the market "sort things out," some people get "sorted out."
There has been, is now, and will likley continue to be more people (many of the elderly, disabled and poor) who will be sorted out of hard to find safe and affordabel housing if we continue to let condominium conversions contiue without better oversite and regularions.