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(Un)affordable housing: Duluthians of all income levels shell out more than they should for rent

T07.06.2017 -- Steve Kuchera -- 070917.N.DNT.RentC -- Amber Blakely sits outside the Duluth City Hall recently. The single mother has had difficulties finding affordable and high-quality rental properties. She wants to become active in efforts to hold landlords accountable and improve the city’s rental market. “The places I looked at were either expensive or complete slums that weren’t safe for children.” Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

It took a year living with her parents for Amber Blakely to find her current three-bedroom rental in 2010.

Rushed to find a new home, she'll end up paying more for a two-bedroom house come August.

"I'm a single mother, I have a stable job, I have a college degree, my kids are older and not infants," said Blakely, 32. "The places I looked at were either expensive or complete slums that weren't safe for children."

Welcome to the Duluth rental market.

With yearlong waiting lists for subsidized housing and a significant shortage of options for the working class, Duluth's affordable-housing crunch is hitting residents of all backgrounds.

"It's not just about the traditional low-income household. It's definitely a workforce issue here in Duluth," said Lee Stuart, executive director of housing advocate CHUM. "I know the lack of housing in Duluth for all income levels is hindering our city's economic development."

Despite low rents compared with the rest of the state and country, thousands of Duluthians like Blakely spend a third of their incomes or more on housing, Census data shows, and many are spending over half of their pay on rent.

A longstanding federal guideline says spending more than 30 percent of your income on housing can lead to financial trouble, but as rents climb faster than wages, more than half of all Duluth renters pass this threshold and are considered rent-burdened.

Blame for that has been lobbed at an old housing stock, college students, landlords, developers, regulations and policymakers, but solutions aren't as easy to find.

"I have no magic wand. In the long term, it's increased wages in combination with increased supply," Stuart said.

Making it cheaper to build new units and easier to renovate old stock would help the supply. Higher pay for the city's residents, a fifth of whom live in poverty, could take the strain off low-income units.

In the meantime, as Blakely and others have found: "Housing is very few and far between right now."

'We need units now'

Barb Dixon stayed in a shelter for the first time in her life at 51 years old after leaving a "nightmare" rental situation.

"Thank God there was assistance when we fell down," she said. "I am not going to let me, let my child, be another statistic."

Dixon shared her experience and her newfound drive to advocate for the homeless during a Loaves and Fishes event last month that saw a makeshift apartment set up in a parking spot downtown.

"We need units now," said Michael Elderbrook with the Catholic charity community.

Housing waiting lists aren't getting any shorter for residents with very low or no income, and Dixon considers herself fortunate to be in an apartment and getting back on her feet.

Yet while the city estimates it is short 290 rental units for people most in need of assistance, there should be 772 more units for those just a step up, making $22,000 to $32,000 a year. Those kind of wages are common for the jobs growing fastest in the region, such as those in health care, hospitality, restaurants and retail.

"If tourism is such a big part of the economy, then the vast majority of people serving those tourists are struggling," Elderbrook said. "Two people making minimum wage can't afford housing."

Nor can one person, as Cassie Yonkin has found through renting, going to school and raising children in Superior and working part-time in Duluth.

"It's unrealistic on our minimum wage to afford basic housing," said the 26-year-old. "It's a very low feeling."

There's not much solace further up the income ladder. For people able to pay $700 to $1,300 a month comfortably, Duluth is lacking about 835 units.

Families with higher wages looking to get into houses rather than apartments have to compete with the thousands of college students who live off-campus and might be subsidized, in a way, by student loans.

"When I first moved back to Duluth, trying to rent a three- or four-bedroom house ... everything we looked at was $400 to $600 per bedroom," said Cliff Knettel, deputy director of One Roof Community Housing. "That would have cost me $2,400 per month for my family. The impact of charging on a per-bedroom basis renders the market unaffordable to a lot of folks."

The University of Minnesota Duluth doesn't have near-term plans to expand its on-campus housing — which is self-sustaining, meaning any new housing is paid solely through student revenue. The Vice Chancellor for Student Life, Lisa Erwin, did say the school would be developing a master plan for campus housing in the next year, however.

"The (student) impact on affordable housing is challenging," said Stuart with CHUM. "Is there something we can do about that?"

Despite the demand for a diversity of housing, though, it appears that luxury apartments are all developers have been interested in building here lately, as evidenced by the Endi and Bluestone communities popping up in recent years. Rents there can push past affordable for households making less than $70,000 a year.

Not affordable to build

At a housing forum this spring as part of the city's Imagine Duluth 2035 planning process, one participant put it this way: "How can you make affordable housing when it's not affordable to build?"

Layers of taxes, fees and regulations all get passed down to those monthly rent checks, and Duluth has often been cited for being more expensive to build than elsewhere in the region. (The Duluth Area Association of Realtors is currently studying why this is.)

"In some parts of the country, even before you put a shovel in the ground, the cost per unit is moving beyond affordable ... because of the cost of doing business in an area," said Brian Sullivan, a spokesman for the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

That's not Duluth's problem alone, though a lower median income and a poverty rate strikingly higher than the national average magnifies the issue. So even though the average rent nationally is $200 above Duluth's, the rate of cost-burdened renters is higher in the city.

"The cost of rents and purchasing homes has risen across the last several decades at a pace that exceeds the increase in wages for workers, especially for entry-level workers," said Knettel with One Roof. "Wages haven't kept up with inflation and the cost of living."

With new developments out of many residents' reach without subsidies for building, rent or both, the city's century-old housing stock presents its own challenges.

For Jennifer Kai, who has been in a wheelchair since she was 13 months old, affordability is as much an issue as accessibility. With Social Security income and a boyfriend who works two jobs, the $825 two-bedroom they could find is still a strain.

"Some of the landlords are really nice and wish they could help, but there's nothing they can do," said Kai, 33. "Too many stairs, too old of a building; they would pretty much have to knock it down."

Beyond adding ramps, even making energy-efficiency improvements to lower utility rates presents a Catch-22.

"Unfortunately, when you improve housing, you raise rents," said Barbara Montee, president of the Duluth Landlord Association.

The little things add up for the city's landlords, who need to stay out of the red like in any other business. And for every code change or tax increase, Montee said: "The middle section just gets harder hit every time."

She said the ability to expand low- and moderate-income housing options by adding a basement studio apartment or creating a duplex is being stifled by regulations.

"We're not allowed to make the market work anymore because we're so liability-crazy," Montee said. "We'd be popping in apartments all over the place if we were allowed to."

A new vision

It's any combination of causes that will lead to the city missing its 2020 target for new affordable housing by thousands of units. To try to keep the gas on development, however, the Duluth City Council refined its vision by passing the Housing Action Framework last month.

"Our strategies have shifted with ... different ways developers want to approach their projects and opportunities," Mayor Emily Larson said. "We're making sure we have enough projects coming in through the end of this year and the beginning of next year — some market-rate, some affordable housing for people making $50,000 a year or less."

The framework is a temporary policy while the new comprehensive land-use plan, aka Imagine Duluth 2035, is finalized. Having it in place opens up several current proposals to tax credits, Larson said, and sets in motion a plan to put more than $1 million away for housing "reinvestment zones" in Lincoln Park and Central Hillside.

"It is an opportunity to increase home ownership through in-fill housing and rehab, reduce blighted properties through renovation, introduce exterior renovation funding for current owners, and disperse housing options throughout Duluth," said Jill Keppers, executive director of the Duluth Housing and Redevelopment Authority, which helped draft the framework. "As a city, we are on the right track with the Housing Action Framework and the mayor's priority of focusing on families making at or below $50,000 per year, but we need to continue to reach out to our state and federal lawmakers to keep the tools in place for affordable housing development."

The plan lists 18 housing projects across the city, which range from whispers in the hallways to those well underway, that together represent more than 1,100 units — many market-rate, despite the push for lower-income housing.

While the plan offers incentives to encourage new rental units affordable for households making less than $50,000 a year — more than half the city, that is — there is no way to force developers to take the bait.

"It is clear it will take commitment by the community as a whole, as well as incentives and policies by the public sector, to address these housing challenges," reads the framework.

Blakely is committed to shaking up the city's rental market, especially when it comes to landlord abuses and affordability. After moving into a house that was trashed, moving out when a for-sale sign suddenly appeared and finding only less space at a higher cost for herself and her two kids, Blakely was stirred to action.

"I've been looking to get more involved," she said. "The rental arrangements around here are very sketchy at best."

Why not buy?

The median mortgage payment in Duluth is higher than the median rent — $1,210 compared to $728 — but half as many people are cost-burdened with housing payments as they are with rents. In many cases a monthly mortgage can be less expensive than rent, especially on a per-square-foot basis, but a security deposit is far less expensive than a down payment.

Several programs, such as One Roof Community Housing, exist to get low-income residents into homes, and a new law passed by the state makes saving for a down payment a little easier, at least for people who can afford to save.

"The interest you earn in the account will be tax-free — it's set up much like a 529 college savings account," said Maranda DeSanto, CEO of the Duluth Area Association of Realtors. "It will have some tax incentives to set that up."

Anyone opening a savings account at a bank or credit union can designate it as a "first-time home buyer savings account" through the Department of Revenue, said Paul Eger with the Minnesota Association of Realtors.

But when rent and utilities start taking a third or more of a household's income, as is the case for more than half the city's renters, there's often little left to save. More often, there are other bills that start going unpaid.

Shared crisis

Duluth does not suffer its affordable housing crisis alone. Across the Northland, a Minnesota Housing Partnership report shows 25 percent of renters spend half their income or more on housing, a higher rate than any other region in the state.

"The median-income renter cannot afford a modest two-bedroom apartment in any county in the Northland region and, in some counties (like St. Louis County), falls short by nearly $200 per month."

Across St. Louis, Douglas and Carlton counties, the report found renter income has dropped 4 to 5 percent while rents have increased 20 to 27 percent since 2000. Urban areas saw bigger rent hikes than rural rentals.

A new report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University paints the national rental market as "extremely tight," and just as in Duluth, many new multifamily developments are targeted toward high-end renters.

"The diminishing supply of low-cost rental housing remains in high demand, fueling ongoing concerns about the market's ability to meet the housing needs of lower-income households," the report says.

Get involved

The city's comprehensive land use plan will dictate what gets built where and for whom. While an interim Housing Action Framework has been adopted, there is still time to influence the comprehensive plan's vision for housing.

The plan, called Imagine Duluth 2035, has focused on four areas for housing:

1. Accessibility to places to work, shop and play

2. Inclusiveness of diverse populations: Provide housing for different needs

3. Maintain unique neighborhood character while improving housing options

4. Promote affordable, attainable housing opportunities

Visit www.imagineduluth.com, call (218) 730-5580 or email CompPlan@duluthmn.gov to learn more or get involved with the process.

Brooks Johnson

Brooks covers business and the economy for the Duluth News Tribune.

(218) 723-5329
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