Local view: Don’t ignore need for affordable housingDuluth’s housing shortage affects everyone, from working families to people with disabilities, from retirees to single professionals.
By: Joel Kilgour and Mike Hoemke, for the News Tribune
Sharon and her husband live in a two-bedroom apartment in East Hillside with their two energetic grade-schoolers. It’s a modest space and the windows don’t always close properly, but they are happy to have it. Twice in the past 10 years they came within days of homelessness because they couldn’t find an apartment within their price range. As it is, they pay almost 40 percent of their family income on rent. After day care and student loans, they don’t have much left on which to live. They visit food shelves to get through the rough months. Duluth’s high housing costs have contributed to this hard-working family’s poverty.
Duluth’s housing shortage affects everyone, from working families to people with disabilities, from retirees to single professionals. We have to respond, but where do we as a community set our priorities?
We are glad the city, businesses and advocates are coming together Thursday for a housing summit. That said, it might be premature to set a plan of action from the Duluth Economic Development Authority and from the mayor’s office to prioritize investment in “market rate, workforce housing,” that is, housing for people earning between $40,000 and $70,000 per year. And it is bordering on irresponsible for the News Tribune to declare that there are “government programs galore” for low-income housing. Both were in the News Tribune’s “Our View” editorial on Sunday, which was headlined, “Let’s work together to close Duluth’s housing gap.”
Heading into Thursday’s conversation, we ask everyone to be mindful of the full range of need in our community and to be careful with the words we use.
What does “workforce” housing mean? The workforce isn’t a special class; it describes most Duluthians. The median household income for renters in Duluth is just over $22,000, several thousand dollars less than the statewide average and far below that of the “young professionals” highlighted in Sunday’s editorial. Unlike people with higher-than-median salaries, an average Duluth family faces the impossible math of being able to afford only $550 in rent in a market where $725 is the norm for a two-bedroom unit. They work, but they cannot afford so-called “workforce” housing. This has painful consequences for thousands of Duluthians forced to choose between paying for food, transportation, health care and other necessities.
A 2013 study by the Minnesota Housing Partnership found that half of Duluthians pay more than they can afford in rent. The lower your income, the more likely you are to find yourself in this predicament.
And if the government is responding to this need by showering money on low-income housing providers, it doesn’t show. Nearly 2,000 people are on waiting lists for public housing and Section 8 housing vouchers in Duluth; and for all the best efforts of local Housing and Redevelopment Authority staff, those applicants probably will be sitting there for a year — unless they need a two-bedroom apartment, in which case the average wait is two years. The Section 8 housing list is not moving at all because of federal funding cuts. What does a person who can’t afford a market-rate apartment do in the meantime? The huge upsurge in homelessness in Duluth in recent years is not an accident.
We don’t mean anything against young professionals who want to relocate to Duluth, but the frustrated desire to find a home with nice countertops is hard to measure against the reality of thousands of Duluthians living day-to-day on the edge of homelessness because of increasing rents and decreasing wages. Duluth needs more housing options across the income spectrum, but perhaps we should start with the people who have the most to lose.
Joel Kilgour of Duluth lives at and operates the Dorothy Day House, which provides emergency housing for men experiencing homelessness. Mike Hoemke of Duluth is a former CHUM support staff member and retiree who has been searching unsuccessfully for three months for an apartment he can afford on his Social Security check.