Finding affordable rental housing in the Twin Ports isn’t getting any easier, according to a Harvard University study released this past week.
The Harvard “State of the Nation’s Housing” report examined a number of metro markets, including the Twin Ports area, and found that the supply of lower-cost rental properties has shrunk in recent years both locally and across the country as a whole.
From 2011 to 2017, the number of rental housing units offered at rents of less than $800 per month slipped by 6.6 percent in the Duluth-Superior metropolitan statistical area — including St. Louis, Douglas and Carlton counties.
But competition for those rental housing units also likely eased a bit, according to the same report, which showed the number of local rental households with incomes of $32,000 or less declined by 7.6 percent from 2011 to 2017.
Yet many renters continue to struggle. The city of Duluth’s latest housing indicator report found that as of 2017, more than half of households living in rental properties were considered cost-burdened — meaning that they had to dedicate 30 percent or more of their household income to the cost of shelter.
While monthly rents of $800 or less that were tracked by the Harvard study may qualify as affordable housing in many other markets across the country, they’re often a stretch for renters in the Twin Ports area, many of whom are of lesser means.
The Harvard study showed the median income of rental households in the Duluth-Superior area was just $26,447, meaning that any rent in excess of about $660 per month could push many renters into a precarious financial position.
“It’s getting worse,” said Jeff Corey, executive director of One Roof Community Housing, describing the housing challenges low-income residents now confront in the Twin Ports.
“The Minnesota Housing Partnership identifies our MSA (metropolitan statistical area) as being — for the incomes that we have — among the highest rent-burdened parts of the state,” he said.
Rental assistance is in tight supply, as well, with the typical wait for a Section 8 voucher now stretching out 18 to 24 months, according to Jill Keppers, executive director of the Duluth Housing and Redevelopment Authority.
The number of people on Duluth’s Section 8 waiting list jumped by 885 in 2017 — a 49 percent bump from the previous year and a 69 percent increase over the past couple of years.
Keppers said affordable single-bedroom and three-bedroom apartments have been especially hard to come by, making it difficult for people who qualify for housing vouchers to find anything within their budget in that market segment.
Right now a Section 8 voucher would cover up to $650 per month toward rent and utilities for a single-bedroom apartment.
“We are seriously considering, even within the month of July, going to our board and requesting an increase. But the highest we can go to is $737, so we don’t have a lot of wiggle room,” Keppers said.
“Even at $737, if you’re looking at a one-bedroom, how many can you rent for that in Duluth?” she asked. Keppers noted that utilization of Section 8 vouchers consequently has been dropping because people can’t find places at a suitable price.
Corey doesn’t fault landlords for charging higher rents in a market that can command them, especially when voucher programs require more work in the way of paperwork.
“For that program to compete, there almost needs to be an incentive. They almost need to get a little bit more for their time, as opposed to less, if it’s really going to be designed to work,” he said.
About 40 percent of Duluth households live in rental properties, meaning the level of local home ownership — 60 percent — lags slightly behind the national rate of 64.4 percent. Fueled in part by low interest rates, home ownership ticked upward in 2017 and 2018 on the national level after a dozen consecutive years of decline.
But Corey noted low interest rates are a double-edged sword.
“If interest rates are low, that can almost drive prices up. Folks have more buying power. They can afford more. So, I can charge more as a seller,” he said, adding that this makes it harder for low-income families to compete.
On the local front, pressure on rental housing has lessened slightly of late, with Duluth’s rental vacancy rate rising to 4.8 percent in 2017 — the loosest market since 2009, when rental vacancies hit 5 percent.
Corey said that while the demand for some types of higher-end rental properties has eased, the market for inexpensive rental properties remains “extremely tight.”
“I agree,” said Adam Fulton, manager of Duluth’s community planning division.
“That is something that as we’ve embarked on this discussion related to the mayor’s task force on housing, we recognize that one of the greatest needs is in the construction of new affordable units,” he said.
For such projects, the city of Duluth relies heavily on federal low-income housing tax credits administered by the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency.
“We have not seen a project in a few years, but we’re optimistic. We’ve got a number of good applications coming forward this year, so we’re hopeful that one or more of those projects will be funded,” Fulton said.