Duluth City Council candidates discuss housing issues

Candidates for the Duluth City Council's 4th District and At Large seats discussed their views on the city's aging housing stock and large amount of rental properties during a forum on Thursday.

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Candidates for the Duluth City Council's 4th District and At Large seats discussed their views on the city's aging housing stock and large amount of rental properties during a forum on Thursday.

The candidates answered questions for nearly two hours in front of a standing-room-only crowd at One Roof Community Housing. The event was the first of six candidate forums hosted by the League of Women Voters Duluth in the coming weeks, ahead of the Sept. 12 primary election and Nov. 7 general election.

Candidates were asked for their vision of how the city can support affordable housing, as well as the city's responsibility in housing code inspections and balancing the needs of landlords and tenants.

Howie Hanson, the incumbent councilor in Duluth's 4th District, said that while market-rate housing has done well with the opening of several new apartment complexes in recent years, the city hasn't done a good job on affordable housing. He said the city should be more careful in considering rate and fee increases because they hit homeowners hard. He also called for the city to implement low-interest loans for people to upgrade older properties to prioritize safety.

Tom Furman, a challenger for the 4th District seat, said housing is a crisis in Duluth, and mixed housing is one of the solutions. He said a lot of people are struggling financially, which is a component of the housing crisis, and the city needs to ensure there are good-paying jobs with benefits such as earned sick and safe time. The city can set policies to ensure that landlords care for their rentals and offer affordable housing, he said.


Renee Van Nett, another challenger in the 4th District, said partnerships between nonprofits are needed to help people seeking affordable housing navigate the system. Members of minority communities don't have a relationship with the city where they can communicate with officials about housing, and that should be improved, she said.

At Large incumbent Zack Filipovich said the lack of affordable housing affects the city's economy, and said the city needs both mixed-use and mixed-income housing. The city needs to do a better job at using tools such as tax-increment financing districts to encourage the construction of affordable housing, he said. He noted that the city has hired an additional housing inspector.

Barb Russ, the other At Large incumbent on the ballot this fall, said affordable housing needs to be constructed throughout the city instead of in just one or two neighborhoods. The city needs to have a variety of housing available at all price points because it's important for the city's economy, she said.

Janet Kennedy, a challenger for an At Large seat, said the city has an interim targeted housing strategy while it's working on its comprehensive plan. As the city moves forward on the plan, she said, councilors need to ensure that it's implemented. She said the city needs to ensure residents are able to have a safe, reliable place to live, and she called for people to come together and talk when there's conflict between city codes and landlords.

At Large challenger Brandon Sorvik said Duluth can address its lack of affordable housing by reducing fees and regulations, which will enable landlords to lower rent. He noted that some efficiency and one-bedroom apartments in Duluth rent for $1,000, which is out of a lot of residents' price range. He said the city needs to provide more information to tenants about how to address rental problems, and needs to hire more housing inspectors.

At Large challenger Rich Updegrove said the city has done "a good job" of acknowledging that it has an affordable housing crisis. Availability of affordable housing is important because a lack of it affects single mothers and people of color, he said, adding that the city needs to reach out more to tenants to find out what they need in rentals, and create incentives to lower rents.

Richard Williams, another challenger for an At Large seat, said people who make just over the maximum salary to qualify for subsidized housing are the ones who struggle because market-rate rent is too expensive for them, and they can't afford a down payment on a house. The city should focus on increasing its skilled jobs with higher salaries, which will lead to people being able to afford housing, he said.

At Large candidate Jan Swanson was unable to attend the forum, moderators said.

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