In early January, housing was poised to be a top-tier issue at the state Capitol this legislative session. Coming off a turbulent summer where homelessness was front-page news, housing advocates debuted their biggest and boldest agenda yet. A grand alliance of statewide, bipartisan, and cross-sector stakeholders prioritized critical investments in affordable housing. A state-led housing task force provided a road map to success. And local government representatives like us urged the state to prioritize solutions.
While the administration of Gov. Tim Walz made a significant effort to prioritize housing this session by proposing $170 million to create new homes and to preserve existing homes and by visiting with housing providers and advocates across the state, housing all but fell off the radar for many in St. Paul this year.
Local governments and everyday Minnesotans are left to deal with skyrocketing housing costs, low inventory, and fewer emergency resources for those most in need. Without serious and smart investments from the state, we are all but certain to have encampments again this summer. There are already tents popping up in communities around the state.
The number of people who are unsheltered is growing in Minnesota - and quickly. Statewide, the population has grown 62 percent since 2015, according to recently released data from Wilder Research. The trend is even more alarming in the Twin Cities where the rate of unsheltered homelessness doubled between 2015 and 2018; it's a rate five times as high as the rest of the country, according to Minnesota Housing.
The increase in Minnesota's homeless population has resulted in historic numbers of encampments across the state and people seeking shelter in bathrooms, lobbies, parking lots, trains, and other places not meant for human habitation. It also has meant an increased demand on the existing shelter system.
In response, cities and counties across the state have partnered with nonprofits; businesses; and faith, cultural, and advocacy groups to create temporary emergency shelters from life-threatening winter weather. In the Twin Cities, this effort resulted in the Navigation Center, Winter Safe Space, and repurposed public spaces that have already or will soon close for the season, leaving hundreds without stable shelter. Local government officials are currently in urgent discussions to develop dignified solutions for those who will be without shelter.
In nonmetro Minnesota, where 63 of Minnesota's 87 counties operate without any form of fixed-site shelter, options are more limited. Church basements opened their doors to shelter families on rotating schedules; hotel vouchers were used to provide temporary respite from harsh winter conditions; and, in some cases, including in West Duluth, government buildings were used as emergency shelters this winter.
The community response to the statewide need was unprecedented and something we should be proud of. But Minnesota can, and must, do better.
The Legislature has just a few weeks left of session to commit to critically important investments in affordable housing. For example, investments in housing infrastructure bonds would leverage private investments and ensure that shovel-ready projects can proceed as early as this fall. Creative new financing tools, such as a proposed housing tax credit, would expand housing opportunities. And tried-and true-funding sources like the Emergency Services program would provide flexible funding to Minnesotans experiencing homelessness.
Our communities are vastly different. We have different needs, different challenges, and different opportunities. But one important thing is the same in every city and town across Minnesota: We are the places people call home, and that sense of home is what defines our communities. It is where children grow and learn, where families put down roots, where workers pursue new job opportunities, and where businesses thrive.
Homes are truly the heartbeat of our communities.
We know the need and we know what works. We have asked so much of our community partners, and they have boldly and proudly stepped up to serve their fellow Minnesotans. It's time for the state to do the same. The state can't let housing fall victim to end-of-session politics and partisan gridlock. Our communities depend on leadership from St. Paul.
Marion Greene is a Hennepin County, Minn., commissioner. Sheila Kiscaden is an Olmsted County, Minn., commissioner. Emily Larson is mayor of Duluth. Andrea Lauer is mayor of Royalton, Minn. Jim McDonough is a Ramsey County, Minn., commissioner. And Kim Norton is mayor of Rochester, Minn.