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Local View: Duluth really can reduce homelessness, boost the economy

From the column: "If only we had leaders who cared as much about following the evidence wherever it may lead as they did about signaling their virtue."

Homeless
Some homeless people set up camp in wooded areas around Duluth, including this camp on Park Point. Photo submitted by Deb Holman
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Since Mayor Emily Larson took office, life expectancy for Duluthians declined to its lowest level since 1996 , according to the CDC, while murder rose to the levels of the 1990s , according to the FBI. One could say Mayor Larson has led Duluthians to a shorter, more brutal, and increasingly inequitable existence.

I am sure there are Duluthians who would say our mayor bears no responsibility for the ills that plague our city. Yet, under the Larson administration’s own five-year plan, the mayor is recognized as the sole authority capable of instituting change in Duluth. Don’t believe me? Just read Chapter 12 of the five-year plan, which is Duluth’s governing document for all real property. Any suggestion for change, it states, is required to “be initiated by the Planning Commission or City staff, at the direction of the administration.”

The mayor appoints the Duluth Planning Commission, and city staff are hired and promoted at the direction of the mayor. The concentration of authority to change Duluth leaves me with no choice but to agree: Larson is an irresponsible mayor.

The latest and greatest idea to happen during Larson’s administration is a proposal to spend $33 million on a three-phase plan that includes designating concentration zones for homeless encampments.

I’d challenge anyone who agrees with this idea to forgo showering for a week, stay up 48 hours straight, and pitch a tent alongside the Lakewalk the weekend of Grandma’s Marathon. I’ll bring the stopwatch, and we’ll time how long it takes Duluth Police to politely “suggest” your voluntary relocation to a designated encampment zone. This isn’t hyperbole; it’s the lived experience of hundreds in our city.

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It doesn’t have to be like this. Duluthians don’t have to choose between sending the homeless to a nonprofit reservation during tourist season or ceding our city to lawless vagrancy, as a Sept. 3 letter to the editor in the News Tribune suggested (Reader’s View: “In zeal to help, Duluth has created a monster”).

Duluth could simply choose to legalize housing construction of all shapes, varieties, and densities without first having to obtain permission from city government, as I advocated in a “Local View” commentary in January in the News Tribune, headlined, “ Duluth City Council can allow more housing; so why doesn't it? “).

It sounds so easy, yet I’ve heard a more inclusive municipal code called every synonym for bad that you could imagine: It would be sexist, racist, Marxist, fascist, neo-liberal, communist, ageist, ableist, a war on cars, antisemitic, Reagonomics, cultural appropriation, tree-hugging, bigoted, anti-gay, LGBT-indoctrinating, trans-bashing, race-baiting, and woke liberalism, I’ve hear stated.

But would it work?

Would Duluthians see lower rents? Yes, according to a January 2020 paper , “Supply Shock Versus Demand Shock: The Local Effects of New Housing in Low-Income Areas," published by the Upjohn Institute in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Would Duluthians see fewer individuals priced out of housing and priced into homelessness? Yes, according to an August 2021 University of California, Berkeley paper titled, “Does Building New Housing Cause Displacement? The Supply and Demand Effects of Construction in San Francisco.”

Could it even turn homelessness into a virtually nonexistent experience for Duluthians? Again, yes. Just read, “The old homeless and the new homelessness in historical perspective,” published in 1990 by the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland.

This could be done while growing Duluth’s GDP by 33%, as a 2019 report , "Housing Constraints and Spatial Misallocation," published by the American Economic Association in Nashville, suggested.

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If it does get done, it would create opportunities for upward economic mobility at levels not seen for generations, a winter 2018 article in Journal of Economic Perspectives, “The Economic Implications of Housing Supply,” suggested.

There also could be the side benefit of eliminating a primary cause of racial segregation and wealth disparity, as the article , “The effect of density zoning on racial segregation in U.S. Urban Areas,” also published by the National Library of Medicine, argued in April 2009.

Duluth could have it all — if only we had leaders who cared as much about following the evidence wherever it may lead as they did about signaling their virtue. Even if it’s too late for someone to step up this election cycle, the beauty of democracy is that there’s always going to be a next one.

Ginka Tarnowski of West Duluth is a community organizer who assists with her fiance's consulting work.

Ginka Tarnowski.jpg
Ginka Tarnowski

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