Local View: Is affordable housing still a 'human right' in an unaffordable place?

From the column: "Spending millions of taxpayer dollars to ensure cheaper housing in a few expensive cities is a slap in the face to people who live elsewhere. After all, many of them made the responsible choice to live elsewhere exactly because they couldn’t afford city housing."

An architectural rendering of the 52-unit Brewery Creek Apartment Building at the northeast corner of Sixth Avenue East and Fourth Street in Duluth, a project which has been spurred on by more than $30 million in state aid for low-income housing announced on Thursday. (Courtesy of City of Duluth)
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“Oh, I just loooove Duluth. But it’s kinda expensive, yeah?”

That’s a former coworker of mine, a couple of years ago, when I told her we were moving to Duluth. Like a lot of people from smaller towns, she understands that everything in real estate is a tradeoff. In this case, if you want to live by a Great Lake and shopping and hospitals, you have to pay for it. You know, supply and demand and all that.

The Northland is full of people who would like to live in Duluth but don’t, often for financial reasons. So forgive them for raising an eyebrow when politicians earmark millions of taxpayer dollars to build affordable housing in unaffordable places, which the state recently did for a new housing project near downtown Duluth (“ Duluth garners $30M in housing aid ,” Dec. 19).

To many Northlanders, the idea of giving millions to Duluth to build affordable housing is like giving millions to Cadillac to build affordable cars.

Of course, city and country mice have always argued about who gets more cheese from the state. But these days that argument has a new twist: It has become fashionable for some of our leaders to declare that housing is a “human right.” Unsurprisingly, the politicians singing the praises of this new right are from the left, and from the most expensive parts of the state. Duluth’s mayor has joined the chorus.


As a society, we should welcome an honest conversation about the idea of housing as a human right, if only to demonstrate how economically unworkable it is. But for now, let’s skip whether the idea is economically ridiculous and focus on whether it’s politically insulting.

Specifically, spending millions of taxpayer dollars to ensure cheaper housing in a few expensive cities is a slap in the face to people who live elsewhere. After all, many of them made the responsible choice to live elsewhere exactly because they couldn’t afford city housing. Imagine how they feel. Imagine if you were sitting in a trailer house encircled by straw bales and you read in the paper that the mayor down in true-blue Duluth declared housing a human right, all of a sudden. Except by “housing” she actually meant a brand-new, taxpayer-funded, multimillion-dollar apartment complex. With price controls. Across from a natural-foods co-op. And within walking distance to the multimillion-dollar Lakewalk and the region’s biggest hospitals.

You might get skeptical pretty quickly, too, especially if you lived in a not-so-new, not-so-multimillion-dollar complex and took a day off work to drive across a county the size of Connecticut to visit those same places a few times a year. Which, you know, describes a lot of Northlanders’ situations.

When a city mouse moans about the high cost of housing, the country mouse doesn’t want to invent a new “human right” and force other people to pay for it. It wants to tell ‘em to hole up somewhere else — just like the country mouse does, thank you very much.

Sure, there are government programs for rural housing, too, but for some reason they’re easier for everyone to swallow, probably because the state isn’t dealing in scarce commodities like urban real estate. I suppose a rural housing program would be more controversial if it insisted on building low-rent apartments only on, say, coveted lakefront property. That would raise a few eyebrows, too, and rightfully so. Just like building apartments in the biggest city in the region does — and not just within the city’s limits, but a spot near downtown.

Regardless, politicians who have the temerity to hand out highly sought-after goods and call them basic human needs seem to have forgotten, or never have known, that housing is about trade-offs. It seems that some people actually think that living in a city is a human right, and the only question left is about the quality of the neighborhood. Regardless of the neighborhood, the rest of us — who also might loooove to live in the city — are thinking that it’s still kinda expensive, yeah?

Taxpayers don’t like buying things for other people, especially if they don’t have those things themselves — and most especially if they want those things themselves. Spending state money on prime city housing might not be right, but calling it a right is downright wrong.

P.A. Jensen of Duluth writes about politics, sports, and rural life at He wrote this for the News Tribune.


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