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Our View: Action to take now to address housing

There are so many housing needs in Duluth and across Minnesota: Beds for the homeless, townhouses for retirees, nicer places in walkable neighborhoods for young professionals who can then come to Duluth to fill open jobs, and better homeownership rates among Minnesotans of color statewide are among the many needs.

So a lot of us may be left feeling the same way as Mayor Emily Larson when it comes to housing.

"It feels very overwhelming," she said in an interview last week with the News Tribune Editorial Board. "There are so many different angles, and they're all expensive. And we still have to go forward with what we can get our hands around now."

But just what is that? The mayor was a member of the bipartisan, statewide Governor's Task Force on Housing that concluded seven months of meetings, public listening sessions and other work last month with a 70-page report containing a whopping 30 recommendations over six different categories, everything from launching a public-private partnership to forecast housing demands to expanding down-payment assistance programs. It's a lot of priorities to prioritize.

And it's far from all the strategies and ideas from all the experts out there about what can happen now to address the need for affordable housing at nearly every level of income.

For example, a 2014 market analysis determined that approximately 130 single-family homes need to be built in Duluth annually to keep up with demand. But a report in March said there were only 31 housing starts in 2014 in Duluth and 45 in 2015.

Just this week, as one more example, the mayor proposed including $2 million in the city's 2019 budget to work with community partners to preserve and renovate affordable housing in Duluth's Lincoln Park and Central Hillside neighborhoods.The investment would be expected to do 15 to 20 projects a year — but with the need is so much greater than just 15-20 rehabs annually.

"It's really massive," Jeanne Crain, co-chairwoman of the governor's task force and CEO of Bremer Financial Corp., told editorial board members. "How do we take all of these amazing ideas and what we were hearing from people around the state and create somewhat of a framework and a road map for communities to follow? ... (From the task force's recommendations, communities can) pick and choose what is going to make a difference in their own city."

Exactly how is still being worked out, but Crain and others from the task force plan to help those communities realize whatever recommendations they pursue.

"It'll be a coordinated effort," she said.

It'll need to be. The issue is that enormous.

Including in Duluth, where the mayor's most immediate focus is on fixing up aging housing without their rents or sale prices going through the roof. We're not talking flipping for profit here but maintaining the aging housing stock we have.

Other focuses can include shoring up city policies and the perception that City Hall is hard to work with so developers, contractors, and others aren't turned off from investing here. Modular housing, mobile housing, cooperative housing, slab construction instead of basements, tiny houses, and other ways to keep price points down for buyers and renters also can be explored, as the mayor suggested. So can research being done at the University of Minnesota Duluth's Natural Resources Research Institute on less-expensive construction techniques.

"My timeline: It's now," Larson said. "The need is for us to have a pretty broad mix of housing across our community. We need to be doing more to hit the mark."

If we don't, the ability to attract workers and residents, our ability to grow and prosper, and the local economy all suffer. So while addressing housing needs might feel overwhelming, things can be done now to get us started.