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Our View: Housing initiatives in Duluth are showing promise

From the editorial: "Nearly half of the city, 47%, is non-taxable parkland or greenspace. A better balance of public lands and taxable parcels could help create those larger tracts developers crave, which could help to expand Duluth's tax base and ease the tax burden on all of us."

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In her State of the City address this year, Mayor Emily Larson mentioned housing 11 times. She called Duluth’s lack of available and affordable housing “a key barrier families and businesses face” and something “we are meeting head-on.”

We certainly seem to be, with a new $18 million Housing Trust Fund in Duluth just the latest evidence of years-long efforts.

The fund is fueled by $4 million from the city and $14 million from the nonprofit Local Initiatives Support Corporation. Already, as the News Tribune reported last week, 30 housing projects have applied for assistance from the fund. Seven have been approved, ranging from a 200-square-foot dwelling by Simply Tiny Development in Duluth’s hillside to a 45-apartment building at the site of the former Seaway Hotel in Lincoln Park. A review board continues to evaluate the others.

In addition, Duluth dedicated $19 million from the federal American Rescue Plan to build 358 new affordable units and to rehab and preserve 36 more, as the mayor announced in her speech in March.

“From establishing a warming center to packaging sites for scalable single-family home production, we have been fully focused on making sure everyone in this community has a safe, supported place to lay their head at night,” the mayor said, according to the script of her address.

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Affordable housing has long been a focus of her administration, and in Duluth, it’s especially challenging — as difficult as it is needed. Many houses here are old, 70 to 80 years old or older and in need of lots of work. In our city's early days, lots were platted small, too. And there just aren't a lot of large tracts of land left in Duluth to attract housing developers.

Nearly half of the city, 47%, is non-taxable parkland or greenspace. A better balance of public lands and taxable parcels could help create those larger tracts developers crave, which could help to expand Duluth's tax base and ease the tax burden on all of us who own homes and property here.

While the market in Duluth is doing a better job of meeting the demand for high-end rentals at places like Endi and Kenwood Village, there never seems to be enough low-income housing. And really lacking in Duluth are newer homes with open floor plans and price tags attractive to the young professionals being hired by Maurices, Cirrus, engineering firms and others. Those families are landing in Hermantown instead or in the townships ringing Duluth.

A housing summit in 2014 and an exhaustive study determined that Duluth needs more than 4,400 new housing units for all income levels over the next two decades to replace what's being lost to age and to keep pace with demand. Just under 1,800 units had been built so far or were about to be built, the city reported in 2017. During Larson’s time in office an estimated 1,500 housing units have been added, she reported this year.

The new Housing Trust Fund promises to continue chipping into Duluth’s identified and clear housing need. The fund was the top recommendation of a housing task force Larson appointed.

Creating new housing that’s affordable at all income levels is a pressing statewide challenge, too. Look no further than Gov. Tim Walz’s announcement this week of $20 million in funding for economic development in nonmetro Minnesota, including in Cloquet and Sandstone. The 35 projects getting money included 21 for housing rehabilitation and eight for rental rehabilitation.

“Minnesota does better when all of our neighborhoods are thriving,” the governor said in a statement announcing the funding.

In Duluth, the challenge of meeting housing needs is ongoing but with progress being made. The new Housing Trust Fund and better-coordinated efforts involving the city, nonprofit housing agencies, banks, and others are showing promise.

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