The State of Minnesota Housing in 2024

Irene Ruiz-Briseño, Greater Minnesota Housing Fund. Photo Sarah Whiting

There’s never been a better time to be a housing advocate in Minnesota. Or to be a person in need of better housing. Since the $1.065 billion housing omnibus bill was signed into law after the 2023 legislative session, boosted by another $250 million from other legislation, “Go Big So Everyone Can Go Home” has been the catchphrase at Minnesota Housing. That state department is charged with bulking up existing programs and creating new ones to counter what advocates characterize as decades of disinvestment in affordable and equitable housing.

Although the 2023 legislative accomplishments in housing were all good news, housing advocates caution against seeing this windfall as a one-time blessing that will fix all problems. They argue instead for ongoing investments and systemic change. Leaders in the industry statewide articulate four challenges that, if met, could make Minnesota a role model in housing nationwide.

1. Put People First

Housing advocates readily cite the stats, well practiced during years of lobbying at the Legislature:

  • More than 100,000 units of “accessible and deeply affordable” housing are required to meet current demand statewide, says Anne Mavity, executive director, Minnesota Housing Partnership (MHP).
  • Although 30 percent of income is the accepted definition of affordable housing, some tenants pay twice that percentage or more for their rent or mortgage, says Kari Johnson, director of state and federal policy, Metropolitan Consortium of Community Developers (MCCD).
  • Ramsey County alone is 15,000 units short of the deeply affordable housing needed, says John Slade, east metro congregational senior organizer for the Metropolitan Interfaith Council on Affordable Housing (MICAH).

Numbers and data may accurately frame the state’s complex housing challenges, but they fail to tell the whole story. Statistics hide human beings: children, the elderly, folks suffering from addiction or other mental health challenges, people who live with physical disabilities or are chronically unemployed.

“We have to shift the focus from an economic frame — the market is bad — to a human frame,” says Jenny Jones, director of communications at MHP, which is leading a collaborative statewide project called Changing the Narrative on Housing, a collaboration with the Housing Narrative Lab in reframing how Minnesotans talk about housing.

Irene Ruiz-Briseño is manager of the emerging developers of color program for Greater Minnesota Housing Fund (GMHF), a nonprofit and certified Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that seeks to address the housing needs of underserved areas and people throughout Minnesota. She works with entrepreneurs of color who are new to developing or preserving affordable housing.

One of her clients had only a refurbished duplex under his belt when GMHF helped him access funds from the City of Minneapolis for two multi-family projects. In Duluth, Ruiz-Briseño recently provided financing to a project called Annie’s House, turning a five-bedroom, single-family home into supportive housing for young mothers experiencing homelessness.

Suitability and choice are key words in Ruiz-Briseño’s definition of affordable housing. She describes multigenerational Somali American families in St. Cloud who must live apart because two-bedroom apartments are their only affordable options.

The state’s “Going Big” strategic plan to spend the historic influx of $1.3 billion will lead to investments in existing programs and new initiatives: an additional $495 million to preserve and create new homes, $120 million to increase housing stability, and $267 million to support homeownership.

“My goal is not to take our eye off the ball,” says Commissioner Jennifer Ho, a former Obama administration official who heads Minnesota Housing.

2. Address Racial Disparities in Housing

Genesia Williams’ great-grandfather, Charles Dawkins, did not own a home until he was more than 70 years old. A child of Bahamian immigrants, whose family initially settled in the Miami-Dade area of Florida, he served in a segregated unit in World War II. Unlike other returning soldiers, however, her great-grandfather never reaped the benefits of the G.I. Bill — the legislation that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law in June 1944 that provided low-cost home loans to white veterans.

“It’s a family story for me, a lived experience,” says Williams, who is Black and does not yet own a home, despite having been in the workforce since she was 13 years old.

A term she learned recently on a consulting project is “entry-cost assistance” — the need for help to build credit, understand closing costs and other fees, and amass a 20 percent down payment. Today, Williams is director of communications and community engagement at GMHF.

GMHF’s President and CEO Andrea Brennan came to the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund in 2023 from her role in economic development for the City of Minneapolis. She speaks of “years, decades, centuries of oppression” that helped white people build wealth through real estate while people of color were denied loans and redlined out of certain neighborhoods.

“We created these disparities intentionally,” Brennan says. “The only way to close those disparities is to be as intentional as we were in creating them.”

New initiatives in the Walz-Flanagan administration’s “One Minnesota Budget” include $100 million to CDFIs for first-generation homebuyer grants and $3.7 million for homebuyer education and training. Those dollars will help bridge Minnesota’s racially based homeownership gap — among the worst in the nation. Statewide, 77 percent of whites own their own home compared with 25 percent of Black people.

“We’re making sure that what we do isn’t just for one type of community,” says Commissioner Ho.

HOME Line Public Policy Director Michael Dahl says, “Black single mothers are the most hard hit by evictions and other issues.” HOME Line offers free legal help to renters. More than 20,000 calls in 2023, an all-time high, dealt with repair problems, leases up to 60 pages long, and evictions, which have soared since pandemic-era interventions ended in mid-2022.

3. Frame Housing as a Holistic Issue

MCCD’s Johnson can still recall a key finding from her work years ago in partnership with the Wilder Foundation, which produced the state’s “Homework Starts with Home” rental assistance program. “If a child is unhoused for just two weeks, they can lose an entire year of educational progress,” she says. Learning that “broke my heart.”

The rental assistance program is slated to receive $5.5 million in the new housing budget.

Looking at the housing issue broadly is a common theme among advocates. “If you have stable housing, you can have more stability in every other area of your life: education outcomes, health outcomes, better transportation, or economics,” Johnson says. “Without housing, that’s the only thing you can focus on. ‘Where am I going to sleep, or be safe?’”

The state’s Going Big budget focuses not only on rental and homebuyer assistance, but on chronic challenges that may push people in and out of homelessness.

Two weeks before Christmas, the federal government declared homelessness to be at an all-time high across the nation.

Commissioner Ho started to work on homelessness in 1999. Family homelessness in Hennepin County, the largest of the state’s 87 counties, drives the increase in Minnesota’s numbers, she says. Investments in strategies like strengthening the supportive housing model and statewide rental assistance — budgeted at $46 million, with an expected $77 million boost by a new metro-area sales tax — are key to reversing the rise in the unsheltered population’s numbers.

Prevention measures also are essential, Ho says: “We want to help people before they become homeless or, if they do, to get them immediately back into homes. ”

“Supportive housing” is the industry term that describes affordable housing linked with social services “that foster housing stability and improve residents’ health and quality of life,” explains Jill Mazullo, communications director at the Minnesota Housing Department. Supportive housing serves veterans and seniors, as well as people with other needs. It has a $25 million boost in the housing budget.

4. Push for More Than One-Time Money

The responsibility and approach to fund and fix housing is uniquely bipartisan for these times. There are needs for a mix of types, from single-family and multi-unit to supportive housing and tribal homes; for a variety of places, from small towns and suburbs to the urban core; and for a range of prices that allow everyone in Minnesota to have a stable home.

MCCD’s Johnson works statewide and has lobbied at the past six legislative sessions. “Every county in Minnesota has housing needs. The needs might be different,” she explains, “but [all counties] have a shortage of single- family homes, rental homes, or shelter capacity. That’s why we’ve seen bipartisan support for housing investments.”

Continuing bipartisan support will be key in the 2024 legislative session, when housing advocates plan to push for a constitutional amendment, framed as “Our Future Starts at Home,” to ensure ongoing investments in housing.

Only “long-term predictable funding” will create the quantity and quality of housing that Minnesotans deserve and need, says MHP’s Mavity. But true systems change begins with conversations and the words we choose. “How do we change the narrative on housing?” she asks. “Like the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat: home is absolutely fundamental to everything we do.”