They came to swing hammers. We came to talk housing policy.

By: - August 4, 2021 6:01 am

A bipartisan group of Minnesota legislators volunteer helping to build a Habitat for Humanity house during a “Red Blue Build” event in St. Paul on Aug. 3, 2021. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

A bipartisan group of Legislators tried out swinging hammers and working drills for a morning with Habitat for Humanity on Tuesday in St. Paul.

Chris Coleman, CEO and president of the Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, said the event was meant to bring lawmakers together to show what they have in common: housing for families.

“This is not a day about discussion of policy, but we do want to make sure that people understand that they all play a role in building housing,” Coleman said.

We decided to use the opportunity to check out the lawmakers’ carpentry skills while drilling down into some specific policy ideas and ask lawmakers what role they think the Legislature should play in confronting the state’s housing shortage.

The state is struggling to stay on pace to build 300,000 new homes by 2030, as recommended by a governor’s task force in 2018. Meanwhile, short supply has pushed the median single family home price in the Twin Cities region up to a record $350,000 and homeownership is declining.

Rep. Nolan West, R-Blaine

Rep. Nolan West, R-Blaine, at a Habitat for Humanity project in St. Paul on Aug. 3, 2021. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Do you know what you’re doing? 

I don’t have construction experience but I have used a hammer and a measuring tape. So it’s an interesting experience.

Affordable housing is easier to build in certain neighborhoods and cities than others. Do you think there should be affordable housing built in all cities and neighborhoods?

Ideally, yes. Of course, we want affordable housing. There’s always the question of trade offs. So, like, eliminating all zoning requirements has trade offs. It’s not just going to make everything hunky dory. Cities should have the choice of how they want their city to develop. Some cities want to do a super hands-on approach, where they are super active in zoning, and then other cities are more of do whatever you want.

You know, Republicans believe in local control on some things but not others. And Democrats believe in local control on some things, but not others. This is the one where I’d say that the communities should be able to decide because some people make their decision on the communities because they want to live in particular neighborhoods. And if they want to live in a different neighborhood, they can move to a different city that does it a different way.

What about rent control? If Minneapolis and St. Paul voters decide to enact rent control, do you think the Legislature should step in and block that?

I mean, obviously I think rent control is a horrible idea. But should the Legislature block it? I don’t know. But hey, if they institute rent control, maybe we’ll get an economic boom in the suburbs, and I’ll take all the money that Minneapolis wants to chase out of there.

I’d have to see what the district thinks. There’s quite a few builders in Blaine that might have some opinions on that.

So here comes Rep. Mike Howard. He’s proposed providing rental assistance to every Minnesotan eligible for it. Currently only one in four households that are eligible for a subsidy like Section 8 actually get it. Do you support his bill?

What’s the bill?

To provide rental assistance to every household eligible for federal rental assistance. 

Well, it depends on the cost and the overall budget. So if we end up in a deficit situation, that’s probably not something that we’d do. But if we have another massive surplus and the federal government keeps making money rain from heaven, I think that’s a reasonable thing to spend it on.

Rep. Michael Howard, DFL-Richfield

Rep. Michael Howard, DFL-Richfield, at a Habitat for Humanity project in St. Paul on Aug. 3, 2021. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Have you ever swung a hammer before? 

I have swung a hammer before. I was actually on this site for a build like this two years ago. We did a “Red Blue Build” with legislators just down the road here. So I can’t wait to see what the actual completed house looks like.

Affordable housing is easier to build in certain neighborhoods and cities than others. Do you think there should be affordable housing built in all cities and neighborhoods?

Absolutely. That’s a good question that speaks to the multifaceted challenges we face in creating affordable housing. There are funding challenges — we need to be investing more in all types of housing. And there’s policy challenges, too. I’m becoming more and more convinced we need to look at ways the Legislature can incentivize affordable housing in communities all across the state.

One thing that holds up production is community resistance as well as local zoning laws. I wonder if you think the Legislature should do something about certain cities only allowing single family homes or else zoning so that only expensive homes can be built?

This has been a bit of an evolution for me. I’ve become more convinced the state does need to play a more active role. We are in a make or break moment in our state in terms of creating affordable housing, and that if we don’t seize the opportunity now, we are going to fall too far behind. And so, we need to look at zoning and figure out ways to add density. We need to look at ways to incentivize the creation of housing that is truly affordable. And I would say any sort of policy change on that front needs to be accompanied with significant investment.

There’s definitely concern — and conflicting evidence — about rent control inhibiting development. I’m curious if St. Paul and Minneapolis voters approve of rent control, if you think the Legislature should step in and block it. 

I wouldn’t be in favor of blocking a community that’s trying to take on a challenge that’s so immense and so vital to their constituents. I do think the jury’s out on the impacts. And so I commend those cities for taking an active role to try to make housing more affordable. But it doesn’t seem to me like that is the solve-all. We need all elements of our government pulling together.

I’m wondering if you’re taking the time to talk to any legislators about your bill to provide rental assistance to every Minnesotan who’s eligible? Sounds like Rep. West didn’t know about it.

That’s a good tip. I’ll definitely bring it up. It feels like we’ve secured a critical mass of legislators that recognize the huge need and see this as a solution. But the next step is, how are we going to pay for it? And so I’m spending time thinking about how we get positioned up for this next session, so that we make the truly big and bold investments that we need to make.

Rep. Kaela Berg, DFL-Burnsville 

Rep. Kaela Berg, DFL-Burnsville, volunteers for a day with Habitat for Humanity in St. Paul on Aug. 3, 2021. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Affordable housing is easier to build in certain neighborhoods and cities than others. Do you think there should be affordable housing built in all cities and neighborhoods?

Yes.

What do you think the legislature can do to ensure that all communities have affordable housing?

Oh, that’s an interesting question. I think that we can dedicate more funding to make the projects more manageable and for cities to want companies that build this kind of housing to come in and build.

I’m a renter, and I think that’s probably a little bit unusual in the Legislature. But I think it’s also exciting to have somebody there who understands this on a cellular level. I live in Burnsville, and there is a lot of affordable housing there. But of course, we can always have more. And so I think our role is to just provide funding that makes it possible to expand affordable housing in every community.

One thing that blocks production is local zoning ordinances that require certain lot sizes or only certain types of homes. I’m wondering if you think the Legislature should step in to allow for more types of housing across the state.

I don’t know if the Legislature should jump in with both feet. I think we need to work with the city government, ask them what they need from us.

What do you think the state can do to increase production? Are there certain regulations you think could be cleaned up, so to speak, that might allow for more housing to be built?

I don’t think there’s anything that I can really speak to in terms of regulations that would make a difference. I do sit on Capital Investment (Committee), and I was part of working on housing, and I think the most important thing we can do is fund it. I know that what we were asking for was not what we ended up with, but there’s only so many dollars and they only go so far.

Rep. Donald Raleigh, R-Circle Pines

Rep. Donald Raleigh, R-Circle Pines, helps build a home with Habitat for Humanity in St. Paul on Aug. 3, 2021. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

You already broke one tool today, are you going to keep going?  

I have a long history of breaking things. I was in the infantry. So my job was to break things, but do it in an efficient manner.

It’s easier to build affordable housing in certain neighborhoods and cities than others. And I’m wondering if you think there should be affordable housing in all cities and neighborhoods?

I think affordable housing should be dictated upon by the community in which they’re being built. So not every house is going to be the same in each one of the communities — not all the sizes of the lots, not everything is going to be the same. I’m not a big fan of a one-size-fits-anything, let alone a one-size-fits-all.

Speaking of local control, Minneapolis and St. Paul voters are going to vote on rent control this fall. And there’s been discussion among your Senate Republican colleagues about blocking cities from enacting rent control. I’m curious if you would support something like that.

I don’t know enough about it. I understand rent control as a concept [but] I’m more of a free market capitalist guy. I want the market to dictate what’s going on.

But local zoning ordinances interfere with the free market do they not? 

How would that interfere with the free market?

You said local communities should be able to decide what kind of housing is built? 

Yes.

And so a lot of communities make rules that make it almost impossible to build affordable housing. And does that not interfere with the free market?

No, I think the free market will dictate what’s going to be built in each one of the locations. I mean, I truly think that if a community wants to have higher-end houses, and the population can afford it, that’s what they should build there.

We’re building single family houses today. Could these be multi unit housing? Absolutely. But it’s going to be dependent upon the zoning of this area. And so I want the local control as much as possible to dictate what’s going to be going on in their community.

Gotcha. But that’s not free market.

Why is that not free market?

Well, free market is — and I’m not trying to be difficult — but free market is providing what the customer wants. So why can’t developers build apartments wherever people will buy them? 

They would work with their local zoning. They’d work with their local communities, and they would then get either variants or they would build within the confines of the existing charters that that particular city has. Again, it is not every single community has to match what every other community is doing.

Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville 

Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, works on a Habitat for Humanity house in St. Paul on Aug. 3, 2021. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Have you done this before? 

No, I did some roofing when I was in high school, but not what we’re doing here today.

Affordable homes are easier to build in certain neighborhoods and cities than others, and so I’m wondering if you think every city and neighborhood should have affordable housing in it?

Well, I defer that to the local cities. But I think in general, Habitat for Humanity homes are a good way to build equity for disadvantaged families. They put a little sweat equity into it, you get the community involved. And I think homeownership really is one of the key facets to stronger communities, stronger cities and ultimately helps reduce poverty. And so that’s why I’m here today.

You said you defer to cities on things like accepting affordable housing into their communities. I’m curious what you think about rent control and if the Legislature should step in if Minneapolis and St. Paul voters decide to enact rent control?

Well, I don’t support rent control, but what we’re doing here today is helping families get a step up and establish some equity. And equally as important or maybe even more important is helping families plant roots. They will be in this community, living here longer, becoming members of the community, supporting their schools, the local businesses. I think that’s more important is building those roots than if you were renting … you just don’t plant those roots.

But do you think the Legislature should block cities from enacting rent control? 

I would be willing to have that debate.

There’s potential for cleaning up regulations, so to speak. And I’m curious, which regulations you think we should get rid of to increase production?

I come from Lakeville. It’s one of the fastest growing, single family permitting in the state, I believe. And one of the biggest factors driving up costs is regulations. And certainly we should always be taking a look at how we can reduce regulations in a sensible way that helps drive down the cost of homeownership.

What do you think the Legislature can do to increase production, since supply is really the biggest issue with our housing crisis right now? 

Well, like I said, the regulations that drive up the land cost to begin with, and it’s pushing people farther and farther out and discouraging rebuilding in the inner core, like we are here today. The market should dictate where the building goes and where people want to live.

One thing that’s forcing people to move further out is local zoning ordinances that require certain lot size or single family homes. And that’s certainly a regulation. Do you think the Legislature should act on that, so that more types of housing are able to be built in the metro area?

Well, I think we should allow cities and home buyers and builders to dictate what regulations and what size and options of homes that they have. The Legislature’s role should be very limited in that.

You know there’s been an effort in California to abolish single family home zoning as Minneapolis has done. Should the Legislature consider something like that?

No, because I think the market and people should have the options to build the house or live in a neighborhood that they kind of prefer to and aspire to without the Legislature telling them … you know … It’s bad enough we tell them how to live sometimes. We should be cautious on telling them what kind of houses they have to live in as well

But isn’t that what single family home zoning ordinance does? The city is dictating what kinds of homes people are allowed to live in there.

Yeah, the communities are dictating what types of homes that they want. The home buyers and the communities are driving what options are permissible.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.

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