Commentary

No one should pay more than 30% of income in rent — Opinion

August 13, 2021 6:00 am

Crews cleared a homeless encampment last summer in Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis where at one point more than 300 tents were pitched. Most people moved before sanitation crews loaded abandoned belongings into garbage trucks. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

While the pandemic may be making a vicious resurgence, we cannot continue to delay moving forward real, long-term solutions to Minnesota’s housing crisis. The pandemic unveiled our tragically precarious housing situation —672,000 Minnesotans live in households paying too much of their income to rent. The eviction moratorium instituted by Gov. Tim Walz and the federal resources to pay back-rent alleviated much suffering, but these actions did not solve the fundamental problem. 

The problem is that too many Minnesota renters pay too much for their homes, especially Minnesotans of color. Minnesota has been a leader in addressing the supply side of this problem. Our innovative housing infrastructure bonds help fund the creation of homes for the lowest-income residents of the state. There is a healthy debate on ways to create more homes and make them less expensive to build, and St. Paul and Minneapolis are looking at how to curb future growth of rents through rent stabilization policies. 

All of these could be helpful in the future, but the most immediate and impactful solution is simple and right in front of us: We need to help people pay their rent through rent subsidies.  

It is time for Minnesota to embrace the widely effective solution of rent subsidy, where you provide individuals and families a housing voucher that allows them to pay no more than 30% of their income on housing. The federal version of this program — often called “Section 8″— lifts 3 million people out of poverty a year, yet only one in four who qualify for this support actually receive it. It is time for Minnesota to step up and provide housing stability for all by passing the Bring It Home, MN bill introduced by Rep. Michael Howard and Sen. Kari Dziedzic (HF40/SF333), which would provide vouchers for those who qualify.

The most significant obstacle often brought up to universal rent subsidy coverage is the cost. The Bring It Home, MN bill is estimated to cost $1.1 billion a year. While this is a considerable investment, it is only 2% of the state budget. That 2% of our state funds would create housing opportunities for every person in the state and effectively eliminate long-term homelessness. 

I believe that the cost is not the real barrier.The problem is the political will to prioritize real investment in housing — by either party. Minnesota’s budget situation continues to improve, as evidenced by the state bringing in much more revenue than expected and running surpluses in the billions. Yet, the current investment in housing in the state budget is less than .05% and did not grow relative to other investments this year. 

If home is the foundation of strong lives, healthy communities and a prosperous state, our budget should reflect that.

It is time for state politicians to start investing in programs like Bring It Home, MN, and using future surplus money for housing because of the extraordinary financial and community returns. Common Bond’s recent study of its properties found that investing in housing stability to prevent evictions resulted in a 4-to-1 return for the community. Rent subsidies prevent evictions, but the returns for the entire community are even more remarkable.

Rent subsidy’s community impact is well documented by researchers. We know that rent subsidy reduces homelessness, improves educational outcomes, and improves community health. These improvements tackle many of Minnesota’s worst racial inequities, including Minnesota’s shameful racial homeownership gap. Helping everyone pay only 30% of their income toward housing gives renters of color breathing space to save and plan for homeownership.    

Creating housing stability pays dividends back, and it is time we make it happen. Now is the time for state leaders to come together. Investment in housing has broad public support across the ideological spectrum, yet it can be a challenge in these polarized times to realize this same support with legislators. It is time to embrace a solution that solves housing instability and homelessness in our state. We need to pass Bring It Home, MN, and other critical housing solutions so that all people may have a home.

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Ben Helvick Anderson
Ben Helvick Anderson

Ben Helvick Anderson is the director of public policy for Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative.

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