In this unprecedented moment, it is impossible to ignore how interconnected we are and how essential stable housing is to our collective health. As the supposed safety conferred by income and status evaporates in the face of a global pandemic, we all recognize that our well-being is deeply reliant on the ability of all our neighbors to be safe and healthy.
In this context, the flippant tone and inaccurate content of the recent commentary from the mayor and City Council members of Arden Hills (“Why did Ramsey county ghost Arden Hills in planning?” March 19), rejecting their important role in shaping accessible housing options for our communities, is particularly jarring.
The fate of the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant (TCAAP) property has been a subject of government planning for years — and for good reason. The 427-acre property in Arden Hills is the largest tract of undeveloped land in our region and, since it acquired the site in 2012, Ramsey County has invested tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to remediate the superfund site for new, private development.
In 2018, the County entered into an agreement with the city of Arden Hills that outlined the planned development of Rice Creek Commons: 1,460 homes, 1.4 million square feet of commercial/office space, and a 200-room hotel.
Missing from the agreement: real affordable housing.
In their commentary, Arden Hills officials conjure a demonstrably false narrative, casting themselves as victims. They complain that the county somehow surprised them with new requirements at the last minute and then left them to find a path forward for the project. In reality, despite four months of court-ordered mediation, Arden Hills has driven the plot of this drawn-out conflict with its staunch and protracted unwillingness to ensure that a once-in-a-generation development doesn’t intentionally exclude a massive swath of the county’s population.
Now petitioning to join the lawsuit between the county and city, the Alliance and Housing Justice Center have been monitoring the development of TCAAP since the start. In 2018, when the city and county agreed to a deeply inequitable plan, we pointed out that Rice Creek Commons’ “affordable housing” does not reflect real regional needs — instead catering to moderate income, predominantly white households.
As responsible stewards of the millions in public tax dollars already invested in or promised for the TCAAP site, our county commissioners rightly reconsidered the terms. They weighed the fact that 90% of Ramsey County renter households who need affordable housing earn $50,000 or less per year (for a household of four) — but the only affordable housing at the TCAAP site would be for families earning $75,500. The county decided that equation was not in the public interest — and asked the city to commit to housing that would meet some of our actual needs.
In their commentary, Arden Hills’ leaders predictably throw up their hands and claim it’s not their job, or within their power, to influence the housing market. This is patently untrue. The city of Arden Hills, like all communities, is required by state law to create a plan to meet the housing needs of its residents. The city has the power to pass zoning changes to allow for more housing on the site and the power to accept or reject a cooperative financing plan for the redevelopment. The city has the power — and the legal responsibility — to do better.
We know who is excluded when cities fail to create affordable housing. While 25% of white households in the Twin Cities region are renters, 63% of households of color are renters — and households of color are four times more likely to be low-income renters paying more than half of their monthly income on rent. Because nearly 7 in 10 renter households of color earn less than $50,000 per year, the “affordable” housing would be far out of reach.
That’s not just an oversight or a mismatch — that’s a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act. By not taking action, the city is choosing to actively discriminate against thousands of predominantly household of color that will be financially redlined out of development supported by their tax dollars.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made the essential role of stable housing in maintaining community health, and the necessity of our elected leaders to think beyond city borders to ensure the vitality of our region more vivid than ever. No government is immune to our ongoing and deepening affordable housing crisis. Arden Hills, like all communities, must play its part in our collective remedy to the centuries-long epidemic of racial and social exclusion that has defined our past, but will not direct our future.
Joo Hee Pomplun is executive director, the Alliance. Margaret Kaplan is president, Housing Justice Center.