Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
In many Minnesota counties, an average of 1 in 7 renters spends more than half of their monthly income on housing. And in some counties, that figure is as high as 56%.
That means lower-income individuals, families and seniors often face tough budget choices that force them to spend less — or not at all — on necessities such as medications, food and transportation.
That's why a bill urged by a coalition of housing advocates who call their efforts "Bring it Home Minnesota" merits support. The legislation would create and fund a new rental assistance program administered by the state to help lower-income households that spend more than 30% of their annual income on market-rate rent.
Under the program, a state agency would issue grants to program administrators at the local level. They, in turn, would provide rent subsidies. Any individual or family under 50% of the Area Median Income (AMI) and who pays more than 30% of their income toward rent would be eligible. AMI is calculated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for each region. For example, 50% of AMI for a family of four is $51,700 in the Twin Cities, according to Bring it Home, and even lower in rural counties.
Rep. Mike Howard, DFL-Richfield, chief author of the bill (HF 11) and chair of the House Housing Finance and Policy Committee, told an editorial writer that an important feature of the proposal is that it would not create a new department or structure and instead would use the current Section 8 delivery system.
Housing choice vouchers (known as Section 8) have been one of the most effective ways to reduce housing instability. Studies have shown that subsidizing rents can reduce government spending in education, health care and other economic assistance programs. Yet the waiting list for that program is long; only an estimated 1 in 4 households that apply receive that federal voucher.
Subsidizing market rate rents would help renters statewide. Some north-central Minnesota counties have higher rates of cost-burdened residents than suburban and metro areas. The subsidies also have a positive impact on racial equity. Housing advocates note that 1 in 3 Black and Native households pay over 30% of their income on rent, compared with 1 in 5 white households.
Another benefit of helping renters in this way is that cities would be less likely to adopt rent control policies, which often have unintended consequences.
At this point in the legislative session, a housing spending target of about $1 billion has been set for various housing programs. Most of that would come from the record $17 billion surplus as one-time money, with about $50 million designated for ongoing programs.
Ben Helvick Anderson, of Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative, told an editorial writer that at $2 billion over the biennium, the Bring it Home initiative would help about 220,000 eligible Minnesota households.
That amount won't be available, but some portion of state housing funding should be used to increase rent assistance for low-income individuals and families. Affordable housing remains out of reach for too many Minnesotans.