BY CAM GORDON
The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA) has released a new proposal that could secure long-term funding to preserve, improve and produce more public housing in Minneapolis.
On May 10, they made a formal request to the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) that would raise $12 million a year to be dedicated exclusively to public housing. The estimated $240 million would be used to repair and renovate its current high-rises, townhomes and other housing, as well as add up to 400 new units of public housing over the next 20 years.
According to Minnesota state law, the city can collect up to 0.0185% of the city’s total estimated market value through a Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) tax levy. In 2023 that would have been up to $12 million. Minneapolis has not used its HRA levy authority since 2009, while nearly 100 counties and cities in the state are using theirs, although not necessarily for public housing. St. Paul, for example, collected over $5 million last year, Bloomington $2.7 million and Hennepin County $17.9 million
“We have a $210 million backlog,” said MPHA Executive Director Abdi Warsame. “This is a tool that can work to make sure Minneapolis gets better, that the most vulnerable population in Minneapolis gets housed.”
At the BET meeting, public housing residents spoke in support of the proposal and against the poor conditions of their housing that included leaky pipes, crumbling ceilings, mold, mildew and broken ventilation systems.
“Four years ago I was homeless and I signed up for public housing. I am grateful for it,” said Belinda Walker, a public housing high-rise resident. “Sometimes I am afraid to complain due to the fact that our building might be shut down and I know what it is to be homeless, so I just ask that the levy be passed.”
Mary McGovern, a resident and member of the Minneapolis Highrise Representative Council, said, “We have 42 high-rises in Minneapolis, and we want to preserve these high-rises. We want them to last for years and years to come. We have vulnerable adults who need places to live. We want our residents to feel like they are safe and secure, and the walls and ceilings are not going to fall in on them.”
Currently, roughly 26,000 people live in MPHA housing. About 21,500 (83%) are Black/African American, 10,000 (39%) are under 18, and 5,000 are over 62 years of age.
According to the MPHA, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has only provided about 10% of the funding necessary for major building improvements. In 2022, MPHA received nearly $20 million from HUD, but estimated that with only HUD’s funding the shortfall would reach $403 million by 2043.
“On any given night MPHA houses nearly 5% of the city’s population. The agency’s nearly 6,000 units are critical city infrastructure and require a commensurate investment from the city,” said Warsame. “The mayor and City Council should seize this opportunity to approve this new funding for the public housing authority to help deliver the affordable housing Minneapolis residents desperately need.” Prior to the BET meeting, Minneapolis Highrise Representative Council residents, Minneapolis BET President Samantha Pree-Stinson, and Council Members Robin Wonsley (Ward 2), Jamal Osman (Ward 6), Jason Chavez (Ward 9), and Elliott Payne (Ward 1), joined Warsame at a press conference to call for restoring the housing tax levy and making the long-term commitment to use it to preserve and build new public housing in Minneapolis.
Mayor Jacob Frey, while supportive of public housing, has not supported using the levy in the past and did not commit to supporting it at the meeting of the BET, of which he is also a member. In recent budgets, he has committed to providing $1 million in ongoing funds and also on a program-by-program or project-by-project basis. This year the city has budgeted close to $15 million to various MPHA projects and programs.
“The truth is that public housing has been underfunded by the federal government since around the time when I was born,” Frey said. “The city has a role here where we need to step up and we need to do it thoughtfully and smartly where we’re collaborating with other entities as well, otherwise we are going to continue to see this backlog.”
The mayor raised several questions about the MPHA report and exchanged comments with Warsame. Warsame emphasized the need for ongoing reliable funding, similar to an agreement crafted during former Mayor Betsy Hodges’ term. Codified in city ordinance in 2016, that agreement provided $800 million over 20 years to help the city and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board keep up with needed maintenance and operations costs for city streets and neighborhood parks.
“My pledge to you, each and every one of you,” said Frey, “is that we at the city will do everything possible that we can to make this right to get the funding that you need.”
One reason why mayors, including Frey, may resist using the housing levy is because of a desire to keep property taxes lower and because it may make it harder to raise taxes for new initiatives or to maintain other city services.
“I’ve been hearing about the backlog in maintenance and renovations since the 1980s,” said BET Vice-President Steve Brandt, who pointed out that the city is already planning to increase the levy by 6.4%. “By my back-of-the-envelope calculations,” he said, “adding $12 million to that would push the increase up to 8.9%.”
One solution might be to start the increase at a lower amount and gradually increase it over several years to provide the necessary funding. Connecting it to the special housing levy could add certainty and clarity to taxpayers who would see it as a separate item on property tax statements. Another option could be to reduce proposed spending in other areas.
According to the MPHA report, under their proposal residential property taxpayers would pay between $31 and $108 more each year depending on the value of their property. A homeowner with a house valued at the city median valuation of $316,000 would pay an additional $52.87 per year, or less than $5 a month.
In the weeks ahead, Warsame and MPHA are hoping that the City Council will pass a resolution consenting to MPHA using the full levying authority or that Frey will include the levy as a part of his 2024 budget recommendation this August.
“What is the priority and who is the priority for Minneapolis? If the budget is a moral document, where does it stand when it comes to the most vulnerable population?” asked Warsame. “We are an affluent city. We have the resources. Let’s prioritize our poorest communities.”