by David Morris
Originally published in The Minneapolis Observer, February 17, 2004
Politics involves making choices. This legislative session we’re making choices about how to spend some three quarters of a billion dollars. The menu is largely restricted to constructing shelters(buildings) of one sort or another.
It gladdens me to see how much our representatives are willing to invest. It saddens me to see what captures their imagination, and what doesn’t.
The stadium debate is a case in point. The competition precipitated by Governor Pawlenty has elicited a quantity and level of proposals from local governments that is a testament to how much they are willing to spend when they are truly eager. In this case their eagerness is to host a sports team. The citizens of Anoka County, or to be more precise, their representatives have offered to spend $240 million to build a shelter for the Vikings. To house the Twins Saint Paul and Hennepin County each submitted a bid that included $300 million in local taxes.
This is truly extraordinary. Combining the local tax dollars promised for both a baseball and football stadium, local governments are willing to invest over $500 million to house sports teams. To which we should add the $100-200 million these communities assume the state legislature will kick in, an amount that will be repaid primarily if not entirely by residents and businesses of the Twin Cities. Call it $600 million and change.
Compare this generosity for sheltering sports teams with the tightfisted attitude with which these same governments approach building shelters for people.
When it comes to putting roofs over our sports teams the sky’s the limit. When it comes to putting roofs over our neighbors our courage falters at the treetop level.
Last November some 30 high ranking officials, foundation executives and business people gathered to discuss what Governor Pawlenty called a “business plan” to eliminate long term homelessness. The attendees were heartened by the conversation and the initiative. Carol Berde, vice president of the McKnight Foundation, the state’s leading patron of affordable housing told the Star Tribune, “To me, the key here is to think differently, think boldly”. Terri Barreiro, vice president of the Greater Twin Cities United Way liked what she heard, “This is the first time we’ve seen something this comprehensive really digging deep.”
The decision by the task force was to seek $4 million in bonds from the 2004 Legislature. Last year Dakota County gave $1 million to support affordable housing. Saint Paul and Minneapolis offer similar levels of support. The Governor is asking the legislature for $10 million a year for the next two years to build housing for the homeless.
Minnesota foundations, to be sure, have been among the leaders in the country in financing affordable housing. Since 1980 McKnight alone has invested more than $125 million. The Blandin Foundation has committed $44 million. The Saint Paul Foundation recently announced a $2.5 million loan to Saint Paul for that city’s housing initiative.
These are worthy efforts. They should be applauded. But the stark reality is that because of state cutbacks in Local Government Aid Minnesota’s cities may be reducing even their modest housing efforts. Ramsey County, for example, has financed nearly 1,100 units through an affordable housing fund it established two years ago. This year, a budget squeeze forced county officials to put a temporarily hold on the program. Last year the state reduced its appropriation to the Housing Finance Agency by almost $8 million.
Perhaps the enthusiasm for housing sports teams is not transferable to housing people. But imagine for a moment that it was. Six hundred million dollars in public investment could not only take on the housing problem, it might actually go a long, long way toward solving it. The resources are there. Our governments demonstrated that this last month. Now’s the time to take those resources and use them to meet a need that everyone recognizes is both essential and urgent.
David Morris is vice-president of the Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., based Institute for Local Self-Reliance (www.ilsr.org) and author of A Better Way to Get From Here to There: A Commentary on the Hydrogen Economy and a Proposal for an Alternative Strategy.