Our housing crisis is a very, very fine mess

PHOTO: TaxRebate.org.uk, Flickr CC-BY

Get a job. Start a family. Buy a house. For many — even most — these simple-sounding goals become our life’s work.

But jobs, families and housing have all changed significantly in recent years. It’s important to recognize those changes as we collectively seek “the pursuit of happiness” promised in the U.S. Constitution.

Employment data shows five jobs in highest demand for the Northeastern Minnesota labor market in coming years. These job classifications include personal care attendants, registered nurses, certified nursing assistants, mental health counselors and retail workers. 

These jobs are important, not particularly glamorous, and fairly common within Iron Range communities. Many reading these words right now hold one of these jobs, and nearly all know someone else who does.

Of these five jobs, only one — registered nurse — pays enough for a person to afford a home in the Duluth, Minnesota, labor market. Conditions are rather similar on the Iron Range and across much of the state.

These statistics come from Gabriella Norton, a researcher for the Minnesota Housing Partnership. Norton spoke at the organization’s Northeast Minnesota Building and Development Summit in Virginia on May 22.

With lower supply and higher demand, the prices to buy or rent a home have skyrocketed, doubling just since 2017. The impact on working people, especially the working poor, has been enormous.

In this region, 24 percent of households rent their home while about 76 percent own their home. Nevertheless, more than half of all households pay rent or mortgage payments in excess of the recommended 30 percent of income. That makes them “cost burdened,” and 27 percent are “extremely cost burdened,” meaning their housing expenses exceed half their income. 

Itasca is the most housing cost-burdened county in the state, with a whopping 60% of households paying above 30% of income for housing and 35% of households paying above half. St. Louis County runs close behind in 4th place. Both exceed the state average for housing cost burden while lagging the stage average for income. Thus, economic disparity explains both the challenges and the persistent discontent people feel in places like this.

Monica Haynes, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, said the situation in northeastern Minnesota is particularly challenging.

Population here has mostly flatlined, with most of Minnesota’s growth occurring in the Twin Cities metro area. However, Haynes said that smaller household sizes and more people staying in their homes into old age nevertheless pushes demand higher anyway.

“We have a long way to go to catch up to past numbers and what other parts of Minnesota are doing,” said Haynes. 

Housing starts on the Iron Range have been picking up from next to nothing, said Haynes; however, only 30 new homes were built in the past two years.

Increasing the housing supply was a big focus of the Minnesota Housing Partnership event. Speakers shared information on dozens of proposed and in-progress housing projects. Contractors, union representatives and developers bounced around like bees pollinating a garden. All agreed on one fundamental principal: Northeastern Minnesota needs new housing of all types for all income levels. 

Deborah Freedman of OneRoof Housing shared progress on several projects the nonprofit built recently, with more on the way.

“The market doesn’t work,” said Freedman. “A really significant investment is needed [for lower income housing]. These projects aren’t going to support an affordable mortgage.”

Even a modest two-story home cost about $378,000 to build new in Duluth. A smaller one-floor home cost $334,000. Freedman said public investment is the only way these homes can be made affordable.

OneRoof oversees a unique land trust model to offer lower-cost mortgages to people who otherwise couldn’t afford them. They use unique designs that fit on narrow city lots, developing new homes and redeveloping old ones. They’re also building modular apartment structures in Duluth for unhoused people in economic or personal transition.

Here on the Range, the Minnesota Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation allocated $5 million in taconite tax revenue to workforce housing projects. New developments are underway in Bovey, Chisholm, Ely, Grand Rapids and Cook County, with more in the works. 

“For our region to thrive, there must be housing options,” said Ida Rukavina, Commissioner of the IRRRB. “Jobs and housing go hand in hand.”

New housing plans dominated the housing summit. Proposals from Babbitt, Tower, Aurora, Bovey, Virginia and the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe were displayed throughout the Iron Trail Motors Event Center.

I’ve taught at a community college for many years and have given advice to countless students struggling for one reason or another. I tell them that the problems at school won’t improve until you address the problems at home.

But what do you do when the problem at home is that it costs too much to live there? We have a great, big dissatisfied society, struggling with the most fundamental question there is: where do I live?

Nothing else gets better until we solve this. New housing projects developed across the Range will help mightily, but here’s the crux. Somebody making money off this burdensome status quo will have to make less money. As the plumber says after pointing out a volcanic toilet eruption, “There’s your problem.” 

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, June 8, 2024 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.

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