When the Metropolitan Council committed to adopting the Region’s first Housing Policy Plan in 30 years, housing advocates seized on the opportunity the Plan provided to strengthen region-wide housing efforts. HPP and other housing advocates had long argued that greater effort was needed to stretch our affordable housing resources to produce more units, and that more of those units needed to be placed in high opportunity locations, often in the suburbs. The need for greater effort in the suburbs is clear; between 1995 and 2010, the two central cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul exceeded their affordable housing production goals, while the suburbs collectively met less than half their affordable housing goals. One important place to focus in achieving these goals is the role of local government policies in promoting affordable housing development. That is where the Met Council comes in.
Throughout 2014, a Met Council led working group of city and county officials, housing funders, developers and housing advocates (including HPP) met to draft the Regional Housing Policy Plan. HPP began this process with the goal of increasing Met Council influence over local government housing efforts through two means: more effective use of the Met Council’s legal authorities to oversee local housing planning, and fully leveraging the impact of the Met Council’s funding decisions to incent city housing actions. By the time the Met Council adopted the final Housing Policy Plan in December 2014, housing advocates could point to major success on both those fronts. When it comes to legal authorities, the key area is the Met Council’s oversight of affordable housing planning that is part of every city’s comprehensive plan update every ten years. In the past, despite explicit language in state law to the contrary, Met Council staff simply checked the box that local plans had contained a housing plan. This meant that many of those plans were little more than a noncommittal laundry list of strategies cities might consider. The new Policy Plan calls for the Met Council to substantively review those housing plans to see if they are actually designed to meet the statute — that is, are they designed to accomplish the city producing its share of the regional need for affordable housing.
The other big breakthrough came in how the Council will use its leverage in funding decisions. In the 1970s and 1980s the Council used its review authority over local government applications for federal funding to incent suburban cities to accept affordable housing, with great success. Since that time, the Council has struggled to employ its powers to achieve similar effect. In recent years, the Council has factored in local affordable housing performance by cities in allocating grants under Livable Communities Act programs, but the much greater funding opportunity comes with transportation funding. In late 2014, after a considerable fight among different interest groups, the Council committed to applying affordable housing performance to transportation project funding decisions. The hope and expectation is that this will send a strong message to cities throughout the region that if they hope to win those big transportation projects, they are going to have to first step up their affordable housing efforts in order to score well enough on the transportation funding application.
Advocates can point to other successes in the Plan as well, including addressing preservation of existing affordable housing, new Fair Housing commitments, and a commitment to restoring funding to a dormant state law program to encourage cities to stretch housing resources further through cost reduction and Inclusionary Housing strategies.
Now that the Plan has been adopted, the next round of work begins translating the broad policy pronouncements in the Plan into specific and effective means of implementation. On many of these issues, this is where the real battles will be fought. HPP is continuing to lead a coalition of housing advocates to make sure this implementation is effective, as we build eventually toward the adoption of new comprehensive plans and new affordable housing plans in 2018.