Local governments play a critical role in setting the table for affordable housing development.  This includes helping with site identification and acquisition, providing needed zoning and regulatory flexibility, and contributing to filling financial gaps.  This “table setting” happens most effectively when it is part of a deliberate plan to diversify a community’s housing choices.  Challenging and ambitious goals cannot be accomplished without a plan.

This is what makes comprehensive plan updates so important.  Under Minnesota law, every city and county in the Metro Area has to update its comprehensive plan every ten years, with those updates now due in 2018 and 2019.  Under the Metropolitan Land Use Planning Act (MLUPA), part of the comp plan update process involves each city’s “housing element,” where local governments are obligated to plan for their share of the local and regional need for affordable housing, by setting aside sufficient land and by producing an implementation plan which will produce their fair share of new affordable units (based on fair share allocations determined by the Met Council).  

HJC has focused for years on making the once a decade comp plan update process an effective tool for getting more affordable housing units produced, particularly in communities most lacking in affordable housing.  When the Met Council assembled a workgroup to draft the region’s Housing Policy Plan in 2014, HJC pushed for stronger Met Council oversight of housing element updates. What HJC had found in the previous round of plan updates were many city housing elements that were vague and noncommittal, with no realistic prospect of coming close to meeting cities’ fair share allocations of affordable housing.  The new Housing Policy Plan beefed up this process in several important ways.  Local plans must consider all available tools (policy, financial, etc) to meet housing goals, they must be specific, and they must articulate strategies to meet the needs of the lowest income households.

Over the last six to nine months, HJC has been reviewing draft housing elements and offering comments to cities, and to the Met Council, once those plans get submitted to the Council for review.  In reviewing those plans, HJC has learned several things.  While vagueness has not vanished from these plans altogether, many of the housing plans are much better than they were a decade ago.  The best ones identify specific new strategies the city will tackle in the future, with timelines for when this work will be done. Others still fall well short of what MLUPA requires, however.  

One near-universal failing of the new round of housing elements is in the failure to identify actions cities will take to meet the housing needs of households at 30% AMI and below (“extremely low-income households”).  Throughout the Metro Area, this is where the need for affordable housing is the greatest.  Most local housing plans, however, are geared to support new Low-Income Housing Tax Credit developments, which typically serve households at 50-60 % AMI.  To serve 30% AMI households, in addition to the production of new affordable units through programs like the LIHTC program, an ongoing stream of operating subsidy or rent subsidy payments are needed to reduce rents to a level an extremely low-income household can afford.   Almost no local government has taken this step.  Working towards tools and strategies which will address this critical need remains a major goal for HJC.