City officials hear about housing concerns


GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/NEWS LEADER Ryan Baumtrog, of Minnesota Housing, addresses the gathering of city officials from various towns at the League of Minnesota Cities meeting held in Spring Valley on Oct. 30.

A shortage of affordable, quality housing for families was the focus of one of several sessions during the October League of Minnesota Cities’ (LMC) southeastern Minnesota meeting hosted by the city of Spring Valley at the Spring Valley Community Center Wednesday, Oct. 30.

Minnesota Housing Assistant Commissioner Ryan Baumtrog spoke about the housing issue for families in greater Minnesota – outside the Twin Cities metro area – that affects the economies of small cities and towns. The matter has become somewhat of a crisis as families attempt to find sustainable living and working arrangements. 

He noted that until recently, housing hasn’t been “at the top” of the legislative priority list in relation to providing funding, but that concerns expressed to gubernatorial candidates on the campaign trail led to questions being raised about how to bolster financial support for construction or rehabilitation of single and multi-family dwellings. 

“The budget in the 2019 session ended up…we did get over $180 million in new resources, but we can fund only one in every three projects that come to us,” he told the crowd of city officials assembled in Spring Valley. “The state ended up signing it because if there are no resources, there’s not enough for businesses to expand and they can’t find workers, and the workers who do come to town can’t find housing or childcare.”

Minnesota Housing gets just 0.3 percent of the entire state budget, he noted, but the issue is starting to get more attention. 

“This is a bonding year, and the bonding bill is the number one source to get and preserve housing,” he said. “We’ve put in a big ask for $240 million…back in the 1960s and 1970s, we raised our hands and built housing.” 

He pointed out that the housing that was constructed was primarily apartment buildings to serve low-income, elderly and disabled people and that after time, those properties had come to need rehabilitation – such as replacing boilers, windows, updating siding. That required owners to extend assistance from the federal government 20 or more years, he added.

New housing in general is not affordable, he noted, as even teachers and others in similar occupations and pay scales cannot afford to buy a home. The existing housing stock is already occupied, and the federal government has chosen to back away from subsidizing some of the available public housing units that have tenants with an average income of $15,000 or less, people who are elderly, disabled or otherwise unable to bring in enough income to pay full rent, he explained. 

Baumtrog outlined several rural development programs, made possible through appropriations from the government, that provide opportunities for rehabilitation and incentives for affordable housing outside of the metro area that either cities or developers may apply for to expand available housing stock. He added that gap financing for developments can be obtained through some of the programs so that developers and cities can build new housing units to accommodate an incoming workforce and pave the way for economic expansion. 

“Some of these put the communities in the driver’s seat…they’re really flexible,” he said.

Baumtrog related that the practical next step for a city planning to plot for construction is to “know your housing stock and situation,” or to have a grasp of what kind of housing that’s needed before proceeding to pursue assistance to carry out construction. 

He encouraged anyone who has questions to contact Minnesota Housing to find out who is engaged in housing development in their area, “to be very active in seeking out” details.  “A lot of work goes into any type of housing,” he concluded, noting that active local governments that are involved in laying out infrastructure for increased housing often experience the most success.  More information is available at www.mnhousing.gov

Drugs, other issues

Following Baumtrog’s presentation, LMC representatives pointed attendees toward the registration table where bags of prescription drug disposal kits were being distributed to each participating city to stem an exponentially growing opioid crisis.  Attendees were encouraged to determine how the kits will be allotted to their local agencies, be it emergency medical services or other organizations that come in contact with unused prescription medications.

Additionally, the LMC agenda included an update from Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) Deputy Commissioner Kevin McKinnon, who gave an overview of DEED’s economic development programs, highlighting new programs and changes that came out of the 2019 legislative session.

Also, the League’s intergovernmental team shared details about the 2019 legislative session and its 2020 draft policies. Another session provided insights on how the city and council can support first responders – featuring panelists such as LMC Executive Director Dave Unmacht, LMC loss control consultant Tracy Stille, Austin Police Department Chief Dave McKichan and LMC Deputy Director Luke Fischer.

The panelists told how city officials can take action to support mental health for first responders in their city, what can impact mental health for first responders, what cities can proactively put in place to build wellness and resiliency, and how cities can create a plan to support first responders in their city.

Spring Valley Mayor Tony Archer greeted the crowd to Spring Valley. Adjournment took place at 8 p.m. after a long but informative afternoon of presentations and a delightful locally-catered dinner.