When the Minnesota Legislature convenes in less than a month, it has the opportunity to do big things that could make a major difference for small communities in rural parts of the state. With an unprecedented budget surplus now projected at $17 billion, the time is right to make real progress on one of the biggest issues facing small town Minnesota.
While housing is a critical issue throughout Minnesota, few places have been hit as hard by the acute shortage of housing as small towns, such as those here in the North Country.
It’s a huge economic development issue for our communities. Small towns have become increasingly attractive places to live. They’re far safer than big cities, with a generally lower cost of living, and with often ready access to the kind of outdoor amenities that are particularly attractive to young families and active retirees. These are all pieces to the puzzle of how to build sustainable and growing communities.
But housing remains a critical missing piece. Most families aren’t in a position to buy land and build their own homes. The vast majority, particularly younger families, rely on existing housing stock when they’re ready to make the leap to home ownership, but area communities have few houses on the market and they’re often sold to friends or family without ever being advertised. It’s much the same with the limited number of rentals, which often go strictly through word of mouth that leaves prospective new residents out in the cold.
There are jobs to be had in many of our communities here, but the lack of available housing makes it tough to fill many positions as most workers would prefer to live close to their work. When places like Ely, Tower, or Cook lack available housing, it limits economic opportunity in the community, limits school enrollments, and suppresses local tax bases.
We know that building new and affordable housing is difficult without the kinds of subsidy that the state of Minnesota has traditionally made available to some degree. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the housing money in recent years has remained within the seven-county metro area. That’s not a surprise. Private developers have been more comfortable building in growth areas, where they can have confidence that units will sell at a profitable price. And public entities that build housing in larger cities typically have greater capacity, both financially and in terms of staffing, to take on major projects. They also tend to build more units, and that provides an economy of scale that help larger projects pencil out.
Bringing new housing to smaller communities is a bigger challenge, but it’s one that is consistent with Gov. Walz’s One Minnesota promise. It isn’t enough to just throw money at the problem and let the chips fall where they may. If that’s all that happens, housing money will continue to get scooped up predominantly by the Twin Cities metro or larger regional centers elsewhere in the state.
While Republicans won’t be in charge at the Legislature this year, they could still play a role in pushing for more housing help in rural Minnesota, which is overwhelmingly represented by the GOP. Rather than simply acting to obstruct, GOP lawmakers could truly help the communities they represent by working with the DFL to ensure that a sizable portion of any housing investment this year goes to the small communities that have otherwise been left behind.
Making money available, of course, is just part of the picture. Small towns often lack the technical expertise and staff to bring a major housing project forward. An investment that truly helps address the housing needs of our small communities will include the kind of technical expertise from state or nonprofit officials who can really help small communities get projects off the ground. Without that kind of assistance, construction of new housing in small, rural communities will continue to lag. With the kind of surplus the state is currently enjoying, there is every opportunity to begin to address the lack of housing for far too many Minnesotans. But in doing so, it’s important that small towns, where the shortage is often most acute, aren’t once again left behind.