|2/14/2020 10:30:00 AM|
Select senate committee holds hearings on state's role in creating housing that's affordable, and streamlining code regulations
The Minnesota Legislature is back in session as of Tuesday this week, but over the break, since adjournment last spring--a select committee of five senators started holding hearings on one especially vexing issue: affordable housing. A research organization estimates Minnesota could use 125,000 more units than what’s currently being made available.
Local state Senator Mark Koran-R-North Branch serves on the Select Committee on Home Ownership, Affordability and Availability, and has been active as the group hears from a range of housing advocates, professionals, non-profits and others.
At the most recent hearing February 4 in St Paul, testimony came from small city and large city officials, leaders in the MN Builders’ Association, a representative of the Dept. of Labor and Industry, League of Minnesota Cities, Habitat for Humanity and many others discussing what role the legislature has in making sure housing needs are addressed.
Answers are not simple.
Those who point to government regulations as the main culprit would be wrong, according to a Housing First MN spokesperson, who said policy costs more than fees. Policy covers everything from zoning preferences (standards) in each community to energy mandates. Also, costs of permits should be based on actual expense to provide the inspector service, not on the building’s value.
Senator Koran asked about builder complaints he receives on mandates for materials. There must be less expensive ways to tackle ventilation, heating and cooling.
A representative with the Dept. of Labor & Industry said the standards and equipment are called out for a reason and the bigger issues with rot, mold etc. is maintenance of systems by owners. Home buyers need to be educated. He told the committee the department dropped costs of license fees by half and the state building code (revised every six years) is now available on-line (new version due March 31). The state has also cut costs by not requiring expertise for certain calculations that most builders couldn’t do in-house, and which are now available in standardized charts.
A representative with a mortgage firm did advise that other costs are not contained. She said closing fees increase at the county recorder office, title insurance costs rise, and financing compliance rules call for upgrades in computer software and it all costs money.
Sen. Koran asked the Habitat for Humanity official what one thing she would have the state do, that would facilitate Habitat projects. She said she’d have to think hard to narrow it down to one but she’d respond later in writing.
Another metro based non-profit spokesperson said the enforcement actions by inspectors on low income, elderly or other homeowners with few resources may need to be looked into. Interpretation of code can be aggressive and non-compliance findings cause loss of housing.
There was some give and take and disagreement among hearing witnesses on zoning’s contribution to affordability.
Communities need to figure out how to do “multi generational” housing, Sen. Koran maintained. He said the legislature and state departments can give guidance and suggestions but it boils down to what the local priority is.
Cambridge City Administrator Lynda Woulfe told the committee cities have a “duty” to existing homeowners to preserve their property value and sometimes that means disallowing certain land uses.
The hearings continue later this month. Senator Draheim is leading the select committee. If you wish to contribute to the fact-finding contact his office or call Sen. Koran.