10 ideas to address the affordable housing crisis in Rochester

I was going to send this as a letter to local leaders, but am holding off until after today’s meeting and will perhaps modify this based on the discussion.  I believe we need to do all of these in some form or fashion, not pick and choose based on what benefits a certain group.

To:       Local elected officials serving the Rochester area.

From:  Michael Wojcik

Re:       Affordable Housing Challenges

Date:   July 18, 2014


Our community is faced with an enormous challenge of creating 22,000 housing units including thousands of affordable housing units over the next 15 years.  If we fail to deliver the needed housing, particularly at the more affordable levels, our basic industries will starve from a lack of employees.  The sheer number of units required is astonishing and cannot be achieved with business as usual.  Affordable housing has always been an interest of mine and I thought I would share some ideas to deliver this almost unimaginable need.

1)            Strong leadership is needed.  The number of units required is such that they will need to be distributed throughout the community.  If is incumbent upon leadership to stand up and speak the truth when the false claims of property values, blight, or crime are raised.  Affordably housing remains good for the community and does not create many of the externalities that neighbors fear.  What we can’t afford to do is focus all of our needed affordable housing into a few small areas.  While it might not always be popular community leaders can do a great deal to shape the community dialog.

2)            The Olmsted County HRA can to play a stronger role.  Most major counties in Minnesota have a HRA levy to assist in gap financing of affordable housing projects.  While it will no doubt be unpopular, the people of our community need this investment.

3)            TIF needs to play an increasing role.  In order for TIF to be effective it is important that affordable housing projects be a part of larger projects that contain uses that are taxed at a higher level such as market rate housing or commercial.  Additionally, all development fees could be reapportioned to per acre charges that would reward density and infill while ending subsides of suburban sprawl (some currently are).

4)            Transit orientation is key.  Any affordable housing that does not address the high cost of transportation is not really affordable.  It is important that new projects are in locations that are served by an ever more frequent and effective transit system.  Ideally these locations would also be walkable to jobs and services.

5)            Our planning and zoning needs to improve.  Particularly along arterial routes we have seen a propagation of low-density single story commercial development with surface parking.  The Autozone at 16th Street SW and Broadway is a prime example of underutilizing land.  Despite being a prime location that is both connected to transit and walkable to hundreds of jobs we ended up with a single story masonry block building, set back from the street, with a surface parking lot.  More aggressive zoning requirements could have allowed for the same business set up against the street with 3-5 levels of housing above the ground floor business.  The redevelopment of our existing arterials is perhaps the most cost effective way to deliver more housing in good locations.

6)            Inclusionary zoning probably needs to be part of a solution.  This is a tool that has been used effectively in other parts of the country.  In short, this creates an obligation that a portion of units created in a project or subdivision must be affordable.  This helps to integrate affordable housing.  In situations where affordable housing can’t be reasonably created or is objected to, there is typically a cash out option that can be used to help finance projects elsewhere.

7)            Local governments must leverage their capital investments.  Rather than creating schools in sprawled out large acreage locations we need to better focus those investments and design neighborhoods around new school locations.  Given the new housing styles and neighborhood preferences of our growing millennial, senior, immigrant, and low-income populations smart growth around schools should be an easy sell.  District transportation costs are minimized when most if not all children attending a school can walk or bike.

8)            Beyond school facilities even basic office space can contribute to the viability of mixed-use projects.  Often the most difficult part of creating a mixed-use project is finding a credit worthy tenant on the ground floor.  Rather than building new standalone government facilities that generate no sustaining property taxes for the life of the use, all levels of government could utilize capital leases in mixed-use developments to achieve cheaper more sustainable space and spur new projects.

9)            The easiest time to plan for good affordable housing locations is when we create new infrastructure.   West Circle Drive could be lined with multi story mixed use development providing hundreds or thousands of affordable units except the zoning we put in place along that route called for automobile oriented low density sprawl.  We can learn from this experience and ensure that access, setbacks, road design, and zoning better create opportunities for future growth.

10)         Surrounding communities have a role to play and tremendous opportunity for growth.  Millennials, seniors, immigrants and low-income families have a strong preference or need for housing near amenities.  A walkable TOD in a surrounding community also has the potential to fulfill these needs if there is a strong transit connection to Rochester.  For surrounding communities there is an opportunity to bring in more residents, diversify the community, and create a critical mass of transit users to sustain frequent transit to Rochester.  It is important that communities create districts that promote the walkable mixed-use density in locations where easy transit connections could be made between Rochester and more distant suburbs.

It is my sincere hope that we are able to address our affordable housing crisis for the betterment of our citizens and economy.

Michael Wojcik


One comment

  1. I would like the city council and planning and zoning to consider Tiny House Communities during this process of affordable housing development. Tiny house communities are becoming very popular all over the country. They are a viable options for low income, senior, homeless, and young couples. When shared amenities such as solar power, gardens, water and electric are added, they become even more economical and sustainable. I would love to hear discussion in this direction. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to comment. Katie Cannons

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