Why we’re fighting to fully fund public housing in Minnesota


Housing is a human right.

It’s a common and important refrain these days, but as elected officials we see firsthand how far our current system is from realizing that vision. Our government, at every level, has failed to adequately invest in housing for decades and the results are stark. This winter nearly 8,000 Minnesotans will be unsheltered or transient. Here in Hennepin County, about 2,600 residents are unhoused. Nearly a quarter are children, and over 80% are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color.

The housing crisis is a systemic problem, and when there are systemic problems, everyone has someone else to blame for the lack of solutions. There’s no better example of this than public housing in America. Public housing is primarily funded at the federal level, but it is run at the local level by Public Housing Authorities (PHAs). Starting in the 1970s, coordinated attacks on public housing funding and administration policy have massively undermined the government’s  ability to create, maintain, and preserve public housing.

Because public housing is funded and operated in multi-jurisdictional structures, it’s easy to pass the blame for systemic underfunding. But what it really means is that all policymakers, at every level of government, have an obligation to fully use all the tools available to them if we want to solve the housing crisis. None of us can fix a systemic problem alone, but if we get serious about taking action on every level, the problem can be fixed.

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There is no solution to the housing crisis without public housing. Our current housing system is premised on making profits, even if it comes at the expense of people’s needs. Public housing operates outside of the profit motive and resists commodification, which means it has a unique role to play in achieving universal housing. Public housing must be a priority for any elected official who believes housing is a human right.

Currently, the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA) struggles to maintain our existing 7,000 units. Persistent underfunding has created a capital repair backlog of over $200 million. That translates to maintenance issues for residents ranging from urgent problems like mold, pests, and heat to quality-of-life issues like community rooms without any furniture.

The capital backlog doesn’t just mean worse conditions for residents, it fundamentally jeopardizes public housing itself. Unaddressed maintenance issues snowball into increasingly disruptive and expensive problems, damaging public housing’s reputation as high quality, stable, and desirable. It is a textbook example of the neoliberal tactic of underfunding a program, letting outcomes deteriorate, and then deeming it a failure as a pretext for privatization.

This has already happened with public housing around the country and right here in Minneapolis. The RAD program, which makes private financing options available to Public Housing Authorities, is often the only available option for PHAs to obtain needed funding. But in an effort to meet immediate needs, it opens the door to the private sector owning public housing units. Already some public housing projects have seen lack of oversight in the RAD program that has caused some residents to lose their housing because of increased rents or lack of tenant protections after the conversion from public housing to subsidized housing. The long term results could be that within a matter of years, residents can lose their housing while private developers profit from  a once-public good.

Yet if governments can step in with the funds that local authorities like MPHA need to address the capital backlog, it will improve residents’ lives directly rather than jumping through the logistical hoops of programs like RAD, and without opening the door to privatization.

But it’s not just about protecting what we have — it’s about building more.

PHAs around the country are capped at the number of public housing units they can have because of the federal Faircloth Amendment. In Minneapolis, the current waitlist has about 8,000 families and many more waiting to even sign up for the waitlist. Until the Faircloth Amendment is repealed federally, PHAs are unable to meet the full need for public housing. Yet, even with this limitation, many PHAs are still under their cap. The MPHA has the authority to build about 900 more units of public housing, which could mean 900 more families from the waitlist who could be housed.

New public housing isn’t sufficiently subsidized on the federal level, which means other levels of government need to step up to deliver the needed funding while federal legislators work to improve federal funding policy. In Minneapolis, this means using our budget process to meet critical public housing needs, as the City Council did this budget cycle in approving $1.2 million for completing the installation of fire suppression in public housing towers. It also means using the city’s public housing levy to generate funds. It also means getting creative with ways the state, county, and city can support their local PHA with funding and policy.

There’s no need to settle for unpredictable solutions like RAD/Section 18 when we have the resources, collectively, to take on the housing crisis. The state has a $17.6 billion surplus.  A significant portion of those funds should be used to address Minnesotans’ housing needs.

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The problem isn’t resources. The problem until now has been a lack of political will to fully fund public housing. As elected officials, we are committed to working together at all levels of government, with anyone from any party who believes that housing is a human right, and to make that a reality.

State Rep. Esther Agbaje, Minneapolis City Council member Robin Wonsley, Minneapolis Board of Estimation and Taxation president Samantha Pree-Stinson

State Rep. Esther Agbaje, Minneapolis City Council member Robin Wonsley, and Minneapolis Board of Estimation and Taxation president Samantha Pree-Stinson

Esther Agbaje is a state representative from Minneapolis serving in District 59B. Robin Wonsley is a Minneapolis City Council member representing Ward 2. Samantha Pree-Stinson is president of the Minneapolis Board of Estimation and Taxation. 


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