Legal Learning: Legislature drops the ball on housing
Our state senators and representatives, Republicans and Democrats, agreed last month that a bonding bill with money for affordable housing is necessary. CHUM Duluth (Churches United in Ministry) was advocating for $130 million; Gov. Mark Dayton asked for $90 million; and finally everyone agreed on $45 million. But when the legislature adjourned on May 23, housing received nothing.
It was a pretty dramatic ending of the legislative session. After arguing since January about a bonding bill, the Senate (controlled by the DFL) voted May 5 on a bill with $1.5 billion, including $90 million for housing. The bill failed by one vote.
The House of Representatives, meanwhile (controlled by Republicans), was working on an $800 million bonding bill that didn't include any money for housing. On May 18 they took a vote and the bill failed to pass.
So the leaders kept negotiating. On May 22, with an hour to go in the 2016 legislative session, the House brought a new $1 billion bonding bill to the floor that included $45 million in bonds for housing. That bill passed the House and was sent to the Senate. It was amended in the Senate and passed as amended. However, the House had adjourned before they could consider whether to concur with the Senate's amended bill. The Senate made some attempts to take the bill back up but time ran out and the bonding bill did not pass.
Now Dayton and Lt. Gov. Tina Smith are negotiating with legislative leaders about calling a special session to fix all of this. Besides money for housing, the bonding bill was supposed to raise money for many important projects — $12.7 million to restore habitat on the St. Louis River estuary in Duluth, $220 million for water and sewer upgrades in many northern Minnesota cities, $21 million for a new Science Building at the University of Minnesota Duluth, $1.9 million for improvements to the Lake Superior Zoo, $2.9 million for the Northeast Regional Corrections Center near Duluth, $1.7 million for the Black Beach Campground in Silver Bay, $763,000 for a small-craft harbor facility in Two Harbors, and so on.
But housing is one of the most important needs. In April the Duluth News Tribune pointed this out in an editorial entitled "No denying the need for housing funds." An estimated 9,000 Minnesotans are homeless, they said, many in northern Minnesota, but most of the state funding (two-thirds) has traditionally gone to Minneapolis and St. Paul. "This year would seem to be nonmetro Minnesota's turn," they editorialized. Furthermore, "public money to fight homelessness is a good investment. It returns $4 in federal funds for every state dollar allocated."
"Our job is definitely still not done. We have a ways to go," said Kenza Hadj-Moussa of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless. "We're playing catchup from many, many years when we were given crumbs and then a few more crumbs."
Without a bonding bill that includes money for housing, the housing crisis in Minnesota will only get worse. As stated by Dana Hiltunen, a spokesperson for Homes for All, "The effect would be devastating, especially in Greater Minnesota where housing is precious. We hope elected officials know what's at stake for local communities. Minnesotans are counting on a bonding bill with basic necessities." Let's hope that the politicians can agree on a special session in the near future, and that they will find a way to pass a bonding bill this year.
James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate and was named one of Minnesota's Top Ten Attorneys. He now handles family law, wills, and probate in and around Lake County, and does mediation everywhere. He writes a regular column on legal issues for the News-Chronicle. The opinions expressed in this column are those of its author and are not to be attributed to his employer.