Access to affordable housing is a statewide concern, but needs and viewpoints vary.

“Every community is unique,” said Bree Maki, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith’s outreach coordinator for Southern Minnesota.

Maki joined Smith’s housing policy director, Osman Ahmed, on Wednesday in a discussion with members of the Rochester Housing Alliance.

Ahmed said many of the concerns shared were similar to what he’s heard since starting a series of statewide conversations on June 24, but Wednesday’s hourlong discussion also brought new viewpoints.

“It was the first time I heard about the intersection of economic development and housing,” he said, noting workforce concerns are often linked to housing.

“I think if we can be thinking in terms of economic development, housing is a component of that, but it’s not the only piece,” said Chris Colby, a local architect. “It has a huge impact on it, so taking it in a broader sense and finding ways on a federal level to be a little bit more aggressive about advocating about economic development, and making housing one of the cornerstones, would really be helpful.”

Maki said Wednesday’s conversation wouldn’t be new to Smith, who previously met with the alliance in person.

As chairwoman of the Destination Medical Center Corp. board before being appointed to the U.S. Senate, Smith worked to include discussions of affordable housing into the local economic development effort.

On Wednesday, the group of approximately 25 community members included local government, nonprofit agencies, builders and a variety of housing advocates who raised a variety of concerns, which often landed on a desire to find ways to create more affordable housing.

Steve Borchardt, Rochester Area Foundation’s housing coalition director, who hosted Wednesday’s meeting, said a key issue is in defining affordable housing. Under federal guidelines, housing is affordable if a household earning 60 percent of the area median income can rent it or make a mortgage payment without paying more than 30 percent of its monthly income.

As a result, $1,260 rent on a two-bedroom apartment in Rochester can be defined as affordable under federal guidelines.

“That’s not attainable for someone making $45,000 a year,” Borchardt said. “One of the things we constantly bump into in the community as we try to talk about affordable housing are the rates and the limits we deal with. For the vast majority of people out there, they aren’t anywhere close to affordable.”

Local builder Mike Paradise of Bigelow Homes, who served on Gov. Mark Dayton’s Task Force on Housing, encouraged Smith’s staff to also look for ways to help communities build infrastructure, rather than relying on developers to cover costs, which can increase prices on homes.

Dave Dunn, Olmsted County housing director, also cited a need for updating the Housing and Urban Development’s housing voucher program, known as Section 8. The county’s 556 available housing vouchers is nearly the same as it was three decades ago, despite nearly doubling the population, he said..

While Olmsted County’s waiting list for vouchers has been closed since 2012, Dunn said it’s not just a local problem. “Only one out of four people eligible for a voucher are able to receive one nationwide,” he said.

With the variety of issues and suggestions raised Wednesday, Ahmed said he plans to continue his tour throughout the state into October. At that point, the findings will be gathered into a report for the senator, as well as the public.

He said the goal is to understand what is needed by the people most affected by federal legislation regarding housing.

“The policy should not come from the top down,” he said, noting the insights being gathered should drive future federal decisions.

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Local Government Reporter

Randy is the Post Bulletin's local government reporter, covering the city of Rochester and Olmsted County, as well as Destination Medical Center efforts. He joined the Post Bulletin staff in 2014.