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Echo Press Editorial: Affordable housing problem looms

Finding decent, affordable housing in the Alexandria area, either to rent or buy, is no easy task.

After the economy slowly recovered from the recession, many assumed the housing situation would improve. It hasn't.

A growing number of Minnesotans, including those in the Alexandria area, struggle to afford a place to live.

According to the Minnesota Housing Partnership — a team of community developers, researchers and communicators that supports public and private housing initiatives for low and moderate-income families — more than 21,340 people in the West Central region of the state likely have to sacrifice on other needs like food and medicine to pay for rising housing costs. The region includes Douglas County and eight others.

The partnership released its first "State of the State's Housing" report, which offers comprehensive insights into the housing issue at the state, region and county levels. The key takeaway, according to the partnership: While significant progress has been made in areas such as homelessness, housing is still a major challenge impacting virtually every community across Minnesota.

In the West Central region, there are 6,660 "extremely low-income" households, defined as any families earning 30 percent or less of the area's median income. In Douglas County alone, there are 1,095 extremely low-income renters, yet only 330 units are available and affordable for that income bracket.

Other compelling information from the report:

• Rates of a severe housing cost burden are high in Clay, Stevens and Douglas counties, where more than 27 percent of the total renter population is paying more than half of its income on housing.

• Median rent rates in Douglas County surged 29 percent from 2000 to 2015, rising from $566 to $730. Meanwhile, median incomes of renters increased just 13 percent, from $26,006 to $29,262.

• Median home values in Douglas County increased 35 percent from 2000 to 2015, going from $139,705 to $188,400. Meanwhile, homeowners' income increased just 5 percent, from $60,361 to $63,548.

• The West Central region has the highest percentage of senior renters, with more than one in four renter households older than the age of 65. More than half (52 percent) are cost burdened — and the senior population overall in the region is anticipated to grow by 47 percent by 2035.

• Statewide, median gross rent increased by 9 percent, but in the West Central region, it rose 17 percent.

• Housing costs greatly surpass median earnings for four of the top five in-demand occupations in the region. To afford a median-value home in Douglas County, a worker would need to earn as much as $56,520 annually — more than $20,000 more than the in-demand job with the highest pay.

These sobering statistics point to a serious problem that needs solutions — quickly.

It would be wonderful if wages could be increased so everyone could afford a nice home. But that's not going to happen anytime soon, so other options must be pursued.

To its credit, last year, the Alexandria City Council modified its tax increment financing policies for encouraging low-income housing developments by allowing already existing developments to extend their affordable housing commitment for an additional five years.

So far, however, the effort hasn't borne fruit. On split votes, the council turned down — twice — a small tax increment financing request that would have provided four low-income apartment units. It also would have funneled $5,700 annually for five years into a fund designated for future affordable housing projects. A majority of the council members felt there was a not a need for affordable housing, despite recommendations from Nicole Fernholz with the Alexandria Area Economic Development Commission, who has repeatedly addressed the housing shortage with the council.

The commission is preparing a new housing study, which was last updated in 2014, that should provide the motivation for the council to not let another opportunity for affordable housing slip by.