As Mankato’s director of housing, Nancy Bokelmann makes no effort to minimize the shortage of affordable housing in the city.
“Half the community is struggling to afford housing,” Bokelmann said.
City officials have long recognized the problem, closely monitored symptoms and used any prescriptions available for pain relief.
But this year, for the first time, city leaders intend to create an affordable housing plan for the Mankato area that will both provide a thorough diagnosis and establish a wide range of treatments.
After much community engagement, the plan will focus on addressing housing needs of all kinds, prioritizing available money in programs that work best, and developing new partnerships and strategies.
“We hope we see other opportunities that we can bring here and make sure we have affordable housing in the future,” Bokelmann said, adding that the process could also let people know about the help already available. “Maybe it will do a lot of marketing and get the word out.”
More than a study
Like many cities, Mankato periodically conducts a housing study that quantifies current conditions such as vacancy rates in different rental housing segments, land availability for new home construction, development rates and more. .
The new Mankato Area Affordable Housing Plan will examine all of this information, along with data from the U.S. Census and other state and federal sources, to describe existing conditions and indicate where the community falls short, according to a document from the city describing the initiative. . The plan will develop a definition of ‘affordability’, set targets for closing the gaps and set out specific strategies to increase the number of affordable housing units of all types available in the community.
“Really focus on taking steps to address the affordability issue,” said community development manager Paul Vogel, highlighting how the plan will differ from the traditional housing study. “It’s a housing action plan that will involve the community.
The plan will detail the number and type of affordable housing needed in various categories – shelter beds for the homeless, subsidized apartments for very low-income tenants, apartments and single-family homes within the financial reach of average workers, places for elderly residents looking to downsize without moving to an assisted living facility… . It will document the need for rental and owner-occupied housing, and identify barriers that prevent residents from finding affordable housing.
“The plan will consider the diverse continuum of community housing needs, shelter beds, supportive and transitional housing, workforce housing, home ownership, rehabilitation and older residents wishing to age in place,” the document states.
In addition to identifying categories where available housing is scarce, the plan will develop a toolkit of financing options and tactics to increase supply, Vogel said.
Hiring a consultant
The city council, working in its role as Mankato’s economic development authority, has authorized a budget of up to $50,000 to hire a consultant to oversee the creation of the plan by the end of this year.
The consultant will guide the process, but the city and community partners will drive it, Vogel said: “This plan is going to be developed by the community. The role of the consultant is to accompany us.
Vogel mentioned many stakeholders who will be key participants. such as Partners for Housing, Shelter Providers, Local Property Developers, Apartment Managers, Greater Mankato Growth, Realtors, Neighborhood Associations, and Blue Earth County.
Average residents will also be asked to share their struggles with finding a good home that doesn’t eat up most of their salary.
“We want to hear from the community what they’re going through and any ideas they might have,” Vogel said.
Community engagement should include at least three open houses or roundtables, as well as online surveys.
And the consultant will appear at community festivals where people are gathered with the aim of reaching people who are reluctant to attend government meetings or fill out surveys.
It won’t just be the people of Mankato. The city administers housing programs under an agreement with Blue Earth County, so the scope of the study will include cities stretching from Amboy and Lake Crystal to Mapleton and Eagle Lake. North Mankato, which is in Nicollet County, will also be included in the housing market analysis.
Individual meetings are to be held with Lutheran Social Service, Connections Shelter, Habitat for Humanity and several other local nonprofits.
Many in the business community are already aware that the shortage of affordable housing is a serious problem for the regional economy, as employers struggle to recruit and retain workers.
“We see this as a big problem. It is currently difficult for people who come to Mankato to find housing, regardless of the type of housing they are looking for,” said Ryan Vesey, director of economic development and research for Greater Mankato Growth. “We need more housing at all levels.”
Even for people who have an affordable home, there needs to be the ability to move to a better quality or more appropriately sized home as their life evolves.
“There is a lack of housing choice,” Vesey said. “You just don’t have any options.”
Private-sector property developers will inevitably focus on market-priced homes and apartments, especially with low vacancy rates in this more lucrative segment, he said. It is therefore essential that the city and other interest groups look for ways to encourage and support more housing for people who are struggling to pay market rate rents.
New and old tools
Mankato has had great success building new apartment complexes reserved for renters earning 60% or less of the region’s median income.
Over the past six years, Mankato Projects have repeatedly been among the winners of an extremely competitive statewide competition for a limited number of federal affordable housing tax credits.
The result is nearly 100 apartments north of Madison East Center, more than 100 occupied or under construction north of Rosa Parks Elementary School, and more than 100 to be built this year and next just north of Cub Foods West.
“Another key element in this regard is the preservation of existing affordable housing. Part of that preservation of affordable housing is Walnut Tower,” Vogel said, referring to the tall but aging downtown apartment building.
Affordable apartments need to be complemented by affordable property, said Mankato City Manager Susan Arntz. It was a concept Arntz even broached during an interview for the job in the summer of 2020, and the city is now working with the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership to explore the possibility of creating a land trust.
Community land trusts typically involve the creation of a non-profit organization to purchase the land under a home, relieving the first-time home buyer of that part of the cost. In turn, the future resale price of the home can be controlled to keep the home affordable for the next first-time home buyer as well. And land trusts can be employed with both new housing developments or homes scattered across older neighborhoods.
“It could be existing homes,” Vogel said. “It could be new construction.”
Federal pandemic relief payments could be a funding option for establishing a land trust. Profits from the sale of municipal land to industrial developers were also mentioned as a possible source of funding.
Money will be needed for many of the tactics that will be proposed in the strategic plan.
“It’s part of the process — identifying federal grants, Minnesota Housing, EDA, partners,” Vogel said. “What is the best fit for each partner? This also includes the private sector.
Even if the overall plan is developed, the city will continue what it has done.
This means looking for tax credit projects to build one or two new affordable apartment buildings each year.
It also means continuing to operate some state-owned housing and working to increase the number of rental vouchers available, which are funded by the federal housing and urban development agency.
The 510 vouchers available five years ago have grown to 644 today, meaning 644 individuals or families pay no more than 30% of their income in rent at various apartment buildings around Mankato, with vouchers paying the rest of the rent.
And the city is still trying to move people toward self-sufficiency and home ownership, Bokelmann said. A voucher may initially aim to prevent a family from becoming homeless.
Over time, the voucher can provide stability and a chance to save money, steering a family away from the financial precipice. And the city offers homeownership courses, guiding people through the daunting task of setting aside enough savings for a down payment, getting a mortgage, and choosing the right home.
“Last year, 47 families were able to buy their homes,” Bokelmann said, adding that the goal was to increase that number to 60 or even 70 a year.
Even with the successes, Vogel said he is optimistic that the new strategic plan generated over the next few months will allow the city to be even more efficient.
“We’ve done a lot over the years, but we’re working on a common vision of how to move forward,” he said.
Part of Vogel’s confidence comes from the success of previous local planning efforts such as downtown revitalization, the Old Town Master Plan and corridor studies that transform major roads. Like the upcoming housing plan, these efforts were ambitious in scope and focused squarely on hearing the ideas and priorities of community members.
The fact that many of the goals of these plans have been implemented should bolster the city’s credibility when seeking citizen input into the planning process ahead.
“That’s why we’ve seen success,” Vogel said. “The plans aren’t just put on the shelf, they’re actually implemented.”