Twin Cities suburbs should want more from the Met Council, not less

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Some Twin Cities suburban residents act downright scared of affordable housing. Their mayors are scared of what happens if they don't find some. David Peterson, Star Tribune

Like a lot of people in Elko New Market, state Rep. Bob Vogel commuted 40 minutes north for work last Monday.

His engagement was a hearing at the Capitol, where he is in his third year representing the southern exurbs. Vogel, a Republican, was asked if he wanted to speak in favor of his bill.

“No comments,” Vogel said with a shrug. Why waste breath? Asking this Republican majority for votes to strip power from the Metropolitan Council is like asking who wants fresh cookies.

The Met Council was created by the Legislature in 1967 as a regional planning agency. The state wanted to get control of the metro’s reins. Explosive growth in the suburbs led to startling population shifts — Bloomington went from 9,000 in 1950 to 81,000 in 1970 — without the resources to match. Today, the Met Council has a $1 billion budget, 4,000-some employees, and about 100 enemies in the Minnesota House and Senate.

Republicans say the Met Council was supposed to build roads to bring people in, sewers to take their waste out, and not much else. They’re wrong: The 1967 language mentions “land use,” and the “control and prevention” of air and water pollution. But being mistaken has never stopped them before.

Interviewed last week, Bob Vogel repeatedly mentioned “scope creep,” a common GOP claim that the Met Council is getting its tentacles where it shouldn’t. His bill would give the Legislature approval over the affordable housing plans agreed to by the council and various cities.

Republicans rail against the intrusion of big government into local matters. But the Met Council is one instance where they hope to add bureaucracy and red tape.

“It’s schizophrenic,” says Steven Chavez, a council member representing suburban Dakota County.

In 2015, Vogel wrote to constituents that the Met Council was engaged in “unwanted social engineering,” citing a “plan that would basically mandate new housing types and projects.” Translation: He’s worried about affordable housing coming to the exurbs.

Aside from House Republicans, it’s hard to tell who’s asking for Vogel’s bill. Cities aren’t. The Association of Metropolitan Cities—formed to explicitly serve as a “watchdog” of the Met Council—has consistently lobbied against the bill. 

That includes Bob Vogel’s home, Elko New Market. Mayor Bob Crawford says getting what you want from the Met Council “all depends on your attitude.... They really are nowhere near as bad to work with as everybody kind of portrays it to be. You just have to go in with a spirit of cooperation.”

As for the sticky issue of affordable housing, Crawford has one question: How can he get some? Elko New Market (pop. 4,600) is more than comfortable, with a median income above $100,000. But those who run convenience stores, or restaurants, or anything that needs an overnight janitor crew, have trouble finding workers who can afford to live there.

If, as some Republicans would have us believe, the Met Council was ceaselessly throwing money at affordable housing projects, Bob Crawford is still waiting to sweep it up.

This is the irony of the GOP’s annual attempts to sabotage the agency. If there’s a problem with its clout, it’s that it doesn’t have enough. The few million dollars’ worth of Met Council housing grants available each year is a “drop in the bucket” compared to what’s needed, says Chavez. “To be realistic, the likelihood of increasing funding for subsidized affordable housing is bleak, politically and financially.”

He’s also on the board at CommonBond Communities, which develops affordable housing throughout the Midwest. With few signs the states or the feds are willing, the nonprofit has lately focused on attracting private partners.

Contrary to Vogel’s limited reading of history, the Legislature officially added housing to the Met Council’s mandate 40 years ago, specifically to address a “shortage of decent dwelling accommodations available to persons of low and moderate income.”

For a while, they were pretty great at it. University of Minnesota researcher Myron Orfield, who represented Minneapolis for five terms in the state House, says from the 1970s through the early ’90s, the Council did a “fabulous job.” At one point, 70 percent of affordable units were being built in the suburbs.

“It was the premier regional planning authority in the country,” says Orfield.

Lately, the Council has backed off. What was once a regional push to give people opportunity to climb the ladder has turned into a rubber stamp for mostly urban work, according to Orfield. It’s just easier to stack inexpensive apartments in north Minneapolis or Brooklyn Center than in Eden Prairie, which hasn’t received Met Council money for housing since 1997.

“If it’s in a white neighborhood, you’ve gotta go to like 20 meetings and hold everyone’s hand,” Orfield says.

Chavez illustrates the difficulty in building a hypothetical project in a place like Champlin, a half-hour north of Minneapolis. Is the school system ready for an influx of kids? Does the economy have enough job openings — and of the right kind — to employ their parents? Can those without cars find public transportation to get them to Minneapolis each day? With so little money and so much need, is Champlin really the right place?

It’s a complex set of questions, and the only way to ensure cities aren’t succeeding at each other’s expense is with a good regional planning agency. Fortunately, the Twin Cities has one.

Ours even used to have a good reputation. We should be asking more from it, instead of making annual swings to cut it off at the knees.

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