Rep. Steve Elkins discusses housing development policy

Rep. Steve Elkins (DFL) represents Minnesota House District 49B in southern Hennepin County including parts of Bloomington, Edina, Eden Prairie and Minnetonka.

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Q: What has surprised you about the legislative process in your first year?

A: After two decades in nonpartisan local and regional government, I’ve been disappointed at just how partisan the process really is. Once you get into the session, most votes are either unanimous or straight party line. I’ve identified a few Republican legislators who I know I can work with on specific issues, such as housing policy, and plan to work with them over the summer to bring forth bills that can attract bipartisan support in 2020.

Q: Land Use and affordability are growing topics of interest in public discourse and public policy. How does your experience as a former Bloomington City Council member and a member of the Metropolitan Council shape the way that you approach these issues?

A: When it comes to housing, municipal administrators are focused on ensuring that new development pays for itself; while local elected officials (and their constituents) are focused on ensuring that new development “fits in.” These ways of thinking have led to low-density zoning and requirements for unnecessary amenities, making it impossible for builders to profitably build new homes for less than $350,000 at a time when the hottest part of the market is for $250,000 starter homes.

Developers have demonstrated the demand for homes on 1/5 of an acre, or less; however, there is no suburban city in the region where this form of affordable small lot development can be built without going through the expensive planned-unit development process. We have to achieve a meeting of the minds between cities and developers over development impact fees.

Cities are overloading allowable impact fees like the Park Dedication Fees to make up for the absence of allowable impact fees for collector street construction and trunk sewer lines. When cities can’t cover the costs of building essential infrastructure required by new development, they resort to the imposition of development moratoria and they refrain from petitioning the Metropolitan Council for extensions to the Metropolitan Urban Services Area (MUSA). These tactics restrict the supply of developable land and drive up the price of land.

Q: How do you and your colleagues resolve the competing goals of affordability, local control, and regional coordination?

A: Most of the housing discussion this year has centered on finding ways to subsidize the construction and preservation of affordable housing. My experience tells me that we’re not, yet, paying enough attention to the regulatory barriers that prevent homebuilders from constructing more affordable housing without government subsidies. The Housing First Priced Out study hasn’t received the attention that it deserves. It really does a good job of framing the necessary discussion that needs to occur among cities, developers and the legislature.

Q: As a former member of the Metropolitan Council, do you think that this body is doing everything that it could to advance the discussion?

A: The Metropolitan Council has much less authority over housing policy than most people think, and it can’t direct cities to change the policies that most directly affect the price of housing. It can’t direct cities to expand the MUSA if they don’t want to. It can use the Livable Communities grant program to reward cities which guide land for the production of multifamily housing, but they can’t force them to zone the land in a consistent manner (the subject of my HF2323 bill), and they certainly can’t require them to build it.

They can require cities to plan for housing development at an average density of at least three units/acre, but they can’t prevent the same cities from guiding large swaths of land exclusively for McMansions on 1-acre (or larger) lots. If we’re going to solve these problems, we’re going to have to focus on the cities directly.