Maybe you saw it, maybe you didn’t. The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies published an interactive map listing (essentially) the worst place for renting in each state, that is to say, the highest cost place to rent in each state.
Guess who scored a big ‘ol fat numero uno for Minnesota. You got it. Mankato.
(Oh, hey, this might be a bit of a long read just FYI.)
The Free Press broke this article highlighting the fact that income inequality in the Mankato area has been slowly getting worse. Greater Mankato Growth (GMG) combated this by saying that it’s because of the student population (which somehow makes that better I guess?). Even today, GMG touted our awesome job growth, but we’re at an all time high for SNAP benefits. What is going on?
All this contributes to the rental market and the strain that renters are feeling.
So what do we do about it? I have tons of ideas. Honestly and I would let loose and hang some different groups out to dry, but I don’t see that as having a real impact.
However, I will say this as one of my only non-urban planning, semi-political statements: Mankato has a wage problem. It’s the elephant in the room. Wages are depressed around Mankato for the benefit of some, and the harm of many.
You can see this in the way we have so many problems despite job growth. If we want this magically awesome MSA we keep hearing about, leadership has to step up and do something about it. If you don’t fix that, we’ll be in the same situation for a while.
Anyway, I’ll focus on some changes that I think could happen regarding the rental market.
1. The rental cap per block has to go
If you’re not aware, there’s a rule in Mankato that says no more than 30% of a block can be rental property. I know why the rule exists; people don’t want renters in their neighborhood. According to some, renters are the source of crime, diseases, loud music and beer-pong tournaments. However, it’s such a bad rule that it’s currently being challenged in the Minnesota Supreme Court.
A lot of homeowners (rightly or wrongly) defend this rule as a hedge against their own property.
Here’s the problem, this rule punishes renters in a highly discriminatory way. You would never have a law that says “only 30% of your block can be Asian or Black or Women” would you? So why are you allowed to pre-punt people out of an area simply because they can’t afford a house?
I’ve talked about this before. Cities grow in a relatively predictable fashion: incrementally out, up, and more intense.
Like the layers of stone that date our geological past, so too you can see how this was happening in Mankato pre WW-II. Take a drive through some of our older neighborhoods and you’ll see small scale apartment buildings in the middle of single family housing. This was the beginning of the “more intense” phase of Mankato. We already had the “up and out” parts well under way. Remember, Manhattan had single family homes once.
Incrementally more intense, stuff like this:
Go ahead and try and build something like that on a block today. It probably will die on the altar of the Planning Commission, and if it doesn’t you’ll have to get it through the City Council members.
But that building is great for a neighborhood. It’s classy, period, and allows decently cheap housing for the people that need it without making them feel excluded.
When you cap the rental per-block, you actually do more harm to the city as a whole. If you can’t beef up a block with rental property, then you’re pushing rentals to the available land at the edge of town, which spurs more infrastructure and more liability for the city.
Think that 10″ water main running to the middle of a corn field for a giant multiplex is cheap? Nope. If it breaks, do you think the multiplex that it was laid for is paying for it? Nope. All taxpayers are.
Furthermore the rule limits people’s ability to create their own wealth, forcing renters to pay the few groups or individuals that have enough money to build apartment buildings. If you really want to shop local, you’ll rent someone’s basement, ADU, or duplex.
My final word on this. People who support this rule: You’re scared of absentee landlords, not renters. Look at RentMSU, they have over 70 houses and they’re generally well maintained. Renters, like home owners, come in all shapes, sizes, and levels of character.
2. Dumb ordinances
I know I’ll get push back on this one, but we need to kill some of the rules we have in place: building codes (anecdotally, I’ve heard a new home has ballooned by $8,000 because of intensive building codes), minimum parking laws, and overly-strict zoning regulations.
These ordinances exist because they “feel” good, but in reality don’t do much. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that the world will literally end if there’s not enough parking at a building site. Or that the neighborhood will go to crap if you let a duplex in. These conjectures simply aren’t true and are wild speculations based on nothing but emotion.
When you favor single family homes over everything, you get a less efficient city, less tax base, spend more on infrastructure, and make it harder for business to survive. Density is the best thing you can do for your city, and we need ordinances and laws that encourage it. Especially given the current generation taking over the workforce.
Likewise, the area around MSU should be far more walkable with more services, stores, bars and businesses. As my one friend described it, “It’s amazing how you can have so much density with so little urbanism. I didn’t think it was possible.”
If the area up by MSU entailed all the services that were essential to life, you would have more rental up by school and less downtown. In theory, this would diminish the “need” for the 30% rule and negate the fears of those who put it in place.
3. Get some decent transit
Listen, I know we’re only a city of 60,000 people (including North Mankato), but that doesn’t mean we can’t sink a little bit of investment into our bus system. I know this probably won’t help the cost of rentals specifically, but if we can get some people onto public transportation and out of the car ownership game, we’ll save them money and let them breathe a little easier.
I’ve talked about what’s wrong with small city transit before, but we need to double down on our investment in transit and biking infrastructure. We’re getting there with the complete streets plan, but we’ve got a long way to go.
4. Final thought
There’s no reason a small city in south of the state should be the most expensive place to live. It just doesn’t make sense. The only conclusion to be drawn here is that we’re doing something wrong and things need to change. We know how to create affordable housing, it’s not that hard. Your hostas might get a little more shade because there’s an apartment building next to your house, but that’s part of living in a city. We’re trying to fix problems and make a city that’s equitable for all, not pander to the likes of a few.
I look forward to the creative solutions our leaders come up with and hope that they will do what’s right in the face of adversity. Godspeed and good luck.
A version of this post appears on the author’s blog Key City MN