Suburban mayors and GOP legislators clash over proposals to reduce high housing costs

A coalition of south metro suburban and exurban mayors are blasting state lawmakers over proposed legislation aimed at making housing more affordable without government subsidies as a threat to local government control. The mayors sent a sharply worded letter to leaders in the Minnesota House and Senate, as well as Gov. Tim Walz and other officials, according to Southwest News Media.

Nine local mayors have sent a letter to Scott and Le Sueur County legislators stating their opposition of housing focused bills proposed in legislative session, which they argue will shift control of growth and development in communities from local to state government…

“They’re all about reducing local control, taking decisions away from the cities, away from planning commissions, putting it up at the state level, and also limiting or curtailing certain fees on cities,” [Prior Lake Mayor Kirt] Briggs said. “What the impact of that is, it will add cost to the citizens. Just because you reduce the fee doesn’t eliminate a cost. As a matter of fact, it transfers that cost.”

A 2020 American Experiment report found the Twin Cities housing market ranks as the most expensive in the Midwest by far, driven up by Met Council restrictions, costly building codes and local government mandates and fees. The Out of House and Home report made the case for bringing the Twin Cities more into line with other cities through reforms, rather than additional taxpayer-funded subsidies.

Politicians can promise massive spending programs to address the affordable housing problem in the Twin Cities, but no amount of spending will solve (or even lessen) this problem unless government is willing to do what it hasn’t in the past: reform and significantly roll back government mandates, regulations and fees and rein in the Met Council.

Supporters say the bills before the legislature would result in more economical housing stock by revamping zoning restrictions and other requirements. But local officials fought back at a recent hearing for one of the proposals before the GOP-led Senate (SF915), claiming it could undercut property values of current home owners.

The bill encourages municipalities “to enact public policy to facilitate the development of unsubsidized affordable housing,” by allowing smaller lot sizes for single-family homes, allowing duplexes or fourplexes on lots zoned for single-family homes or allowing mixed use development, it states. The zoning practices are similar to those adopted in Minneapolis.

In his testimony [Prior Lake City Manager Jason] Wedel noted that city comprehensive plans already designate portions of the city for such zoning.

“What this bill does is jeopardizes residents who have already purchased homes in our community and expect similar homes to be constructed around them consistent with the city’s comprehensive and zoning plans,” he said. “To suggest this change in land use after they have already made what is likely the single biggest investment they will ever make is not transparent nor equitable.”

At the same time, local officials say some cities are working on ways to offer more affordable options for home buyers. Clearly the attempt by GOP lawmakers to address one of the most pressing issues facing Minnesota families appears to have gotten the attention of local governments.

“One of the things we try to do in the senate is make sure that we take the feedback from stakeholders on both sides of an issue and what I hear in these letters is that the city officials don’t feel like they’ve had an opportunity to be heard and so this is a bill that probably requires a little extra work,” [Sen. Erik] Pratt said.