Subsidized artists’ housing aggravates metro segregation

AntiPovertySoldierThis past May, the University of Minnesota Law School’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity (IMO) published a new study titled The Rise of White-Segregated Subsidized Housing. The study’s executive summary opens by stating, “Subsidized housing in Minneapolis and Saint Paul is segregated, and this segregation takes two forms — one well-known, and the other virtually unknown.”

The “well-known” form of subsidized housing that the study refers to are those public housing projects traditionally found in racially diverse and racially segregated communities. The “virtually unknown” subsidized housing projects identified in the IMO’s report are, by contrast, found in either integrated or primarily White neighborhoods.

Schmidt Artist Lofts
Schmidt Artist Lofts By McGhiever/CC BY-SA 4.0

Such housing developments, which are primarily designated for professional artists, started to emerge nearly a decade ago. This occurred after Minnesota commercial development companies lobbied the U.S. Congress to “exempt” such artist developments from a law requiring publicly subsidized housing to remain open to all citizens that meet eligibility guidelines.

Although the subsidized housing in these communities represents a rather small fraction of all public housing in the Twin Cities, the financial muscle behind these projects is staggering. For example, the IMO report notes that four historic buildings that were converted into subsidized lofts for artists collectively cost nearly half a billion dollars.

Furthermore, the cost per unit value of a single apartment in these four developments ranges from between $430,000 to $665,000. The report also suggests that these developments may, in fact, be in violation of federal laws.

Not long after the IMO’s report, the editorial board of the Minneapolis Star Tribune derided   the fact the federal tax credits and other subsidies are being directed toward such projects and away from low-income communities for which they were intended. The Star Tribune editors write that “In a state with some of the worst racial inequities in the country, it’s hard to understand why more was not done to ensure more diverse populations.”

And while the editorial speaks to the “public good” of preserving historic buildings and the “intrinsic value” of art and artists to a community, it reveals that the federal funds used to develop these units could have funded nearly seven times as many affordable housing units to serve low-income people. The editors also note that the St. Paul Public Housing Agency currently maintains a closed waiting list of 3,500 “with no target date for when it will reopen.”

The backlash didn’t remain local. On July 5, the editorial board of The New York Times also weighed in on the IMO’s report, stating that “Federally financed affordable housing developments do not typically include yoga studios or rooftop clubs with spectacular skyline views” as do some of the recent developments in the Twin Cities. The New York Times editors also cite a previous IMO study that shows Minneapolis and St. Paul have become increasingly segregated in recent years when measured against comparable cities such as Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington.

They conclude their editorial by highlighting the fact that just last year the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) revised some of its guidelines with the intention of forcing local governments to implement plans and patterns that reduce segregation and foster more “integrated and balanced living patterns” in American cities. Now, according to the editors, it is imperative that HUD hold local officials and developers accountable in these efforts.

It is noteworthy that both the IMO study and the responses to it come at essentially the same time as the National Low-Income Housing Coalition’s latest Out of Reach report. The 2016 report demonstrates that Minnesota has the 22nd most expensive housing market among all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

In the 12 states that comprise the Midwest and upper Midwest region, Minnesota has ranked as the second most expensive for several years, running behind only Illinois. As such, in 2016 a full-time Minnesota worker must earn an average wage of nearly $18 per hour (nearly double the minimum wage) just to afford the rent in a modest, market-rate two-bedroom apartment.

The lack of affordable housing not only in Minnesota but throughout America remains one of the most critical issues we face as a society. In the Twin Cities, this problem contributes significantly to the racial disparities that continue to plague so many of our neighborhoods in the midst of so much economic prosperity. We must do better for our citizens, particularly those who are most vulnerable and most in need.


Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104.