Minneapolis—R.T. Rybak mines important
lessons out of the old streetcar cities of the past.
There, he finds inspiration, if not possible solutions, for many
of the problems confronting cities today.
“Before we talked about affordable housing or
transit-oriented developments, there were simply cities where
people at all income levels could find a range of housing options
in most parts of town and have access to good transit,”
That's something he would like for
Minneapolis, the city that he's been leading for
the past eight years. As a result, the mayor has made affordable
housing a key part of his agenda. Since 2000, about 5,500 units
aimed at households earning no more than 50 percent of the area
median income (AMI) have been built in the City of Lakes. There
were 611 affordable units built last year, according to city
The fiscal 2008 total is more than the 516 affordable units
delivered in Phoenix, the 499 units created in Miami, and the 492
units built in San Jose, Calif., all larger cities.
Minneapolis officials expect only about 350 affordable housing
units to be completed this year, blaming the drop-off on the
Rybak attributes Minneapolis' recent
production to both a policy that calls for any project that has
city money in it to make at least 20 percent of its units
affordable and to an affordable housing trust fund that provides
gap financing. The city backs the trust fund each year with $10
million from assorted sources, including federal Community
Development Block Grants and local funds. Consistency has been
another ingredient in the formula.
“You need to develop a pipeline that has
strong community-based developers who can count on a consistent
influx of resources,” says Rybak.
“Because we've stayed at it
over a number of years, we have an exceptionally strong base of
community developers who have been able to respond during this
latest crisis. You can't just declare that you
are going to focus on affordable housing this month and not next
month because city governments can't do this
Even at a time of financial shortfalls for the city, the mayor
has fully funded the trust fund, says Alan Arthur, president of
Aeon, a local nonprofit developer.
“R.T. is a supporter of affordable housing,
and he goes out of his way to find out about the challenges in our
work and what he might be able to do to help make the community
better,” Arthur says.
Rybak's strategy started with a large focus
on housing for those earning around 50 percent of the AMI. The plan
has had to expand to have a significant focus on ending
homelessness and on foreclosure prevention and recovery. In 2005,
Minneapolis had 863 foreclosure sales. The number soared to 3,077
foreclosures in 2008, with many of those being investment
properties that house rental opportunities.
The city's foreclosure recovery plan
identifies more than 20 neighborhoods that are the hardest hit by
foreclosures that will receive an investment of the $14 million in
federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds. The city also has
an additional $2 million for Minneapolis Advantage, which will
provide homeownership opportunities to more than 200 households to
buy foreclosed homes.
An American city
Rybak began his career as a reporter, covering housing issues
for the StarTribune, the area's daily paper, in
the early 1980s.
First elected mayor in 2001 and then re-elected in 2005, he
emerged on the scene when many cities, including his own, were
seeing rising housing prices.
“One of the reasons that I won that first race
was that I tapped into the compassion that the people of
Minneapolis had to provide housing but also into the excitement
they had for a new type of city that used that new housing
production to create more dense, walkable neighborhoods as
well,” he says.
Affordable housing is part of those neighborhoods.
“The American city by definition is a place
where everybody can come together and be able to get around on foot
or bike or transit, and people of great means could connect with
people who had very little at the corner store, the corner bus
stop,” says Rybak. “All
we're trying to do is reweave the American city
and make sure it has a place for everybody to