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,” he says.

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 officials.

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 economic downturn.

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 alone.”

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 live.”