Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #136. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Nov. 2, 2018; in print Nov. 4

The Times Oct. 21 Our View “Change the way you think about 'affordable housing,'" begins a conversation that ought to have been at or near the top of this season’s political talk.

Communications experts say a message must be heard seven times before it registers. (Purveyors of campaign ads — who do 70 times seven — clearly know this.) Housing should move front-and-center as a public policy issue, so today I am number two, and encourage five more concerned citizens to speak up in the paper or some other public forum.

The Times Our View makes many timely, fact-based points, all in the context of the need to reframe public discussion.

First, we really have an affordable housing problem.

The market rate for a two-bedroom rental in St. Cloud is $800.A worker needs to earn $15.38 an hour in a full-time position to afford it, but the mean wage of renters in the St. Cloud area is $11.80 per hour. 

And it's not just renters. Minnesota home prices have gone up 8.9 percent in the past year, and homes are selling at prices 26 percent higher than in surrounding states.

Second, affordable housing across the cost spectrum is good for business.

Without affordable housing, employers can’t attract workers, and when renters and homeowners have to pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing, those dollars can’t be spent for goods and services that keep local businesses thriving.

Third, how can we get it done?

The answer: creativity.

The Times mentions several instances of ingenuity: land trusts, reduction of minimum size of lots and businesses banding together to do things like arranging bus service for their employees.

I was at the Oct. 17 presentation by Prosperity’s Front Door: How Homes Build Strong Communities, based on the recently released report of the Governor's Task Force on Housing and sponsored by CentraCare Health and United Way of Central Minnesota. This was the occasion that provided the background for the Times' Our View.

The Times Editorial Board gets it right, but there is more.

Most striking to me is the identification of housing as infrastructure.

We all know about roads and bridges and sewer lines, and how they’re in desperate shape and how politicians bemoan this and resolutely fail to do anything about it. We also know that the cost to the public of this failure exceeds the cost of fixing it.

Housing doesn’t have the same immediate public status as the more familiar components of infrastructure, but it has similar public consequence, including the saving of money if it is in adequate working order. The whole community is better off when there’s affordable housing, just as when potholes don’t misalign cars and bridges don’t fall down and sewer lines don’t produce sinkholes.

I was also struck by the proposals that go beyond — or get beneath — the polarizations that so bedevil us these days.

For conservatives, there’s reduction of regulations that needlessly increase production costs. For liberals, there’s government involvement as well as the private sector and philanthropy. And for entrepreneurs of whatever political persuasion, there’s investment in new building technologies and new financing methods.

The biggest barrier to getting anything done in housing, as in so much else, is the silo landscape. Silos are great for storing grain; they’re dreadful as a model for public life.

Congress, state legislatures, county commissioners, city councils, chambers of commerce, unions, builders, real estate agents — all have their proper role to play, but only in the interest of the common good. Getting them all singing the same song won’t happen, but can’t they at least use the same hymnal?

The creativity we need is recognition by all officials — all of us citizens, actually — of the fundamental truth memorably put by one who worked tirelessly to get us beyond silos, the late Sen. Paul Wellstone: “We all do better when we all do better.” Until we admit this, inertia (“this is how we’ve always done it”) will stymie the best efforts to change things.

Just four days before the Prosperity’s Front Door presentation, I saw the play “Sweat” at the St. Cloud Public Library. The Public Theater Mobile Unit National put it on. They bring theater to us.

The play is about the disintegration of a community when a major employer closes. It’s like Electrolux, except it isn’t. In the play, the workers come one day to the plant and discover they don’t have jobs anymore. At least Electrolux gave notice a year or more in advance.

But “Sweat” shows, in powerful words and actions, how everything — jobs, housing, fraying relations between family members and friends, and, for sure, politics — is tied to everything else.

The play at the library and the presentation at CentraCare were of a piece. Attention must be paid to all dimensions of our common life. The “common good” deserves more than lip service.