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Editorial: Let’s make affordable housing a ND legacy

Fargo and surrounding communities have an impressive track record in fighting floods. Severe  floods are dramatic. They threaten catastrophe and arouse a united fight to hold back the river. But many of the stubborn issues this community faces are more like a drought: slow in materializing, difficult to address, diffuse in their causes. The problem of providing affordable housing for young working families is more like a drought than a flood. The issue came up in the recent Fargo City Commission election; unfortunately, the candidates who expressed concerns about affordable housing failed to win seats.

But the issue isn’t going away. It comes up often in discussions about the gentrification of housing in downtown Fargo, most recently following a meeting in which Kilbourne Group gave a few conceptual details about plans for a townhouse development on the block that for years was home to Sahr’s Sudden Service. Kilbourne representatives said neighbors want redevelopment of the block to help maintain enrollments at nearby Horace Mann Elementary School. In order to do that, residents said, it’s important for the new housing to be affordable. Kilbourne Group representatives said the price of the project’s units is yet to be determined, but explained that redeveloping property in the city’s core is more expensive than building new housing on the city’s fringe.

Kilbourne Group, which has a reputation for building upscale projects, is obviously under no obligation to make building affordable housing a priority. It’s a private company. But it’s a private company with a public-minded mission: “Vibrant downtowns create smart, healthy cities.” If Kilbourne Group is truly interested in working with the neighborhood of Block 37, which includes the site of the former Sahr’s Sudden Service, it should seriously consider making affordability one of its priorities for the project. Truly vibrant downtowns, after all, are populated by a diverse assortment of people, including up-and-comers who are in need of moderately priced housing options. One thing’s for certain: Kilbourne Group would earn a lot of community goodwill if it put its considerable talents, in partnership with others, to work on building housing that families can afford.

But, as we’ve said, solving the multifaceted affordable housing problem is no easy feat, and no single enterprise or organization can tackle it alone. Some form of public-private partnership is needed to provide affordable housing, including incentives to defray the cost. In the past we’ve advocated using the North Dakota Legacy Fund to provide low-cost loans for infrastructure projects and student loans. Another worthy use of the oil-revenue fund, which now tops $5 billion and has earned more than $1 billion, would be to augment programs to subsidize  affordable housing. The problem of affordable housing is not unique. But there’s no reason that our response can’t be. As for the candidates who raised this issue, and like-minded advocates: Keep this important issue before our elected officials. Maybe one day we’ll be able to make it rain.

Editorials represent the views of Forum management and the Editorial Board.

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