Jacob Frey, the new mayor who wants more affordable housing – Minneapolis / St. Paul Business JournalJanuary 22, 2018
If you’re a downtown worker or resident, there’s a decent chance you’ve seen Jacob Frey, in a suit, walking, biking or running from meeting to meeting.
As Frey moves from the City Council to the mayor’s office, he’s required to hire a police officer as his body guard. As he screens candidates, he’s looking for someone who can keep up with him, which won’t be an easy task considering Frey is a former competitive marathon runner.
If his first week was any indication, Frey will be a busy mayor. He held two listening sessions broadcast on Facebook, rode on the back of a garbage truck and zipped across town to attend St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter’s swearing-in ceremony.
He took some time during his transition to mayor in late December to speak with the Business Journal. This has been edited for length and clarity.
Affordable housing is a huge issue in Minneapolis. What do you want to do in year one to tackle the affordable housing problem?
If I had to select one issue most important to me, both personally and in terms of the administration, it’s affordable housing. This is my passion. It’s a large reason I got into politics to begin with and continues to be a personal mission.
We have a crisis right now. The number of affordable units we’ve lost in the last 10 years exceeds 10,000 and it’s not like things were rosy 10 or 15 years ago.
We need subsidized housing throughout the city. We have a long history of concentrating affordable, Section 8 and low-income housing in one or two areas of the city, mainly North Minneapolis. I believe affordable housing should be throughout. You should be able to live in a neighborhood of your choosing.
Minneapolis is one of the most segregated cities in the entire country, racially and socio-economically. There is good reason to want diverse neighborhoods in every sense of the word. It encourages entrepreneurship when you have thousands of ideas and mentalities and backgrounds at the table.
How do you go about getting affordable housing into every neighborhood?
There are reasons why affordable housing has been predominantly concentrated in North Minneapolis and the East Phillips area. It’s cheaper per unit to locate it in a less expensive neighborhood. The land is cheaper.
The larger reason is there is less political pushback in those neighborhoods. But simply having a lack of political pushback does not make something a good policy decision. Another aspect is ensuring we have enough subsidy to bridge that gap between market rate an affordable rate.
One thing developers say is that there isn’t enough federal and state money for affordable housing. So should the city step up?
Yes, it has to be a partnership. Low-income tax credits and community development block grants from the federal government are important, but there’s a risk of losing some of it. We do get funding from the state and I think we need to be lobbying for more. This is a crisis and it needs to be dealt with swiftly.
I believe Minneapolis, hopefully working with surrounding jurisdictions — Hennepin County, Ramsey County, Edina, Brooklyn Park, Bloomington — is going to have to step up and put our money where our mouth is. If we really do care about affordable housing and we really do want to live amongst people who don’t look like ourselves and are from differing backgrounds, we need to provide subsidy. I have my ideas of what could work, but I am open to others.
I talked extensively during the campaign of using some form of a value-capture model where you take a percentage of the tax revenue generated from certain parcels. You pool it and say it’s for affordable housing.
Where do you stand on business subsidies? If there’s an opportunity in the next four years, where there’s a big employer looking to relocate, would you consider offering a subsidy package to come here?
As a general rule, no. I don’t like corporate subsidy, period. The state of Minnesota does have mechanisms through DEED to incentivize employers to remain and relocate to Minneapolis or Minnesota.
I do believe Minneapolis sells itself in many respects and a big part of the mayor’s job is to positively sell the city. So I will be going on recruiting trips if there are entities looking at where to go or move, whether that’s a small pizza joint or Amazon. This is part of what my job is.
There’s a perception — real or not — that downtown is not safe. How are you going to combat the real safety issues, but also the perception it’s not safe?
There has been a significant increase in violent crime and shootings over the last several years. It’s a statistic. A fact. We have an issue in portions of downtown, especially in an 8-block radius on Hennepin Avenue and First Avenue, between Washington Avenue and Ninth Street. It’s concentrated around Hennepin and Fifth, It’s a issue that needs to be recognized and acknowledged. You’re not going to have a world-class city without a world-class downtown, and you won’t have a world-class downtown unless it’s safe and people feel that way. Right now we’re a ways off. We will be doing some work there.
That will obviously be part of it. It’s not my budget until next year. A year from now, my budget will start to get implemented. I still think there are some changes we can make before then.
You’re good friends with Brent Webb, an M.A. Mortenson developer. I understand he was the best man in your wedding. Mortenson is going to be bidding on city contracts and responding to RFPs. How do you make sure you are being fair to construction companies and developers?
I had a best woman, my sister. But Brent was in my wedding. Good friend. I was friends with Brent before my political career and before I even knew he was a developer.
The companies he worked for have both been selected and denied. At 800 Washington, Mortenson won the bid, but Brent was working for Sherman Associates at the time. For 205 Park he was working for Mortenson and Sherman won.
Brent has a ton of integrity and he would be pissed off at me if I chose Mortenson for any other reason than it was the best project. Mayors throughout history have had close relationships with business. The nature of Minneapolis activism, business and community organization is tight knit and if you don’t have close relationships with people that are involved in all of them, you are probably not going to be a very good mayor.
Ae you going to meet with the big business leaders in downtown, like Target CEO Brian Cornell and Ben Fowke of Xcel Energy? Are you going to talk to them on a regular basis?
Yeah, we have a meeting already scheduled in the next couple weeks. I’m not sure who all is going to be there, but it’s that crew. I think it’s important to have liaisons from small businesses, large entities and workers.
Is the Nicollet-Central streetcar idea dead?
Good question. It could potentially be dead. Five years ago I was a proponent of the streetcar, not because of the transportation value. It’s a glorified bus. But I was in favor of it because of the economic development it could trigger along those corridors. The concept of investing $250 million and getting $1.4 billion in investment in return is a good thing.
There are portions of the corridor further in Northeast that would benefit. However, downtown is developing and there is tons of growth, and East Hennepin is developing at an extraordinary rate, so are the North Loop and Uptown. There are areas that would benefit from economic development and there are areas where it is already happening. If the streetcar doesn’t go substantially up Central to capture the unused parcels, what is the point? Right now, the plans don’t have it going up very far. My stance is it ain’t worth it.
Mayor of Minneapolis
Family: Wife, Sarah Clarke
Education: College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., with a degree in government; law degree from Villanova University