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VIDEO: In Defense of Apartments

Mayor Gene Maxwell’s comments at the State of the City are a reminder that apartments can be an opportunity, not just a challenge.

Apartments often get a bad rap in Hopkins, but Mayor Gene Maxwell is fighting back against that perception.

While apartments have long been seen as a problem to solve, Maxwell told residents at last week’s State of the City that apartments are here to stay—and that they can even be a part of smart development.

“You have people have saying, ‘We have too many apartments,’” Maxwell said. “Well, gentlemen, ladies, we’re not going to be able to build single-family homes. We don’t have any room for them. … The only thing we can do is build quality apartments.”

There’s no denying that Hopkins is in a unique situation when it comes to apartments and other rental units. The community’s 39 percent homeownership rate is among the lowest in the metro—22 percentage points less than St. Louis Park, 32 points less than the Twin Cities’ average and 36 points less than Minnetonka, according to the Metropolitan Council.

Many of those who do own their own homes live in other multi-family buildings. Single-family homes make up less than a third of the city’s housing stock—well under the Twin Cities’ average of 59 percent.

The shortage of single-family homes is so acute that the City Council has historically opposed demolishing homes if new ones won’t be built in their place.

Advocates for increased homeownership cite numerous benefits homes have for the community as a whole, such as increased community involvement and neighborhood stabilization (although the validity of those beliefs are far from settled).

But there’s also no denying some darker undertones in the fretting over Hopkins’ large percentage of rental units.

During a discussion last year about a proposed extended-hours day care center near the Interlachen neighborhood, residents complained about putting such a business so close to a residential zone. When the owner noted that there was already a day care in the middle of nearby Westside Village apartments, one of the Interlachen homeowners brushed aside the point.

“But that’s a rental apartment. We are property owners,” she said.

“I know it’s rental, but people still live there,” answered the day care owner.

Such comments suggest a separate class of citizen—hearkening back to the early days of the United States, when only people who owned land or sufficient wealth for taxation had a right to vote.

It also ignores the real good that apartments and other rental units can do. Rentals helped Hopkins weather the housing bubble’s burst. As other communities faced mass foreclosures, Hopkins’ apartment buildings had a 3 percent vacancy rate.

Apartments can also make a community resilient in less direct ways. An apartment complex is a much bigger purchase than is buying a home, so it's not as prone to the speculative flipping that inflated home prices during the middle 2000s.

Apartments also take some of the tax burden off homeowners by paying a higher share of taxes. Market-rate apartments pay a 1.25 percent class rate compared to 1 percent for the first $500,000 of a single-family home.

And as Maxwell is fond of arguing, the new apartment complexes going up downtown will dramatically increase the number of people in the area, which should lead to a healthier, more-vibrant Mainstreet.

But we shouldn’t embrace apartment complexes and their residents for purely pragmatic reasons. We should embrace them because we’re Hopkins, because we’re the 13th friendliest city in the country, at least according to Forbes. Renters in Westside Village or Dow Towers or Ramsgate are our neighbors every bit as much as long-timers in the Avenues. 

“We also have to look at just how we treat everybody, in general,” Maxwell said. “If we treat everybody … (like) they want to live here, they’re going to come back here, they’re going to want to stay here.”

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