A recent counterpoint (“Real estate giveaways need more scrutiny,” March 31) assailed the decision to subsidize a large multifamily housing development at 200 Central Avenue in Minneapolis, using the tool of tax-increment financing (known as TIF). The author painted an admittedly (if it were true) damning picture of city officials who just give away millions of tax dollars to greedy developers, all because both parties are lured by gleaming new buildings like crows attracted to shiny objects. He contends that Minneapolis will develop just fine without public intervention, as it did for a century before anyone thought of taxincrement financing.

If I didn’t know better, I would agree. But I do know better. I worked as a public finance attorney and community development planner for several decades and was intimately involved in scores of projects financed in part with this tool. And, I went to the city’s website and read the TIF plan for the 200 Central project. Here is what I learned: This TIF district is what’s called a “housing district,” whose purpose is to promote affordable housing. One way a district merits this status is for at least 20% of the units to be available to persons with no more than 50% of the areawide median income. This project meets that test — 79 of the 359 units will be so restricted. Plus, another 108 units (or 30%) will be restricted to those with no more than 80% of median income. The other half of the units will be market-rate. (There will be a small amount of retail space at street level — less than 1% of the total square footage.) The result? A mixed-income development, where people who can afford an apartment at a desirable location in downtown Minneapolis live side by side with people who couldn’t possibly afford such housing unless the rent is steeply reduced. This, I think, is far preferable to the old practice of lumping affordable housing into single buildings and neighborhoods. So, to me, this is something the city should be encouraging.

To the TIF critic, it’s laughable that this “desirable address with gorgeous riverfront views” would sit vacant for decades, so the city couldn’t possibly conclude that the proposed development wouldn’t happen anyway (which is the legal standard the city must meet). But this criticism misunderstands the law and the facts of housing development.

The question is not whether this desirable site might sit vacant without TIF — it’s whether this multiuse, mixed-income housing development would occur at this site without TIF.

And the answer to that question is clearly no. The economics of housing construction are heartless and daunting; you just can’t build a building that will be affordable to people with lower incomes unless the costs are subsidized somehow. Usually, it takes subsidy from several levels of government to make them happen at all. And while I will never accuse private developers of being in the vanguard of social justice, nor do I believe they are devious scalawags when they argue that they can’t build a project that meets the city’s housing goals without financial help.

So, the critic’s real argument is that gorgeous sites like 200 Central Avenue should just be left to the private marketplace no matter what. Developers will build what they please, and we’ll all get lots of tax money. What about the lower-income people who might have lived there? Well, they can just go where the market will provide affordable housing. (Spoiler alert: It ain’t gonna be a “desirable address.”) And what if the market does not produce enough affordable housing, anywhere, even at undesirable addresses? (Spoiler alert: This is true.) Well, I guess that’s not our problem.

In my mind, the TIF critic just takes an easy, uninformed shot without bothering to look at the underlying problem and the goals of this project.

Is TIF the best way to help provide affordable housing? Probably not — we could have a good debate about how all levels of government should address this urgent social crisis. But just throwing mud at the one tool we have right now is unwarranted and misleading.

Stephen Bubul, of Minneapolis, is a retired public finance and municipal attorney.