Notes from a Tenant Advocate, Disruptor and Agitator

Lindalee Soderstrom is the at-large co-chair of the Homes for All Coalition.

Since 2015 I have been a housing advocate because I was forced to move when developers took over the places I had been living. Gentrification has a way of taking older buildings, and its residents, and deciding they are replaceable with younger models. There is very little built in Minnesota for the poor. In my case, my older building was sold off cheaply, slight improvements were made, and my rent moved up from $750 to $1000/month. That was not something I could afford. In other cases, with a month’s notice, I, myself and several hundred other long-term residents were forced to move so they could build something different and more expensive.

The week of January 31, our Minnesota legislative session opened up again — still divided. It seems that anything helpful to lower-income residents does not get much air time, if any, because of obstructions on the senate floor. The House Housing and Finance committee has begun twice weekly discussions, and a newer commission to prevent homelessness meets mid-week.

I am part of MICAH, which has hosted four of its six breakfasts with elected officials who come together with community members to pledge their support for laws and programs they will vote to fund.

On February 2, I was part of a legislative launch attended by 100 members, this time virtually instead of in the Capitol rotunda. In the past, this was the opportunity for renters to be informed of what our needs are — for more affordable rents, and respect as human families, not simply money-generating vehicles for landlords. 

This year housing advocates honored Reps. Aisha Gomez and Rodney Hamilton, as well as Sens. Lindsey Port and Carla Nelson as legislative champions. The Ain Dah Yung Center staff explained how Shelter Capitol is crucially needed to maintain emergency facilities. Other partners recognized for 2021 work included Home Line (free legal help for renters); affordable housing project Aurora Heights in Grand Rapids, supportive transitional housing Conifer in Bemidji — both managed by D.W. Jones; disability advocate The Arc; and home park organization All Parks Alliance for Change.

Most of these projects were developed through Minnesota state legislature approved bonding for construction.

Protecting Children

One specific bill that needs public support — because it has not passed through the divided legislature for years now — is the Lead Safe Homes bill. Each year, according to Sue Watlov Phillips, the president of MICAH and a founder of the National Coalition for the Homeless, 700 Minnesota children are permanently burdened by mental and developmental challenges because of lead chips and lead paint dust in the home. This leads to irreversible brain damage that costs not only that child’s greatest potential, but $100,000 in care per year for each child, never ending over their lifespan. This is a far greater price than what would be $2,000 toward a painting procedure this bill would like to ensure.

Renter Protections

Another program which is getting attention this session is to help renters catch up on back rent so they can stay in their homes. Federal assistance to the state helped many people during the pandemic, but with short notice the Covid-19 rescue plan money was announced to be out of funds. The program was stopped a few months before it was supposed to on June 1. The program ended January 28, impacting perhaps thousands of families who could now be facing eviction. This impacts children’s educations even further than the pandemic already has, and increases the numbers of people facing homelessness because of the lack of affordable housing options.

Displacing people during a complex pandemic does Minnesota no favors. Besides renters being assisted to stay in their homes, people who would benefit from this bill are the property owners — many of whom have received grants of $6,000 to $10,000 per unit during the pandemic.

A shelter task force is meeting monthly to try to understand the experiences of providers and residents.

Homelessness and Disability Protections

On February 7, a group called Freedom From the Streets met in an annual luncheon co-sponsored with MICAH focused on the intersection of homelessness, mental health, child protection issues, and incarceration. Freedom From the Streets meets Mondays in Minneapolis and Fridays in Saint Paul, creating dialogue with elected officials on policies and procedures related to encampments, shelters, resources, and solutions. 

State disability issues were discussed, as was racial equity to preserve the community of Black families and prevent the disproportional homelessness of Indigenous populations. Others spoke about the anti-displacement campaign related to the development of Blue Line transportation.

Tiny Homes Solution

Another solution being discussed is tiny homes of the Envision Project developing intentional communities. I encourage you to support slight changes in zoning that would allow tiny home villages to develop on church grounds. We refer to this as a “yes in my backyard” movement (YIMBY). This does not cost the state of Minnesota money.

In the early 1900s, we had single room occupancy hotels. These shared housing solutions offered kitchen, washrooms, and laundry in common spaces, with individual lockable rooms with a closet, heat source, and space for their belongings. This is similar to micro apartments set up in numerous hotels since the pandemic hit. Some of the American Rescue Plan money is being used to purchase hotel buildings to create stable spaces for supportive services while people come out of difficult situations. 

I will be back in a few weeks with more updates.

Editor’s Note: If you would like to become part of the Changemakers Alliance (CALL) network, a new spinoff of Minnesota Women’s Press focused on bringing stories to life with action steps, learn more here.

Action = Change

  • Please join me in contacting friends and neighbors who might be able to purchase mid-century rental properties for affordable rents in welcoming communities. If you have connections with construction companies, please encourage them to get involved in rehabilitating older buildings for which they might gain tax credits. Ask them to rent to people with lower incomes and keep those buildings and community members stable. 
  • One specific budget ask to the Housing and Finance Committee needs to be passed in the senate for the reinstatement of RentHelpMN — $300 million to re-open and fund renter safety until June.
  • We are off to the races, and there are so many ways you can get involved, such as contacting your elected officials to express support for housing priorities.