Fond memories of my childhood in Nairobi include the endless hours of play outdoors in my family compound and wandering with friends. When returning home from school, I always looked forward to turning around the last bend before the driveway of our house became visible. It represented a place of comfort, safety, stability, and consistency. Housing is an important issue to me. Having a safe place to call home is the key to stabilizing one’s life.
After immigrating to Minnesota, I began working as a housing organizer in North Minneapolis — more than 17 years ago now. It was the peak of the foreclosure crisis, which had an especially devastating effect on the Black community that will take generations to repair.
As a person of color, I am acutely aware that I am predisposed to facing housing inequities, due to the way systems are structured. People of color are more likely to be denied a conventional home mortgage — or given higher interest mortgages — compared to white home buyers. The narrative about who belongs where, and who does not, and who is worth investing in, and who is not, is a big driver in housing issues.
As a young college student living in Brooklyn Park, I almost got displaced, along with other tenants, because the city had a narrative of how ‘dangerous’ that part of the community was. Their solution was to tear down the apartments that provided affordable housing as a means of reducing crime. There was no consideration for the people who were living in the apartments, neither did they ask us if we felt safe. It was an inaccurate narrative that proposed an ineffective solution.
Thankfully, housing advocates helped us fight to keep our housing. More than 10 years later, crime rates in that city are their lowest in over a decade, and the apartment communities are still there.
At the height of the foreclosure crisis, renters informed the housing advocacy organization I worked for that they were being evicted from homes — despite paying rent —because their landlords had gone into foreclosure. They were struggling to find new housing because of the eviction record.
We worked with renters in Minnesota to craft a bill to protect tenants’ rights in the midst of a foreclosure. The state of Minnesota was a pioneer in this kind of bill, which has been emulated by other states around the nation.
Changing the Narrative
The greatest frustration in housing advocacy is the lack of political will to make housing more accessible to everyone. It is a shame that we can fund sports stadiums, but debate how much money we should dedicate to ensuring that everyone has a place to live.
People need to have safe, secure, healthy, and affordable housing in order for our communities to succeed. In the U.S., we have left the housing market to ‘fix’ the problem, even though the market has demonstrated to us many times that it is incapable of doing so.
Housing impacts all areas of our lives. It determines where you will send your children to school and the quality of education that they will receive, what type of food you will find nearby, the quality of air that you breathe, what public transportation you have to get to a job, the amenities — like parks — that you can access.
We need to redefine housing as a basic and fundamental human right. We need to create the necessary public interventions and strategies that will ensure everyone has access to a healthy, safe, and stable home.
There is an increasing lack of affordable housing in the state, exacerbated by rising rents and low vacancy rates. This leads to overcrowding in substandard housing, along with displacement and homelessness. These desperate situations have created an atmosphere rampant with violations by landlords.
For example, Leah and her family have been living in a two-bedroom apartment for almost three years. When they were looking — with little time to find a new place — they found most rents were out of reach for them and had large deposit requirements. Her college-going daughter sleeps on the couch, unable to share a bedroom with her teenage brother. Their apartment is in disrepair, but they put up with it because they don’t have other options.
Aja and her young family live with a leaking toilet. Food spoils because the refrigerator breaks down. The carpet in the building hallway stinks and is black from years of dirt. Her apartment has roaches and rats and has not been fumigated. In the winter, the unit gets very cold, requiring her to pay for supplemental electric heat.
Having hot water in Neisha’s apartment used to be a hit and miss situation. “I can’t take a cold bath in Minnesota in the winter!” she exclaimed. As housing advocates, we worked with Neisha for six months to get repairs done. Eventually she became a resident leader who helped to advocate for the repair of her community at the city level. As a result, the apartment owner came up with an agreement with the city to fix units, but the fight had been hard for more than three years. The inconsistency of living conditions took a huge toll on her personal life and goals. She was lucky she had the means to be able to move to stable housing in another city.
Women and Housing
Housing is an important issue for Minnesota women in particular. Numbers of female-headed households keeps growing in our state, yet those who own a home have declined in the past 10 years.
According to Minnesota Compass, a majority of female-headed households that rent are spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent alone.
According to a 2017 HUD report, homelessness in Minnesota increased by 4.5 percent compared to other communities that saw a decline or no change. A 2015 Minnesota Homeless Study determined that more than half of Minnesota’s homeless population are women and children.
While redevelopment in traditionally distressed communities is a good idea, we need to be intentional to ensure it benefits the people currently living there. The rapid redevelopment of the urban core of our major cities is continually pushing low-wealth communities to outer ring suburbs — where they face lack of reliable public transportation critical to employment.
Women also are disproportionately impacted by domestic violence, which is a common cause of homelessness. The 2015 study found that 35 percent of Minnesota homeless women are without housing because they are escaping domestic abuse. Many of them subsequently are physically or sexually assaulted. A high percentage of adults in an abusive relationship stay because they have nowhere else to live.
I saw Neisha at a rally recently and learned she is working towards completing her teacher’s license. “My new apartment is peaceful, and I don’t have to worry about what is going to go wrong,” she stated. “I know what to expect, and I don’t have to argue with anyone to fix anything.”
Everyone should have Neisha’s ability to expect better housing.