Overview: Affordable Housing

In the tapestry of a society, critical threads are that every member has a place to call home, access to sufficient food, opportunities for education and work, strong relationships, and good health. You pull any of those threads too tightly, and there is a snag. You get several snags and the entire fabric buckles. In the following pages, we go deeper with two of the issues that are impacting the health of community: affordable housing and mental health. We look at how those threads are snagged, and hear from women who are part of the solutions.

In December 2017, the Governor’s Task Force on Housing was announced, charged with recommending policies and practices to meet the housing needs throughout the state. According to the governor’s office, the number of Minnesota households struggling to afford quality housing has increased 58 percent since the year 2000, to more than 554,000 households. 

Many of the issues of cost, safety and housing stability impact female-headed households in metro areas, but Minnesota’s towns and rural areas also have housing problems.

Minnesota Housing Partnership produced a “State of the State’s Housing” report, published in March 2017, which is the source of the data in this story. 

The report revealed:

• One out of every four families pays more than they can afford for housing.

• More than 9,300 Minnesotans faced homelessness in 2015, including 3,500 children.

Half of the voting members of the Governor’s task force are women. Mary Tingerthal, Commissioner of the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, says its mission is to “increase our understanding of the state’s housing supply and deliver strategies to preserve existing affordable homes and create the new housing needed.” 

Fatima Moore

Snag #1: Wages & Housing Prices

Wages haven’t kept pace with housing prices nationally since the 1970s. In Minnesota, between 2000 and 2015, the median renter’s wage decreased by 11 percent while the gross rent went up by 9 percent.

According to Fatima Moore, director of public policy for the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, “The local housing climate is bleak. Minnesotans are feeling the stress of our strained housing market. If we do not make strategic investments along the housing continuum, more families will continue to be cost-burdened, and unable to secure financial stability for the foreseeable future. When people have safe and affordable places to live, they tend to spend more of their personal income on healthcare, education, and their family’s needs. Therefore, communities do better due to the increase in finances and social capital.”

Moore notes that, since the 1940s, race and class have played an important role in housing policies. Neighborhoods have been redlined — refused loans because they live in a high financial risk area. “Property values have decreased, and communities with large populations of residents of color have been under-resourced,” she says. “Additionally, families are currently spending [a larger percentage of income] on housing than they have in the past and are cost-burdened due to the lack of available affordable rents.”

We know where we live impacts everything. Children learn, workers earn, seniors thrive, and communities prosper. Yet today, entire families have been displaced. Kids are unable to focus in school because of housing insecurities. Jobs are lost. Health care goes unattended.

Moore sees a three-pronged solution – view housing as an integral part of achieving and maintaining stability for Minnesotans by:

1) Creating new affordable housing and preserving current affordable housing stock,

2) Funding supportive social programs,

3) Involving those with direct experience in designing solutions.

She is working with Homes for All on a $150-million legislative agenda that would provide for 4,650 households across Minnesota.

Corina Serrano

Snag #2: Non-Affordable Housing

Even “affordable housing” costs tend to have a disproportionate impact on many Minnesota residents, especially women and seniors. Non- affordable housing is defined as spending more than 30 percent of total income on housing, which leads to cutbacks in food, transportation, and health care expenses.

Corina Serrano has worked in support of affordable housing for more than a decade as a resident and volunteer in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul. She says Minnesota’s housing crisis is not unique. “It’s a nationwide trend that doesn’t seem to be getting better,” she says. “There has been an influx of luxury apartments, which increases prices for apartments that were already unaffordable to many.”

Since landlords have their choice of tenants, she says, they can use extreme screening that tends to disqualify the most vulnerable. It is easy to become homeless. “In Minnesota, a homeowner can go months without making a mortgage payment, a renter can only be a few days late.”

Serrano says many who struggle to find affordable housing are female-headed households, and often women of color. “When you are the sole breadwinner it makes it difficult to find housing, especially in a market where available units are rented the same day they are listed.” As a result, people often settle for undesirable housing, with long-term effects on family stability and safety.

Snag #3: Transportation & Housing

Saundra Massey-Vickers is a social worker who finds that many of her clients’ issues come down to housing. “Sometimes the client would present with issues of transportation, but after digging I would find the issue was housing,” she says. Women seeking to leave unsafe home environments have difficulty finding something affordable near work. Young people without livable wages cannot pay rents near school.

Immigrants are especially hurt. Many are afraid to say anything. One woman told me she had roaches and rats in her home, near her baby.

Ho Nguyen

Snag #4: Housing & Safety

Ho Nguyen is the Housing and Economic Justice Program Manager at Minnesota Coalition of Battered Women. She says nationally there are about 10.4 million people who need affordable housing, and there are about 3.2 million units available.

Locally, “affordable housing is becoming obsolete. Those who are disproportionately affected by this are people of color, specifically women, immigrants, LGBTQ-plus,” she says. “Housing instability leads to other issues. In my work, we see that housing stability is the one of the top reasons women stay in abusive relationships, because they have nowhere else to go.”

She also knows of sexual assault cases, where landlords are not willing to change the locks to protect victims, or are themselves perpetrators. Often domestic abuse affects a woman’s ability to maintain a job. “It just cycles people into poverty,” Nguyen says, adding that 92 percent of homeless women have experienced severe sexual or domestic assault in their lifetime.

“All the policies around affordable housing are bandaids,” Nguyen says.

Housing Needs Statewide

As the public policy director of the Metropolitan Consortium Community Developers — a statewide coalition that works on homelessness services — Rose Teng sees housing at a crisis level in the state. While the challenges are great, she says, “I’m optimistic that we can find public policy solutions, as people are deeply concerned and want to see change.”

The needs in each area of the state require different solutions.

• According to the Minnesota Housing Partnership report, for example, Greater Minnesota needs to grow its economy, but is limited by adequate housing for employees, partially due to aging housing stock.

• In the Northland, renters are only able to afford a range of $466-649 each month, yet the market rent for a two-bedroom home in St. Louis County is $755. High-demand jobs in those areas are registered nurses, personal care aides, nursing assistants, food preparation and service workers, and retail salespeople. Most of their wages, the report indicated, do not allow for affordable rents.

• In the Southern region of the state, near Winona and Faribault, the senior population is rising, yet most senior renters already are paying more than they can afford on housing.

• In St. Cloud and rural areas around Rochester, wage stagnation has made it increasingly difficult to afford the cost of housing.

• In the Twin Cities, homelessness has gone down, but 35 percent of the 6,200 homeless in 2015 were children.

The solutions Teng sees are investment based: build more affordable housing, preserve every unit of housing we do have, and implement city policies to protect tenants and support renters. “That is about valuing our communities and our housing infrastructure,” she says.

[Society needs to] change the idea of housing as a privilege and not a right, because no one in society can be a productive member without housing.

Solutions: Q&A with Acooa Ellis

Acooa Ellis is the director of social justice advocacy for Catholic Charities, and co-chair of the new Governor’s Task Force for Housing. Her Catholic Charities team educates policymakers about the resources needed to providing housing and supportive services to Minnesota’s vulnerable residents, and works with Homes For All, a statewide coalition of housing advocates. She has a master’s degree in public policy with a community economic development concentration from the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Q: What might the new Governor’s Task Force for Housing focus on?

Minnesota has a rich legacy of civic innovation — housing is no exception. Task Force recommendations will build on what is currently working in different parts of our state and borrow best practices from across the country. Our ultimate focus will be to arrive at a set of solutions where there is consensus. Each work group is in the process of identifying four to six topics to begin exploring more deeply. My focus as task force co-chair is to support work group co-chairs in this exploration, as well as ensure ongoing ways for the public to stay informed and weigh in meaningfully.

Q: Do you have “gold star” community projects to suggest as an example of solutions to emulate?

Minnesota has many projects that address the unique needs that we can emulate. One example: our Catholic Charities’ Dorothy Day Place project, which includes emergency shelter and permanent housing, coupled with integrated services that help people move up and out of homelessness. We are in the process of completing the second phase of this project. It represents good policy; an experience and evidence-based service delivery model that supports the whole individual, as well as people from all sectors and political backgrounds investing in the common good.