As the legislative session draws to a close, the (unfortunate) omnibus process brings people to the table who are starting to talk about issues they have not paid attention to before. Although many lawmakers were not in the committee rooms when things were originally discussed, written, and approved — they are now making public speeches about certain issues in order to be re-elected. Frankly, I am a bit giddy to hear some of their wild assurances.
For example, legislators who have not been engaged before now are talking about reforming the foster care system, improving access to affordable housing, and restoring the environment. Many of those legislators have not actually been at the table, and did not do the research.
It is the people who work at the grassroots level in those fields that know which elected officials truly care, and which are now giving their novel and colorful lip service. We know who deserves to be re-elected because of their commitments, and who is simply taking up space.
We are losing three major champions this year: Rep. Rena Moran, Rep. Alice Hausman, and Sen. Patricia Torres Ray. (See the Minnesota Women’s Press interview with them here.)
If you have been following my columns, you know the extent of the housing advocacy work I have been involved with since I was displaced — along with more than 2,300 other people — when developers Soderberg and Greer renovated and flipped the older complexes built by ‘Harv and Marv’ in the 1960s. When investors came in to buy our diverse Crossroads and Normandale apartments in Richfield and Bloomington, the homes that once served low-income residents were lost.
These days, I participate in public housing tenant conversations every first Monday evening. I learn about how children impacted by fetal alcohol syndrome — such as my adoptive son — are at high risk to disappear, become homeless, and die early. I learn about hempcrete, which is a replacement for concrete that lasts longer and is more pleasant to live with than cement; hemp is a healthier material as insulation and foundation. It breathes.
It can be hard to navigate how to create more environmentally friendly homes while we also need tens of thousands of additional housing units. We are extractors of natural resources and being paid back with floods and fires and droughts.
Those of us who live in the extremely low-income bracket need universal housing vouchers. These were mentioned at the legislature this season, but no one seemed to understand it well enough to take the need for it seriously. It would benefit every Minnesotan who qualifies for a subsidy because of reduced income, such as from low wages, disabilities or retirement. There are so many solutions that we all should be talking about.
Do you know what SRO stands for? It is single room occupancy — a larger, older home where people share kitchen and laundry and washrooms, and each person has their own lockable private room. There also are dormitory-style housing units for the young and first-time renter who might bike to work downtown, paying off college loans with no down payment for a home in the foreseeable future. SRO solutions are now being licensed in cities more broadly and resemble communes. There are micro-apartments in hotels.
Many folks need supportive housing with wraparound services (see the story about Solace). We also see Tiny Villages growing in number, and shelter modules in warehouses (see the story about Avivo). Churches are creating sacred ground where tiny homes for veterans or people who are chronically and persistently homeless can come together in an intentional community. We hope to see mobile home lots developed as co-operatives in which better roads, community buildings and financial stability are more plentiful, complete with clean running water.
My pessimistic stance: Nothing is happening fast, and people who make $30,000 a year or less are not yet in discussions about solutions to any effective impact.
My optimistic stance: We are creating multiple solutions that need more policy and investment to eventually house us all. We can co-create communities with campfires and gardens, with pets and grandkids. There are individually designed pole sheds, tent cities, wigwams, and Quonset huts that could be sanctioned and serve as encampments with amenities, such as shower rooms and removal of refuse. Church communities could deliver food. There could be a donation space on the premises of a nearby faith community where coats, boots, and clothes are sorted seasonally.
I myself am considering becoming an itinerant traveling elder in a Winnebago — a house on wheels.
In short, there are multiple potential solutions. We just need more people engaged in helping mindfully and cooperatively to make them happen.