VIEW: Heartbroken, Yet Hopeful, About Housing for All Minnesotans

I am heart-broken and disappointed about what did not pass in the Minnesota legislature this session. Many individuals and organizations worked hard and long; in such good faith about increasing affordable housing stock, protections for Minnesotans in danger of losing their homes, removing the threat of long-term repercussions from lead poisoning for hundreds of children, and wraparound human services to finally help so many get the support they need to heal from trauma.

I remain hopeful that somehow true supportive resources will be available to lift more Minnesotans out of poverty in this “surplus” year for prioritizing values in our state budget.

Can we claim to have a surplus when it is based on needs remaining unmet? This is an opportunity to stop scarcity mindset — and deciding who deserves support and who does not — from impeding us. A spirit of abundance and values of compassion are needed now.

The Homes for All agenda was carefully created, vetted, and prioritized by leaders and members of more than 270 organizations. To think that Minnesota can thrive if we are not steadying the ground under the feet of our neighbors who are most in need is flawed. I serve on the MICAH and Housing Justice boards. Freedom From the Streets has done tremendous work this year to try to educate legislators on these needs. Yet we cannot solve these issues without adequate funding.

Next, it will be up to voters to support legislators who understand how these issues impact all of us.

The Emergency Services Program (ESP) has proven effective. Its program empowers communities statewide to find creative, flexible solutions to address local homelessness. ESP programming is a stepping stone to a new beginning for so many people who have struggled through no fault of their own. 

Not that these are endemic to homelessness, but when people with funds have issues in their mental or chemical health, they can pay someone to care for them and give them the grace of time and support that they may need. Someone with low wealth cannot. Society falls back on the false idea that poor people have simply made poor choices. Yet no one chooses which zip code they are born into, or their family. No one wants to have a life of troubles.

A new ‘preventing homelessness’ committee member asked a panel of ten people to reflect on when they could have made a choice differently to avoid homelessness. That was his idea of prevention.

In 2020, 350 Minnesotans died outside. Every year there is a national vigil with local marches to memorial services where hand-held signs commemorate the names of those we have lost, with their age of death. Some who have died outside are babies.

Background & Solutions

This year there were five housing meetings every week in the Minnesota legislature. The House housing and finance committee met twice a week. The Minnesota Senate commission to prevent homelessness met once a week. That demonstrates that we have prioritized Homes For All. Yet, in the end, so little was funded compared to what was needed. Why?

The problem is clear: Minnesota needs 300,000 new affordable units to be produced between 2020 and 2030, according to Governor Dayton’s 2018 task force. Supply is badly lacking. It has been made clear that in order to grow and be competitive, we need to create more available places to live throughout the state. The building of new supply has been sorely inadequate over the last three decades. Until a few years ago, thousands of people were paying rent under $850. Now those units are renting out for more than $1,500 for a one bedroom. A family of four cannot raise two children, often with two parents working two jobs, with 600 square feet to live in — but that is what we have been asking far too many people to do.

Families are living in their cars, or bouncing from relative to relative. Public schools are trying to keep track of these students. Some people become homeless because someone died, or had high medical bills, or a car could not be replaced. Some left a violent home. If you do not know someone with insecure housing, then you do not understand how easy it can be to become homeless.

I lived in the same school district from kindergarten through 12th grade. I walked to school every day with the same friends all 12 years. When my family needed more space, I personally, at 12 years of age, found a mission home for my parents to buy that had four bedrooms and two stairwells. It was the most fun to live there with five kids and run around that neighborhood. There were no daycare centers.  A mother in the neighborhood could take another family’s toddler on their sofa for a nap. We ate lunch at each other’s places and walked home from school to do that in the middle of the day. It was a wonderful childhood. 

Because I was displaced by development in Richfield, twice, I now understand the insecurity of housing and what it does. Currently I live in rural Minnesota in a smaller, older home. It is 30 miles to a grocery store.

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

There is much work to do and I want more of us to get engaged in solving our housing crisis. At this point, it is cheaper to own your own home than to rent — because rents have escalated so far out of control. In Minneapolis, the citizens voted that the city council can look into rent stabilization. In Saint Paul, nationwide attention has been paid to an ordinance passed in the recent election that controls rent increases to 3 percent per year per unit. If someone leaves an apartment, the owner cannot simply jack up the price between tenants. Developers stoked fear that we would stop having new places to live, yet we continue to have high-end urban dwellings go up with rents at 60 to 120 percent of the area median income. That is not affordable housing, but receives tax breaks going three decades forward. Many of our working poor make $20,000 a year.

People on fixed low incomes can receive as little as $10,000 a year from social security. If you have only one-third monthly income to spend on rent, that is $3,333 per year. Where do you live on that?

Beacon Interfaith estimates it would cost our state $2 billion dollars per year for an income-based universal voucher system. If we were to drop Section 8 housing and pay the difference, that is the cost of offering a replacement plan that is, as Beacon Interfaith puts it, “a solution as big as the problem.”

Frankly, to craft the solutions, we need more women running for office, more young people running for office, and more renters who know what it is really like out here in the Minnesota that includes all of us. We need folks with lived experience of homelessness telling their stories.

What Blocks Us?

Some dismiss people who have struggled as unimportant and not worth investing in. That is not what a humane society does. Listening to people who have struggled, and helping them help themselves become in turn supportive members of our community, is faithful and patriotic democracy in action.

We need decision makers at every committee table who have lived through experiences that we can solve through smart investments, otherwise we will continue to underfund programs that could do so much good. 

I have heard some legislators say that we waste our money and are not accountable with some of these programs — and that is simply not true. It puts fear into the budget process instead of love, faith, and sanctity for life. We save lives with shelter. The only thing that ends homelessness is homes. What other solutions do people suggest for providing shelter to people in crisis — people with limited incomes from disability or mental illness, people who have lost jobs or left abusive situations? Emergency spending of $300 million dollars in rental assistance is but a post-pandemic base to keep people from being or becoming homeless right now. HOMEline reports that 100 evictions a day are being filed right now. That is up 70 percent.

To work with others, to stabilize, to get the supports needed, to complete treatment and training, to play our roles in a functioning society — it all starts with housing as the foundation to everything we are capable of being. Without it, we will continue to devolve and public safety will continue to fray even further.

Our poor people do not look like most traditional legislators. People who are suffering so greatly tend to be invisible to the predominately elected white men who have money and who have not yet learned how to talk with people who are not like themselves.

Until people with limited incomes are included in housing as an ultimate design, people of color and newcomers, and those with disabilities, and those in unsafe situations, will continue to be in unsustainable situations. To house all our Minnesotans requires $2 billion every year. What alternatives do we suggest for these human beings who have been brought into a world that does not otherwise provide the support they need? That includes babies, young families, seniors like myself who adopted a child impacted by fetal alcohol syndrome; people who have not been lucky during the pandemic; those who are recovering from addictions, mental health challenges, or even chronic and persistent homelessness; and individuals who have suffered trauma.

What I Believe

This is the time for Minnesota to set a standard for care and be a model for co-creating solutions that solve for the entire continuum of conception to end of life. Let us set up a functional way of serving everyone — learning and growing from our mistakes — so that other states can look up to us. The Minnesota I know that models humane solutions is the Minnesota I want to be proudly part of again. 

Universal income-based state housing vouchers, at a cost of $2 billion per year, might seem like a lot — but it is what is needed in order to give Minnesota the big tent solution, the foundation, it needs to thrive. Right now, we are not thriving.

What so many people do not seem to understand, still, is that we are not our circumstances. Homelessness need only be a moment in time. The questions too often asked by legislators is where funding for decades is going, rather than asking who it has helped and how. Our affordable housing stock is so limited that there is nowhere for too many people to go.

Action = Change

If you have a larger home with several spare bedrooms, call the YMCA, Lutheran Social Services, or Catholic Charities. If you would like to help someone who is getting back on their feet after crisis, and you have the character to provide watchful waiting, non-intrusive conversation, and motivational support, then let’s get you involved. Perhaps you can foster a mother and child who are getting reunited after being separated. When licensed, I had five such “whole family foster care” placements. All of my clients  were returned to each other without relinquishing parental rights, except for one — my adopted son who was medically fragile.

With the lack of adequate funding at the state level, we have to think outside the box. Would you open your home? What if your church congregation formed block clubs and opened their homes together with guidance and support for the work? I am not saying I have the answers either — but we all should be thinking of the solutions we can create with our neighbors.

On June 17 in Washington, D.C., there will be an all-night vigil on the Capitol Mall to demonstrate, through the Bring America Home Now campaign, that we do need homes for all Americans. My college professor for urban studies, Paul Wellstone, believed that we can solve for these dilemmas if we work together and is famous for saying, “We all do better when we all do better.”