Instead of busing, moving

A new program finds poor families housing near their schools

This year, if Kim Carson’s elementary school children — Marc and Steve — are running late, it doesn’t mean they’ll miss a full day of school. School is no longer several miles away; instead, they can walk two and half blocks to Armatage Community School, 2501 W. 56th St.

The Carson family is literally close to education because of a public-private program to move poor kids and families — including Marc and Steve — closer to their school.

The program, "It’s All About the Kids," finds homes for families who qualify for subsidized housing, but its goal isn’t to create more affordable housing — it’s to boost student achievement by improving school attendance.

In the program’s first full school year, 47 kids such as Kim Carson’s have been moved through a unique partnership between the school district, the City of Minneapolis, the Minneapolis Public Housing Agency, Lutheran Social Services the Family Housing Fund and private landlords.

Carson said housing has made it difficult for her kids to get to their elementary school. Carson is studying to become a nursing assistant, and her husband makes a modest income at a bone marrow transplant facility. With three children, they qualify for subsidies, but haven’t been able to find places where the rent is low enough to meet rates determined by the Federal Housing Authority.

"Even looking is expensive because you have to pay an application fee, and they don’t return it if you don’t get the apartment," said Carson.

Last year, the closest housing the family could find was in the Stevens Square neighborhood near downtown, while their two boys went to school at Armatage in the city’s southwest corner. The boys often weren’t at school because they missed the bus.

This year, they live a stone’s throw from Armatage Community School and the boy’s attendance has been much better. "They love the school and their teachers. They love to play in the playground," said Carson.

She’s even attended more school events, something she never did before, including a recent parent-teacher conference.

De-concentrating poverty Principal Wendy Weimer of Kenny

Community School, 5720 Emerson Ave. S., says housing is a huge problem for schools as well as families.

Poor children who live far away often have problems finding easy transportation, and don’t have "Yesterday three boys told me that they missed the bus and a neighbor who saw them outside drove them over to school. That stopped them from going back home and watching television all day instead of going to school," said Weimer.

Involving kids and making them feel comfortable helps school attendance, she said. When a nearby student calls to say they’ve missed the bus, Weimer drives over and picks them up herself.

The program also de-concentrates poverty. Poor families who live in high-poverty areas can move to low-poverty Southwest neighborhoods such as Armatage where their kids attend school.

This year Minneapolis Public Schools unveiled a tough new attendance policy, requiring students to be in class at least 95 percent of the time, or fail and have to repeat the class. While critics call the policy too harsh, school officials say they can’t teach kids who don’t show up to class.

Finding landlords The "It’s All About the Kids" program ties the social problems of the affordable housing crisis to poor academic performance. And doing so, it allows organizations with differing goals to partner.

The programs uses federal housing vouchers funded by the Hollman settlement, designed to deconcentrate poverty on the city’s north side. Family Housing Fund provided $25,000 for initial planning and $385,000 for operating support.

One of Mayor R.T. Rybak’s most prominent campaign goals was to increase affordable housing. With a city budget squeeze, he’s finding solutions difficult.

That’s why he’s excited about this partnership. "I’m now giving about 10 to 20 speeches a week, and whenever I get up in front of audiences I like to give them something very tangible to do," Rybak said. "I can tell everyone in the audience to go out and find [landlords] who have a two- to three-bedroom property that would take a Section 8 voucher. And in return, it would help kids in schools stay with their friends and their teachers for a full school year."

As compelling as the program’s concept is, for now, it is a drop in the bucket. School officials estimate that 20 percent of students are homeless or "highly mobile" — meaning there are as many as 10,000 kids who need stable housing close to schools. Forty-seven kids represents about one-half of 1 percent of the maximum need.

Since many families need affordable housing, success means finding landlords who will accept Section 8 tenants. That’s the job of Jane McLeod, Lutheran Social Services’ Housing Outreach Coordinator.

McLeod said it’s hard to find Southwest landlords because there aren’t many large apartment buildings in the area. [No landlords returned calls for this story.] Also, Section 8 vouchers — which pay the difference between market rent and one-third of the tenant’s income — have a social stigma attached to them. "There is a prejudice against anyone that is low income, that [poor people] are going to be trouble tenants," said McLeod. "But we’ve been able to work against that with all of the case management we offer."

In addition to the vouchers, participating landlords receive a $2,000 grant for repairs and home improvement, plus a $1,000 damage claim deposit. The program also provides mediation to head off disputes.

Though financial incentives exist, McLeod said most landlords want to help these families. "They have really big hearts. One owner with an extra room plans to renovate it into a play area and put a computer in there for the kids," said McLeod.

Program limits However, finding willing landlords with family-sized units in high-priced Southwest remains an uphill battle. The federal government’s definition of market-rate – the subsidy’s basis – is often below what landlords actually get, said McLeod. "I can negotiate if it’s a difference of $50, but I don’t even call when there’s a difference of $100 or more," said McLeod.

The market is softening, and McLeod has found units in Armatage and Kenny. However, she’s been shut out in Kenwood, where children in need attend Kenwood Community School, 2013 Penn Ave. S. Program officials may drop the school because rents are too high to negotiate.

Still, McLeod thinks the program will soon house more families, because landlords become enthusiastic.

"I’ve found owners really satisfied," she said. "They can see themselves or their families in the same situation the tenants find themselves in."the community support to help them make it to school.

How you can help Call Jane McLeod at 879-5341 if you or someone you know owns property in Southwest and is interested in participating in this program.