The Wedge wants to help renters in need

The neighborhood is exploring a novel use for neighborhood funding

Becky Dernbach, a renter who lives in The Wedge and serves on the neighborhood board, is searching for ways neighborhood funding can more directly benefit renters. Credit: Dylan Thomas

THE WEDGE — If the Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association figures out how to set up an emergency assistance fund for its large population of renters, it almost certainly won’t include a “broken-toilet clause.”

That phrase was a laugh line at a March meeting of the neighborhood board, and it illustrates one potential pitfall of providing direct assistance to apartment-dwellers in need. That hasn’t yet stopped LHENA from pursuing what may be a first in the 25-year history of the city’s neighborhood programs.

It became clear to the board that handing out loans or grants for renters to pay for apartment repairs — such as a blown compressor on a refrigerator or, yes, a broken toilet — probably was a bad idea. The so-called “broken-toilet clause” might end up subsidizing landlord neglect.

“We had a bunch of discussions, of course, about how we don’t want to take the onus away from the landlord for doing the things they’re supposed to do by statute,” Beth Harrington, chair of LHENA’s Neighborhood Revitalization Program Committee, said.

Instead, Harrington continued, the goal is to use the neighborhood’s resources to help keep renters in the homes and in the neighborhood when a financial emergency strikes. Instead of a loan program, the committee is leaning toward a plan to award small grants of about $200–$1,500, she said.

“What we’re thinking of is things like people losing their job, a medical emergency — some kind of life-changing event,” Harrington said.

There remained many details to be worked out in April, and it wasn’t yet clear whether LHENA’s proposal could pass a review by Neighborhood and Community Relations, the city department that took over work with neighborhood organizations after the end of the 20-year Neighborhood Revitalization Program, or NRP. But in the neighborhood better known as The Wedge, some want to claim for renters a bigger slice of the NRP funds served up to home- and business owners. 

Seeing the need
LHENA Board Member Becky Dernbach said the idea was first raised earlier this year, when the neighborhood organization began a reevaluation of its NRP-funded loan programs. LHENA’s plan for phase two of NRP, approved by the City Council in May 2008, included $235,000 for historic preservation loans, $145,000 for home improvement loans and $75,000 in a grant program for exterior improvements.

Seven years later, it was time readjust some of those programs to the neighborhood’s current priorities. During the review, Dernbach said she was struck by what an “extremely good deal” the neighborhood offered property owners; the historic preservation loans, for instance, required a one-to-one match from the property owner, but were also forgivable, and the home improvement loans were set below market rate.

“The neighborhood is 82 percent renters, and there’s a lot of need among renters for something like this,” Dernbach said.

Scott Hargarten, a renter who participates on LHENA committees, said some though the loan programs seemed very generous and that “we wanted to find a way to spread that out a little bit.”

“Some people did view it as a fairness issue,” Hargarten said.

While poverty rates are lower in the Wedge than the city as a whole, more than 18 percent of Wedge households report annual earnings that fall below federal poverty guidelines, according to the latest Census figures compiled by Minnesota Compass.

“There’s sort of a myth about Uptown that there aren’t low-income renters here, that it’s all fancy buildings on the Greenway,” Dernbach said.

She’s known neighbors in crisis, including a mother and son she often saw walking together to nearby Jefferson Community School. The family fell behind on rent for their Wedge apartment last year after one parent lost a job. They lost their apartment in September and ended up leaving the neighborhood just as the new school year got underway.

Dernbach said she ran into the mother several months later and learned that, after staying in hotels, they’d found a new place to live in Northeast. But she wondered if the neighborhood could have hung on to them.

“I don’t know what the magic number is,” she said. “I don’t know what would’ve helped.”

Hurdles ahead

It’s not that neighborhood organizations don’t spend their funds to benefit renters; some fund housing rights workshops and tenant organizing programs that help renters take on problem landlords, and loan programs for housing improvements are typically open to the owners of multi-unit dwellings. LHENA spends NRP dollars on street-lighting improvements, bicycle racks and parks projects that benefit all residents.

“It’s really hard to characterize what the neighborhoods are doing for renters just by looking at the housing programs,” Robert Thompson, the neighborhood support manager for the Neighborhood and Community Relations department, said.

But what LHENA is proposing is an entirely new type of aid of renters, at least in the history of the NRP program. Thompson said their proposal, which hadn’t yet been sent to his office for review, was “not something that we’ve really seen before.”

Nate Phelps of the Center for Energy and the Environment, the nonprofit that administers LHENA’s loan programs, said he believes in the idea but is concerned about safeguarding the neighborhood’s fund.

“I don’t know how you figure out who gets that money without it being taken advantage of,” Phelps said.

LHENA’s NRP Committee still has to wrestle with some very tough details, including setting up a process for reviewing claims. It has to be quick enough to actually help in an emergency.

“That really is the tricky part, is being clear about the eligibility so we don’t have to make a lot of judgment calls,” Harrington, the committee chair, said.