City says struggling homeowners need emergency grants

Volunteers and staff from Habitat for Humanity’s “Brush with Kindness” program repair and paint the exterior of a South Minneapolis home. The work was done in coordination with a Minneapolis program that helps homeowners unable to comply with city housing regulations. Image courtesy of Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity

A city program that helps low-income veterans, seniors and people with disabilities make necessary repairs to their homes is struggling to meet its clients’ most urgent needs and is turning to Minneapolis’ neighborhoods for support.

The Linden Hills Neighborhood Council (LHiNC) is considering giving $15,000 to a new emergency repair fund that will be overseen by the city’s Homeowner Navigation Program, administered by Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity and financed entirely by neighborhood associations. 

“This allows a person to stay in a home, preserve their asset, preserve their dignity,” LHiNC Board member Tom Harlan said. “It also improves the housing stock in the city.”

The Homeowner Navigation Program was launched in 2013 after city housing inspectors found that some residents receiving nuisance citations didn’t have the ability to fix their property.

“They don’t usually have the income or physical ability to make these repairs themselves,” said Rose Lindsay, manager of community engagement and grants for Minneapolis Regulatory Services. “It’s not just, ‘I’m ignoring the work because I’m ignoring it.’ It’s, ‘I don’t know how to do it.’”

Mike Robertson, a program manager at Habitat for Humanity, said the program is designed to prevent citations from snowballing into something worse.

“If they don’t address that citation, it becomes a condemnation and they’re going to a homeless shelter,” he said.

Instead of punishing a resident for their debris-filled lawn, their collapsing roof or their crumbling garage, the program temporarily suspends citation enforcement and sends a staff member to sit down with the homeowner and work out a plan to abate the citation.

“If it’s something as simple as the grass was too long and it needs to be mown, they might just ask a neighbor or boy scout troop to help out,” Lindsay said.

More often, however, the staffer will discover a larger problem and will work to connect the resident to a community-based organization that can help them repair their property or give a more personal form of aid. Partner organizations include Habitat for Humanity, Rebuilding Together and Hearts and Hammers.

“We help them fill out applications,” Lindsay said. “Copying out the paperwork and filling it in is really daunting.”

While the program centers on external repairs to homes, staff also try to address indoor safety issues, many of which they’ve found are related to hoarding disorder, which the American Psychiatric Association added to its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2013. Program staff, in collaboration with housing inspectors, focus on making sure “clutter homes” are safe for residents and first responders to walk through, Lindsay said.

Gap funding

The Homeowner Navigation Program has been growing. In the past two years, it has worked on 192 cases, including about two dozen in Southwest Minneapolis.

But in situations where homeowners need an immediate repair, the program’s model of helping clients apply for organizational help has at times been too slow and cumbersome.

Program staff spent months trying to find resources to fix the broken water heater in a home owned by “Ray,” a 65-year-old South Minneapolis man living on $1,100 a month in social security income. But by the time staff had arranged for repairs, Ray had been forced to sell his home and move into an assisted living facility.

“We tried everything,” Lindsay said. “He’s not where he wants to be.”

Frustrating cases like this one are why the Homeowner Navigation Program is starting a pilot fund that would give clients emergency grants of up to $3,000.

Robertson said the grants would go toward meeting “critical short-term needs” such as a broken furnace, a clogged sewer line or shattered storm windows.

“We’re looking for this pool of money to either address immediate needs or to help a project get pushed over the top,” he said.

Were gap funding available in Ray’s case, Lindsay said, “his story may have had a different ending.”

Neighborhood contributions

The Homeowner Navigation Program has few operating costs beyond the salaries of its two full-time “navigators.” The only item the program pays for directly is extra dumpsters for clutter homes.

The city is seeking to raise at least $50,000 to seed the pilot grant fund and is hoping to persuade neighborhood organizations to pay the bill. (The Sheridan Neighborhood Organization in Northeast has already committed $10,000.)

In 2017, the city unfroze about $6.9 million in Neighborhood Revitalization Program funds earmarked for housing initiatives. As the Neighborhoods 2020 framework inches through City Hall, some neighborhood organizations are looking to spend down money they worry they’ll lose in December 2020.

At an April 2 meeting, members of the Linden Hills Neighborhood Council spoke enthusiastically about a proposal to allocate $15,000 to the new grant fund, and to give the Homeowner Navigation Program an additional $10,000 for use exclusively in Linden Hills, which is home to four program clients. If the LHiNC votes to approve the allocations, the money would come out of the organization’s $125,000 affordable housing trust fund.

“Linden Hills gets a maybe deservedly so bad rap for promoting affordable housing, so this would be a great way to improve our reputation but also to help people who need housing,” Board member Jana Griffin said.