The cost of a home: Searching for affordable housing in Minneapolis

Aaron McLaurin has searched for affordable housing for three years.

Aaron McLaurin hopes three jobs will be enough to rent his own place.

McLaurin, 20, said he’s looked for housing “everywhere” in Minneapolis for three years, using a couple of apps to check criteria for credit scores, income thresholds and deposits. His main holdup is income requirements to earn twice or three times the cost of rent.

So he’s working mornings, second shifts and night shifts as a personal care assistant, park employee and downtown security guard while also playing semi-pro football with the St. Paul Pioneers.

“I should be making enough now to do what I need to do,” he said. “… I hope so.”

Currently living at Rita’s House in East Isles, he’s taking the same approach to housing that he does to jobs: If he gets five job interviews at once, he takes them all.

“If they call me back and say you got the house or apartment, I’m going right in,” he said. “My mama always told me don’t be picky about what you get.”

Affordable housing is at the top of the agenda in Minneapolis. Any delay would be “too damn late,” according to Mayor Jacob Frey, who dedicated $40 million to affordable housing in his proposed 2019 budget, more than triple the level of past city investment.

Affordable housing is an easier pitch than in years past. Lydia House was picketed 15 years ago and challenged in court, but the supportive housing complex is now poised to double in size with the blessing of the Stevens Square Community Organization. The North Loop Neighborhood Association is supporting Great River Landing, an apartment project for single men that comes with a job the day they leave jail.

Involved in both projects is Lee Blons, executive director of Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative. She said the public is more empathetic today about the need for affordable housing, and non-profit housing developers have a proven track record.

What still isn’t understood, Blons said, is the scope of the problem.

Tip of the iceberg

For 100,000 Twin Cities households who are paying more than half their incomes on rent, all it takes is a car repair or an illness to put housing at risk, Blons said.

The Metropolitan Council estimated a need for 52,000 new affordable units in the Twin Cities region between 2011 and 2020, and as of December 2017, about 7,000 affordable units were added. The Met Council says the region is also losing affordable housing as rents rise in the tight apartment market and affordable properties age out of their subsidies and opt to become market-rate.

The issue became more visible last summer through an encampment of people in tents near Franklin & Hiawatha.

Photo by Chris Juhn
Photo by Chris Juhn

“Just about everybody will ask, ‘What happened? Why? Why did the camp spring up?’” said Patina Park, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center. “This is a fraction of the … homeless in the city. You can see them, and that upsets people.”

Francis Took at the Minneapolis homeless encampment on Sep 27, 2018. Photo by Chris Juhn
Francis Tock at the encampment on Sept. 27. Photo by Chris Juhn

“When people are saying the encampment is just the tip of the iceberg, it’s not just a theoretical number,” Blons said.

The Office to End Homelessness reports there are currently 1,421 single adults and 51 families seeking housing help through the county’s Coordinated Entry System. Director David Hewitt said people with the lowest incomes, 30 percent of the area median income or less, face a shortage of more than 32,000 affordable units.

George Pixie (left) and Joaz Pixie (right) pose for the camera with their son at the encampment on Sept. 27, 2018. Photo by Chris Juhn
George and Joaz Pixie pose for the camera with their son at the encampment on Sept. 27, 2018. Photo by Chris Juhn

Screened out

James Calhoun is thankful to be out of the Harbor Light shelter downtown, where his cell phone was snatched from the pillow under his head. Now he is sleeping at churches and getting assistance from Families Moving Forward while he searches for a home for himself, his daughter Brittany, 15, and daughter Ashley, who at age 17 is fighting leukemia. They were evicted from a St. Paul apartment in March after health issues set them back.

SWJ Housing-7
Photo by Chris Juhn

Calhoun said he had a good week. He found a job at an auto center in Uptown, and a good boss who gives him leave to take Ashley to the hospital. But he’s tired of repeatedly paying $40–$50 housing application fees only to find he doesn’t have the right credit score or will need to pay a double damage deposit due to the prior eviction.

“Do you know how hard it is for a single dad to find any housing to keep this family together? There is none. There is nothing out there,” said Calhoun. “… There has to be more help out there.”

James Calhoun and his daughters have assistance from Families Moving Forward, a program of Beacon. Photo by Chris Juhn
James Calhoun and his daughters at Families Moving Forward, a program of Beacon. Photo by Chris Juhn

While the county has seen a 40 percent reduction in family homelessness, it’s taking twice as long to get families housed because of the affordable housing shortage, said Gail Dorfman, executive director of St. Stephen’s Human Services. She said the poorest of the poor, people making 30 percent of the area median income or less, are often screened out of affordable housing projects due to factors like prior evictions and criminal histories.

The demand for urban living in Minneapolis has driven up housing prices faster than wages for many, according to the city, but it doesn’t feel that way for everyone. Since 2000, white and Asian households have seen increases in median income, while black and American Indian households have seen declines of about 40 percent.

City staff points to historic factors to help explain a 36 percentage point gap between white homeowners and homeowners of color.

Following the Great Depression, federal underwriting manuals aimed to reduce financial risk of backing mortgages near densely populated areas where people of color lived. Some properties included explicit racial covenants to prevent people of color from buying property, and those areas are still predominantly white today, according to the city. Staff said the covenants were in place from 1910 to 1968, when more than half of the city’s housing stock was built.

The time to act

Housing advocates say now is the time to invest in affordable housing, before costs rise to the point where public officials decide it’s too expensive.

Twenty years ago, cities like Seattle, Portland, Denver and Minneapolis all had similar home values, according to Jeff Washburne, executive director of the City of Lakes Community Land Trust. Today, while Minneapolis’ median home value is $250,000, it’s jumped to nearly $700,000 in Seattle and close to $400,000 in Portland and Denver.

“We don’t have oceans and we don’t have mountains, but it’s not hard to believe that home values are going to continue to go up and more and more folks are not going to be able to withstand the pressure, whether rental or ownership,” he said.

Washburne told Northside residents at a July community meeting that he brought a “message of urgency.”

“I … have this huge concern that five or 10 years from now, North Minneapolis, not only economically but racially and culturally, is going to feel very, very different,” he said.

The Land Trust interviewed nearly 1,000 African Americans in North Minneapolis about five years ago. Seventy percent said they wanted to buy a home on the North side, while about 60 percent earned less than $24,000 a year.

“When a significant portion of the community does not have that property control, they’re left vulnerable to market forces,” said Gretchen Nicholls, program officer for the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a national organization that aims to bring economic opportunity to residents.

She said she’s hoping for a cooperative housing solution at the 3100 block of 22nd Avenue South, where a landlord lost a rental license and tenants said they were asked to leave by the end of September.

At a protest Sept. 30, one resident of 23 years said he lived in the neighborhood back when there wasn’t a gym and there wasn’t a light-rail train.

“We are this neighborhood. We belong here and we plan to stay here,” he said.

Protest 5

Jose Cruz has lived for 10 years at his 22nd Avenue apartment.

“That’s my house,” he said. “… I’m trying to look for a different place, but it’s too expensive right now.”

A woman who declined to share her name at the 22nd Avenue protest said she will look for a new home with better heat for her child.
A woman who declined to share her name at a 22nd Avenue protest said she will look for a new home with better heat for her child.

One Bancroft homeowner at the protest said she’s worried about gentrification where she lives near 38th & Chicago.

“Lower-income people like ourselves have a harder time living there,” she said.

One of her neighbors learned their apartment building had been sold and they had a month to leave. She watched another neighbor go through divorce, become financially strained and enter foreclosure; a buyer flipped the house and sold it for a high price, she said.

More than 500 apartment properties changed hands in Minneapolis from 2000 to 2017, with a spike last year, according to the Minnesota Housing Partnership. Nearly 20 percent of those sales were concentrated in Uptown and Whittier. Sales tend to correspond with higher rent increases, according to the agency.

A path to homeownership

Some groups see affordable homeownership as another solution. The Kingfield neighborhood recently allocated funds to help the City of Lakes Community Land Trust rehab a house at 210 W. 46th St. The land trust will retain ownership of the land and sell the house separately to a new homeowner.

That’s how dance and pilates instructor Jessica Cressey purchased her home on Blaisdell. With the help of the land trust, she bought her house about 10 years ago for $147,000. Houses around her have started selling for more than $370,000, but she knows her house will remain permanently affordable as part of the land trust, even if she decides to sell. Now she’s aiming to open a studio out of her home early next year.

“I don’t think it’s any coincidence that my business has grown and become more successful in the 10 years I’ve been a homeowner,” she said.

Johannah Bomster also purchased a home through the land trust in 2006, as a single mom raising two young children and performing freelance editing work. Now she receives letters from real estate agents suggesting that she sell the hot property.

“You’re going to have to pry my cold, dead hands from the doorknob,” she said.

James Calhoun meets with staff at the county’s Coordinated Entry System in October, the first step in a process to get help with housing. He did find a nice house for sale while walking with his daughters near the chain of lakes. They checked the price: $2.4 million.

SWJ Housing-1“Someday, honey,” he said to his daughter.

“No day,” Brittany said in response.

Although hundreds seek housing help, Calhoun is optimistic their family will receive priority in line.

“We try to keep the jokes going through all this,” he said. “You got to stay positive, that’s the biggest thing. Just stay positive. Keep moving.”

Photo by Chris Juhn