It’s time to commit to affordable housing

Tom had been living in his car for three years. Before that, he spent five years camping out in the Minnesota cold. With a felony from 30 years ago, his time spent in jail and out of work, he struggled to find a place that he could afford.

Stories like Tom’s are what bring housing and tenants’ rights advocates and non-profit community developers to the Make Homes Happen coalition.

MHH is a grassroots coalition of organizations mobilizing for the production and preservation of affordable housing and protection of tenants’ rights in Minneapolis through education, advocacy and public policy reform. Our coalition was formed over three years, and in 2017 we organized a series of candidate forums throughout the city to address the affordable housing crisis.

As housing advocates, we know that stable and affordable homes are the foundation of vibrant, thriving communities. We envision a city in which all residents can afford their homes and have meaningful choices in where they live.

Ethrophic Burnett, equity and engagement manager at Urban Homeworks, is one of the advocates who have been working with the MHH coalition. Burnett said she “advocates for affordable housing because that is the housing that I grew up in.

“Affordable housing is more than a want, it’s a basic human need.”

Urban Homeworks is a Minneapolis based non-profit developer using equitable housing as a platform to build community and one of the 20-plus and growing organizations involved with Make Homes Happen.

The reality is that affordability is slipping away from Minneapolis. One of out five residents is a cost-burdened renter, and average monthly rent has risen 31 percent since 2012.

Although affordable units are being added to the market, it’s simply not enough. Between 2000 and 2014, the city is estimated to have lost 11,500 affordable units. Production of affordable housing needs to at least triple just to keep up with annual population growth.

Ensuring that all areas are neighborhoods of choice and opportunity with a range of housing types and affordability across the full housing continuum will require various investments and tools from the city and its community partners. Affordable housing investments helped Tom find a place to call home with Alliance Housing when he was locked out of other options because of a tight rental market and stringent screening procedures.

These investments also helped Abdul, his wife Asli and their six children move from Minneapolis public housing to purchase their own home. Abdul’s family worked with PRG, Inc., an affordable housing nonprofit, and said that they actually save money and have more control over their finances as homeowners.

“We believe in America for dreams. We’ve got big dreams, like this house now,” Abdul shared. “I try to help other people, friends, family to get a house like me.”

In addition to developing new units and preserving already existing affordable housing, we need to protect renters’ rights. Implementing increased accountability for unlawful rental practices will create more dignified living conditions for tenants.

Erickson Saye is renter in Minneapolis who plans on attending law school at University of St. Thomas in the fall. As a college student living in rental housing, he’s witnessed injustices happening in the private rental market in Minneapolis and has been a strong voice advocating for change.

“It’s been eye-opening to see how marginalized communities are being taken advantage of by landlords,” Erickson said. “I’ve talked to so many renters who say they don’t have heat and have to use blankets to stay warm. Renters with roaches and mice have asked their landlord for help and have been told to just get a cat.

“These are people who pay their rent on time and have lived in their buildings for years.  It’s sad to see the community I love being treated like this.”

We know how to improve the affordable housing crisis: We need to produce more affordable units, we need to preserve existing affordable housing units and we need stronger tenant protections for the renters that live in the private rental market.  Minneapolis needs more affordable homes, in part because there are not enough homes.

But to address our affordable housing needs we have to do more than simply increase density. If we are eliminating zoning constraints, we need mechanisms ensuring access for households of color and additional financial resources to develop affordable units at the scale necessary to meet demand.

Across the country, cities like Washington, D.C., Nashville and Denver have taken bold steps towards affordable housing solutions, and as a progressive city, Minneapolis should be leading this effort.

Make Homes Happens proposes the city commit $50 million annually, for ten years, in new, local, dedicated revenue to produce and preserve affordable rental and ownership housing.

Currently, the city’s primary program dedicated to building affordable housing is the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. When the Affordable Housing Trust Fund was created in 2003, city leaders established a $10 million annual funding goal. It has historically been susceptible to frequent changes each year by the City Council and mayor because it lacks local, dedicated revenue sources.

Fluctuating state and federal resources for affordable housing also underscore the need to ensure a consistent increase in local funding and transparent processes in the use of funds.

Make Homes Happen proposes these investments would be made with input from a community advisory committee that includes residents from low-wealth communities, communities of color and other stakeholders. As Ethrophic said, “Decisions should no longer be made about us without us.”

This is not an easy ask to make. We need the support of our community.

Affordable housing doesn’t just benefit the people who live in units built by non-profit organizations. Affordable housing benefits every member of our community. It is critical infrastructure for the entire city, and we need your help to make sure it is a priority for the City Council and mayor.

Learn more and join us at our coalition kickoff 4:30 p.m.–6:30 p.m. April 30 at The Hook and Ladder Theater & Lounge.
This column was written with the support of the Make Homes Happen coalition.