Waiting in line to get in line: the need for quality housing


Last week, the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA) opened its waiting list for Section 8 rent assistance vouchers for the first time in five years. The Bloomington Housing and Redevelopment Authority (BHRA) will re-open its waiting list at the end of June. The expected number of applications in Minneapolis alone is expected to exceed 15,000, an increase of 60% over the number of applications received in 2003.

Waiting lists for Section 8 vouchers, the most common form of federal rent assistance, can range from six months in Greater Minnesota to over five years in the Twin Cities. This means that a Minneapolis resident who has waited for five years to get on a waiting list that will wait an additional five years before the Section 8 vouchers are available.

The long lines for Section 8 Vouchers are only one facet of the huge mismatch between demand and supply for affordable housing in Minnesota. Public housing is another.

The Minnesota Housing Partnership (www.mhponline.org) released a report recently entitled “Investment at Risk: Public Housing in Minnesota” that exposes the dire state our public housing is in, from mold issues to constant underfunding. Ranging from multi-bedroom apartments to single-family homes, public housing is a valuable resource that provides a safe and affordable home for thousands of individuals and families. The report makes it clear: if we do not make the investments to keep this critical resource safe and structurally sound, these Minnesotans will go homeless.

Public housing is an essential part of our economy, reaching into every corner of the state. Quality housing is key to creating a solid workforce to help grow Minnesota’s economy.

Today’s public housing no longer resembles Chicago’s infamous 1960’s era Cabrini-Green projects. Rather, it is almost indistinguishable from its privately-owned neighbors. Nearly every county has public housing, serving over 36,000 Minnesotans. Over 65% of these are disabled and/or elderly, two demographic groups in the most need. For all of its residents, public housing provides an opportunity to create a stable household and become active community members.

At a time when low-income families are struggling to keep their homes or afford their rents, federal funding cuts for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) hit especially hard. HUD funds housing and voucher programs, but local housing authorities, such as the MPHA and BHRA, administer them.

Continued federal funding gaps leave local public housing authorities unable to provide proper security for their buildings, complete maintenance projects or make basic repairs. The current funding levels, both federal and state, do not even cover basic operating expenses as calculated by HUD. Within the last couple years, HUD’s level of support dropped from 100% of expenses after rent payments, to only 84%. The missing 16% has been managed in different ways, all of which are detrimental to the public housing system.

“Some municipalities are funneling levy dollars into stop-gap funding for public housing,” said Barb Jacobs of the Minnesota Housing Partnership. “More often, though, housing authorities are forced to choose between diverting dollars from other housing programs or to forego essential capital investments altogether, creating a lose-lose situation.”

St. Paul’s PHA has sold 32 units to raise operating revenue. Moorhead’s PHA Agency has demolished 46 units deemed too expensive to operate. Since 2002, 196 units have been removed from Minnesota’s public housing, with another 12 on the chopping block.

The state has begun tackling the issue of affordable housing, but it is too narrow in scope. Heading Home Minnesota, a joint venture between state government, non-profits, and the business community, is attempting to end chronic homelessness in Minnesota by 2010. Since its inception in 2003, Heading Home has built 1,600 units for the chronically homeless, but the public housing stock has actually diminished in that same time.

While it has an admirable goal, Heading Home focuses only on the chronically homeless, neglecting the thousands of struggling working-class, elderly, and disabled Minnesotans that also need affordable homes and are at risk of becoming homeless.

Although the state has normally played a small role in the realm of public housing, the consistent decrease in federal allocations has necessitated a larger role for the state in funding public housing. A handful of other states, including Washington, Florida, and Massachusetts, have successfully created dedicated-revenue housing funds to combat falling federal commitments.

Minnesota can follow their lead with the following policy changes: creating a permanent capital investment program with General Obligation bond monies and expanding the PARIF program. Both of these measures would ensure the sustainability and safety of Minnesota’s public housing.