In February, KMOJ and Twin Cities PBS partnered to present “Housing First: A Community Conversation,” a free event held at the Cora McCorvey Health & Wellness Center in Minneapolis.

Speaking to the sold-out crowd, KMOJ General Manager Freddie Bell shared, “This event is happening because KMOJ staff and volunteers wanted to think about what we could do to help our community with the challenges of the current housing landscape.” In the months leading up to the event, KMOJ staff and volunteers brainstormed key issues around affordable housing and tenant rights that they wanted to help listeners better understand.

Freddie Bell, General Manager KMOJ
Freddie Bell, General Manager KMOJ

Panelists were selected for their expertise on those specific themes: Joey Dobson, Staff Attorney, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid; Jeremiah Ellison, Minneapolis City Council Member Ward 5; Dr. Brittany Lewis, Researcher at Center for Urban and Regional Affairs; and Tracey Scott, Interim Executive Director of Minneapolis Public Housing Authority.

The event was live-streamed and will be featured in an upcoming KMOJ documentary series.

Zannie Kaye, Program Director at KMOJ
Zannie Kaye, Program Director at KMOJ

“We’re all here together to work toward figuring out how to make housing safer, more affordable and accessible,” said Zannie Kaye, Program Director at KMOJ and the event’s cohost.

The robust discussion around the challenges faced by low-income renters led to 10 key insights about affordable housing issues in Minneapolis.

1. We have a major shortage of affordable housing in Minneapolis.

There are many reasons that explain why Minneapolis lacks affordable housing and is currently grappling with the tightest housing market since the Great Depression. Travel anywhere in the city, and it’s impossible not to notice the number of multi-unit housing projects in the works – but the majority of these developments do not include affordable options. Along the way, many once-affordable options are being converted into market-rate apartments, shutting out the tenants who once called those spaces home. In addition, prior to COVID-19, a labor shortage substantially raised the cost of development, and taxes have also been on the rise (how the pandemic will impact the construction labor market has yet to be determined).

Federal policy has also played a major role in shaping the current landscape. Since the Reagan era, federal funding for affordable housing has eroded, leaving states, counties and cities scrambling to find funding to create affordable housing, and many are coming up with creative solutions to solve this problem.

“At the local level, we play in a federal government arena. But that doesn’t give us permission to not be creative,” said Minneapolis city council member Jeremiah Ellison.

The city of Minneapolis has leaned into investments in affordable housing and subsidizing private developers to build that housing. “There still is not enough, but it’s more than we’ve seen in recent years,” Ellison added.

Panel of four people
Jeremiah Ellison, Joey Dobson, Dr. Brittany Lewis, Tracey Scott

2. MN has the largest racial disparities in the nation.

Why does Minnesota suffer from some of the worst racial disparities in the nation? In the Twin Cities, a history of racist, restrictive real estate covenants in the early 20th Century has spawned the disparities we see in housing and education for people of color, Black and White people today.

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The history of racist housing covenants ripples in the present-day affordable housing crisis: By limiting opportunities for home ownership, people of color were stripped of one key way to build equity over time. Discover more in “Mapping the Roots of Housing Disparities in Minneapolis.”

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“In the history of racial covenants, you see a strategic manufacturing of space and community. This is not a surprise. The history endures. And I think our cities who want equitable framework are trying to create policies that address this 100+ year history,” Dr. Lewis shared. “We’re trying to undo strategic exploitation and discrimination.”

Dr. Lewis was featured in the TPT documentary Jim Crow of the North, which offers a glimpse into structural racism in real estate in Minneapolis.

In Ellison’s opinion, there’s only one solution: “I look at the long list of policies and I think, ‘It’s not enough.’ Realistically, the only policy that has a real shot of undoing inequities is reparations. We need serious conversations about reparations or we’re dancing around the issue.”

3. Housing discrimination is pervasive in Minneapolis.

Joey Dobson is a Housing Policy Attorney with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid in Minneapolis, working on tenant protection and eviction reform at the city, county and state levels.

“One of the biggest pieces of legislation in our history is The Fair Housing Act. It makes it illegal for landlords to discriminate against tenants on the basis of race, religion, familial status and other things. [Discrimination] still happens every day,” she shared. “We don’t want to believe this is a place where this is happening, so we don’t talk about this a lot. We all know that is not the case.”

Dobson and other lawyers at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid represent tenants in those cases, and she suggests reaching out for help if this is happening to you.

4. Tenants have rights to quality housing.

“With vacancies so low and rent so high, many tenants feel stuck renting from a landlord who doesn’t keep the place in a healthy and safe condition that they legally are obligated to do. But the way that the market is, it’s hard to enforce that,” Dobson said. “Tenants can feel that they are in a place where they feel intimidated by landlords, can’t get to court for a hearing and may feel afraid.”

In Minnesota, the tenant has an obligation to pay rent, and the landlord has an obligation to keep the place up. If this isn’t happening, tenants may file a case against the landlord.

Yet, there is a fear of speaking up because these complaints may show up in a public record. “So, some landlords look to see if tenants speak up and may not rent to them. This is happening now because of the tight housing market,” Dobson explained.

She also noted that the court will waive fees for low-income tenants and that multilingual support is available.

Men listening at an event

5. Housing is more complex than a roof over your head.

“It’s never really about the house, the door or the roof. The house is the structure. It’s what’s happening with the family, personally, economically, politically, etcetera, that makes maintaining the house and our housing choice a challenge,” Dr. Lewis shared.

In response, an audience member spoke up and said, “There is no affordable housing. Dr Lewis, you speak to me. You speak to my soul. You speak to my heart because housing is necessary. But there’s more to it than that. There’s a wholeness and wellness that needs to be addressed. I need resources, I need help. My entire being is crying out, ‘How can you all help me?'”

The panelists highlighted that there is much work to be done in helping people overcome barriers to asking for help. They need to know how to ask and who to ask.

“Applying for Hennepin County Emergency Assistance… it was such a dehumanizing process, that despite homelessness, addiction or other issues that plague questions of housing instability, asking for help was the most dehumanizing part of that process and that should never be the case, Dr. Lewis said. “It doesn’t feel good to ask for help. Especially if you feel less than human when you ask for it.”

Dobson added, “We’re talking about people here, and their lives. Health, wealth, income, jobs, school. It just so happens, a roof over your head is crucial to doing all of those things.”

Man sitting at a table at an event

6. In Minnesota, we have a warp-speed eviction process.

“We are in an eviction crisis right now, coupled with a market where there are really low vacancies and rents out the roof,” Dobson said.

Minnesota is tied in having the third-fastest eviction process in country. “If you’ve ever been through the eviction process, it’s inhumane. It’s so fast,” Dobson explained.

She added, “We like to think we’re nice people here in Minnesota. But, we have a warp-speed eviction process. From the minute a case is filed to when you’re out on the street, it is eight days.”

She says that a lot of things at the policy level need to change: “We just need to slow the train down for a minute and make sure we get it right when we’re talking about the roof over someone’s head. We need to make sure the law is followed, court rules are followed, and give due process to make sure we reach a true result and that we reach a fair and humane result.”

“There is no other bill that, if you’re one day late on paying a bill, it has such a devastating impact on your life. If you’re one day late a dollar short- you can get a case filed against you and it may make or keep you homeless,” she added.

And that eviction record will stay on your record. “In other places, some evictions are confidential until there’s a result, until there’s justice. But this is just not how we do justice here in Minnesota,” she says, adding that almost all tenants in eviction cases are people of color, particularly Black people.

If you are facing eviction, you have a few options, including calling Legal Aid and simply showing up at court – lawyers are there every day. This is really important – evictions are simple, but there are rights people don’t know about – and the process unfolds very quickly.

7. Community members are experts when it comes to designing housing policies.

Through her research on gentrification and evictions, Dr. Lewis gained important insight: “The folks most impacted by housing instability are experts and need to be treated that way and engaged that way.”

“It’s about building reciprocal relationships with intention to move research conversation to policy action, and it takes time and care,” she added.

“I believe deeply that community has the answers to our policy questions, but we’re just not asking them. They’re usually talking policy solutions, but they don’t know it. And they are not engaged in a way that invites them to share their stories and feel respected as experts.”

Woman interviewing woman
Laurie Stern interviewing Freedom From the Streets members for a KMOJ audio series

8. Housing stability is a predictor of future success and progress.

“Forty percent of the individuals that we serve are children,” said Tracey Scott, Interim Executive Director of Minneapolis Public Housing Authority. “When we look at housing first and where we go from here, we also need to break the cycle of poverty as much as we can, because housing stability is such a predictor of future success and progress.”

Scott emphasized the importance of collaborative projects like “Stable Homes Stable Schools.” “The initiative helps families who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless to stabilize so their kids can stay in school – so they know they have a place to go home to and focus on learning and growth.”

The project is a collaboration of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, the City of Minneapolis, and private funders like the YMCA and the Pohlad Family Foundation. She explains that the concept is not just about housing, but how to help families thrive, and what is needed to move the needle forward.

Is the affordable housing landscape getting better? Scott thinks it’s at risk. “We need more housing. So, no. It’s not getting better.”

Event with panelists
Housing First: A Community Conversation Feb. 4, 2020

9. Tenant protections are giving people second chances.

As people become more aware and more knowledgeable about their rights, city councils are taking more steps to protect tenants.

Council member Ellison is leading efforts such as the Renters First Policy, a set of renter protections, increased funding for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, as well as participating in a nationwide Anti-Displacement Network.

Ellison is proud of policies like the Tenant Protection Policy, which creates a limited look-back period for records. If someone has an eviction on their record, bad credit or has committed a felony, they could be denied housing. “This policy means that being denied housing is not a life sentence for you.”

Another policy that is making change is the Tenet Remedies Action (TRA). “When you revoke a license, you punish the landlord, but the tenant is hurt and could end up out of the street,” Ellison explains. This policy allows the city to take the rental business, not the property, and hand it over to someone who will run the business part time if the landlord has been negligible.

He added, “After this policy, we saw an increase from five to 30 TRA’s. That’s 30 cases – potentially 100’s of people – that would have, before, been out on the street because of condemned buildings or revoked licenses. This policy keeps them housed.”

Two men posing for a photo
Jeremiah Ellison poses for a photo

10. There are different ways to take action to change policy.

“Research has to be actionable – it can’t just sit on a shelf,” Dr. Lewis said. “It can’t just be for the privileged minds and for a few in the Ivory Tower. We need to actually do something with it.”

“In order to take equity to action you have to have community engagement, research and frameworks to help support whatever policy shift is going to happen. And unfortunately, usually, our communities are not in the room developing those policy frameworks that shift those narratives,” she added.

In addition, Lewis explained that we have work to do as citizens in activating, speaking up and compelling those we elected on our behalf to do the right thing as we understand it.

She also emphasized the power in sharing stories. Speaking to an audience member who spoke of their housing struggles, she said, “I want to honor the fact that you’re here and you’re sharing your story. Because if you don’t share? They will erase your story. I use these stories to push people in positions of power to do things differently.”

Woman and man shake hands

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This story is part of the collection, Under One Roof: Stories on Minnesota’s Housing Crisis, which is funded by a grant from the Pohlad Family Foundation.

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On the East Side of Saint Paul, a group of housing justice advocates, along with homeowners, landlords and displaced tenants, gathered to address affordable housing issues in their community – and to dream up a plan for a different future. 

Can tiny homes help to curb Minnesota’s issues with homelessness? One local organization is experimenting with the small homes, an effort that has proved successful in other parts of the country. And one local church is working up plans to house homeless veterans on its property.

Like tiny homes, manufactured (or mobile) homes offer another solution to ease the shortage of affordable housing in Minnesota – but stigmas abound, despite the equitable route to home ownership that they can provide.