Beacon Interfaith Weighs In On Affordable Housing

It’s time for “Bring It Home, MN” rent subsidy

by Lee Blons, CEO / President, Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative

A shorter version of this piece appeared on the Star Tribune’s Opinion page on 02/01/21.

Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative commends the Star Tribune for highlighting the escalating rents for low-income renters, impacting stability and prosperity for all Minnesotans. Your editorial, “Back for another debate: rent control” asks the question, “What other solutions to affordable housing are untried?” We would re-frame the question: “What solutions to affordable housing have been tried and worked?”

The answer is simple: rent subsidies. Monthly rent subsidies make up the difference between what a low-income renter can afford to pay and the reasonable rent for a landlord to provide a well-maintained, well-managed apartment. Studies show that people with rent subsidies feel more secure in their homes and are better positioned to give back to the community they love. Subsidies lead to improvements in health, employment, and education. This approach is a win-win for tenants and landlords that corrects a market deficiency with straightforward, targeted assistance that adjusts based on a tenant’s income. If the tenant loses their job, as we’ve seen during COVID, the amount of subsidy goes up. If the tenant gets a new job, the tenant’s contribution goes up and the subsidy goes down.

The challenge is that only 1 in 4 low-income renters gets a rent subsidy, even though they qualify for it. We’re not planning to vaccinate only 25% of the population. It’s time we scale the solution to the scale of the problem.

550,000 Minnesotans, including many children, are at risk of losing their home because of the woefully inadequate investment at the state level. Currently, less than ½ of 1% of Minnesota’s budget goes to housing. We are calling on Governor Walz and legislators to increase investments in housing to 3% of the state budget so we can all have the security of home.

“Bring It Home, MN” rent subsidy legislation has been introduced in the legislature (HF40 & SF333) by Representative Howard (Richfield) and Senator Dziedzic (Minneapolis) which would invest in housing stability for all. The House bill has more than 25 co-authors from across the state. They know rent subsidies are a simple, effective way to take a leap toward a fair, prosperous Minnesota that works for all of us.

Whatever your feelings about rent control, which would stop or slow the increase of current rents, there remains the problem of how we support the 550,000 struggling to pay that rent today. Rent subsidy is the proven policy for this, which is why Minneapolis and St. Paul are giving rent subsidies to a small number of housing insecure families in schools. This is great, but shows that no one city has the resources to tackle this problem alone. We need to do it together. This is a statewide problem.

The disparity between what a renter can afford and the cost of housing is not confined to Minneapolis and St. Paul. This is a statewide problem impacting small towns and rural communities. In 71 out of Minnesota’s 87 counties, one in seven renters is paying more than half of their income toward home every single month.

Going to scale isn’t difficult administratively. We already have the infrastructure to distribute rent subsidy in every county through locally controlled public housing authorities or community development agencies. The challenge is more need than current subsidies cover. The wait lists are notoriously long.

When the metro wait lists were last opened in 2019, 45,000 families applied for assistance. However, there were only 7,500 slots available on the wait lists. So, families were “drawn” randomly to go to the bottom of the list. They may have to wait five years to get the subsidy they need today. Having a stable home to raise your children in should not be like winning the lottery – and it can’t wait five more years.

Our society has the resources for all people to have a home. We can stop homelessness before it begins. And we can do it in a way that is a win for renters and landlords, a win for our schools and cities, a win for employers and our competitive advantage. Whenever our neighbors, our communities, are hurting, we jump into action. It’s just what we do as Minnesotans. With 550,000 of our neighbors at risk, it’s time to jump.

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