‘First Monday’ event investigates housing crises in Twin Cities

Mike Wereschagin

Under the Truman administration, the 1949 Housing Act was passed with the promise to provide “a decent home and suitable living environment for every American family.”
At a Law School symposium Tuesday, local leaders working to improve housing conditions said thousands in the Twin Cities area still await the fulfillment of that 50-year-old promise.
The St. Paul Area Coalition for the Homeless and the Alliance for Justice shed some light on the Twin Cities’ housing woes with its “First Monday” celebration. The annual celebration is organized with the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit, nonpartisan student organization.
The “First Monday” celebration is named for the Supreme Court session’s starting date on the first Monday of every October. The coalition tackles a different topic every year.
This year’s event was held at the University Law School and featured a movie about the nation’s housing crisis. The film told the tale of Americans across the nation who work long, hard hours only to receive a paycheck that fails to cover necessary expenses.
The film offered the audience of about 50 law students and local residents a glimpse of migrant worker families living in trailers or tents, inner-city residents shoved into low-income ghettos and single mothers striving to feed their children.
After the screen went black, the evening’s four speakers got up one at a time and focused the discussion from the national to the local level.

A local housing crisis
Dave Schultz, who works for the state Department of Human Services, explained some of the recent historical causes of the affordable housing problem.
“(The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) has $10 billion to $15 billion per year to spend on projects like low-income housing,” Schultz said. “That’s compared to $70 billion per year given back to wealthier people in the country in the form of tax breaks for mortgage payments.”
And where the government isn’t simply denying needed aid for new housing, he said, it is actively removing the affordable housing that is already in existence.
“Then, in the 1980s, the cost of housing skyrocketed,” Schultz said. “And when, in 1986, the (tax) deduction given for providing low-income housing was repealed, they removed the only incentive to put up more housing. Now you pretty much have to do it out of the goodness of your heart.”
Given that the cost of building low-income housing is at least $50,000 per unit, he said, finding people willing to take such a financial loss is nearly impossible.
“The tax system is really out of whack,” Schultz said.
He said this has resulted in the current Twin Cities’ housing crisis, estimating the metropolitan area is short by at least 3,000 housing units.
Ron Elwood, a lawyer from the Legal Services Advocacy Project, criticized state housing practices. The legal organization lobbies on behalf of low-income interests on the state level.
Discrimination continues to be one of the biggest obstacles in the fight for fair housing, Elwood said.
“Minneapolis is one of the most segregated cities in the nation,” Elwood said. “Seventy-five percent of the people in (homeless) shelters are people of color. In this state, something like 6 percent of the general population is made up of people of color.
“There is a law in Minnesota that allows an owner to refuse to rent to someone who is gay. What’s wrong with this picture?” Elwood asked.
He went on to cite statistics from research conducted by the Fair Housing Center. The Twin Cities’ center’s findings revealed a clear pattern of housing discrimination practiced by many landlords in the area.
“People of color are twice as likely to be rejected as whites,” Elwood said.
The pattern that emerges is one of “different treatment. That’s what it boils down to,” he said.
Greg Horan, member of the St. Paul Area Coalition for the Homeless, shifted the discussion from statistics to human beings during a speech that touched many of those in attendance.
“Here’s a few statistics that don’t get reported in the studies,” said Horan, who not only works extensively with the homeless now, but was once homeless himself.
He said one in 10 women who come to the St. Paul homeless shelters cry because they’re worried they won’t be able to feed their children.
Four have attempted suicide. Sixty-seven people died in those same shelters or outside last year. Most of them were in their 40s.
“We talk in statistics, but these are human beings,” Horan said. “You want to know the face of homelessness? Look in the mirror. Each of us is just one disaster away from being homeless.”
Horan said one of the main obstacles to eliminating the homeless problem is an individual’s reluctance to connect with others in the community.
“Everybody stays in their own little world. The people who are judging and setting the standards for this crisis have never been homeless,” he said.
Horan concluded by putting a charge out to the youth in attendance: “We need new blood. You can change things.”
The final speaker, Larry McDonough, a University law professor and activist for the Legal Aid Society of Minnesota, continued in the same vein.
He offered suggestions on how students can become involved in combatting homelessness, ranging from talking with neighborhood groups to creating an independent study course focusing on housing legislation.
“You’re going to be persuasive because you don’t look like you’re homeless,” he told attendees. “You look middle and upper-middle class. It’s nothing to be ashamed about. Use it.”

Mike Wereschagin covers city government and welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3226.