Forum talks cheap housing

by Vadim Lavrusik

Dahir Mohamed came to the United States in 1993 as a refugee from Somalia with nowhere to live.

Mohamed, who came with his wife and five children, said if it weren’t for federal affordable housing programs like Section 8, he would have been homeless.

“Being in a new country is difficult, especially not knowing the language and not knowing anyone; it’s hard to get a good job,” he said.

Mohamed and his family now live in Riverside Plaza, the West Bank reference point that is also an affordable-living complex. He lives there with assistance from Section 8 housing.

He said paying rent and other bills would be impossible to cover and government assistance is a necessity.

However, the programs around the country have been on a steady decline since 1973 and people like Mohamed, who receive aid from affordable housing programs, may not have a home in the future.

The programs have received reduced funding from the federal government, said Joe Errigo, president and chief executive officer of Commonbond Communities, the largest nonprofit provider of affordable housing in the Upper Midwest.

The Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA) is hosting a forum today in Blegen Hall that hopes to address the past and present issues in affordable housing programs and policies.

Affordable housing is subsidized for lower income individuals, and they receive funding from the government and private organizations.

Residents usually have to be in low-income brackets to qualify for affordable housing, depending on the program.

Errigo, along with Bill Gabler, executive vice president of Wells Fargo Brokerage Services, and Dick Brustad, partner of Brighton Development Corporation, will be sharing their perspectives on the issues of affordable housing.

Errigo said the base of support needs to be broadened in order to sustain affordable housing programs.

“There are a few scattered programs left, but they are the kinds of programs that need outside funding to make them work,” he said. “We are now at a place where we are all fighting for crumbs.”

He said the programs that are left provide only “a fraction of the need.”

The private sector of business needs to step up and help, he said. This means large corporations, churches, institutions and others need to get involved to help fund affordable housing programs, he said.

“That doesn’t mean letting the government off the hook,” he said. “But we are never going to go back to a time where the government is the main source of money for such programs.”

The Department of Housing and Urban Development declined comment for this story.

Barbara Lukermann, research associate at CURA who helped organize the forum, said the declining flow of funding from the government makes it difficult to finance an affordable housing project.

Lukermann said it takes many contributors, for-profit and nonprofit, to finance an affordable housing project today.

The result is projects such as Riverside Plaza, which has many subsidy programs assisting the renters, she said.

Gabler said the subsidy programs are not as efficient as they could be.

He said a lot of money does not get to the people who need it, because it is indirect.

“It just seems that more money could be directed into voucher and rental assistance programs; it seems to be more efficient,” Gabler said.

He said an example of such a program is Section 8 housing, which provides the resident directly with a voucher that helps them pay their rent.

The upside is Minneapolis has been one of the leaders in producing affordable housing programs, Gabler said.

Mohamed said he knows some people who get government assistance take advantage of it, because they have jobs that provide them with enough income to support themselves.

But then there are those who actually need it, he said.

“People do not understand why we need government assistance, because they are not under the same kind of circumstances,” he said. “No one wants to stay in Section 8, but we need it to survive.”