Affordable housing bill would benefit homeless

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 5, 2014 - 6:17 PM

The $100 million proposal, part of a much larger bonding bill, is a historic amount. But advocates say the cost of not passing it would be greater.

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A homeless youth played piano in a common room at Avenues.

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DFLers in the Minnesota House want to spend an unprecedented $100 million on affordable housing, twice the amount that Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed.

Much of that total would be spent on projects for the poor and the homeless. Proposed projects include youth housing in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Edina, a shelter for Carver and Scott counties, and family housing facilities across Minnesota.

The $100 million that Minnesota lawmakers are considering is part of a $1 billion bonding bill. Even with nearly three dozen co-sponsors from both parties, the $1 billion price tag of the overall legislation may be this proposal’s greatest stumbling block, advocates admit. But the price of not passing it would be even greater to the state, they say.

“It’s a cost to society to have 14,000 homeless Minnesotans on any given night,” Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, the bill’s author, said Friday. “There are moral and compassionate issues to fighting homelessness. But it’s also a dollars-and-cents issue.”

Among proponents’ arguments: Every public dollar invested in public housing returns $1.44 to taxpayers, according to the nonprofit Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless. The costs of being homeless often include jail and treatment facilities, Hausman said. Nearly half of Minnesota’s homeless population — people who do not have permanent places to stay — are people under 21, according to a Wilder Foundation study.

And the homeless are everywhere — with 42 percent living outside the Twin Cities metro area, according to recent census figures.

Supermajority needed

Not one legislator has vocally opposed the idea for affordable housing, Hausman said Friday. But opposition to the much bigger bonding bill — which provides money for roads, construction projects and campuses — leaves the affordable housing proposal highly uncertain.

“The bonding bill has to gain the approval of a supermajority — 60 percent in the House — to pass, and that isn’t going to be easy,” Hausman said.

Several groups have suggested they will not vote for the bonding bill without specific additions, Hausman said. Ramsey County legislators want development in Arden Hills, she said, and Minneapolis legislators want provisions concerning the Nicollet Mall.

The Twin Cities Armory and Ammunition Plant in Arden Hills “is our top priority,” said Nick Riley, Ramsey County coordinator for government relations. “But we also are very supportive of the affordable housing section of the bill.”

Projects statewide

Some of the projects seeking a share of the $100 million include family housing projects proposed for Baxter, Crookston, Elk River, Marshall, Virginia and Zumbrota, said Kenza Hadj-Moussa, communications and development director for the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless.

Prior Crossing, a supportive-housing project for homeless youth in St. Paul, is one of those on the runway. Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative, a nonprofit, has collaborated with House of Hope Presbyterian Church, but is also seeking aid through low-income housing credits from the city of St. Paul.

“We’d love to get bonding dollars from the state, but we’re not counting on it,” said Lee Blons, Beacon’s executive director.

“It’s a statewide competition and we expect three times the number of applicants than the state can handle, if this $100 million bill passes,” Blons said. “And we can’t predict what changes the bill might see. For now, we can only be hopeful.”

So is Gina Ciganik, vice president of Aeon, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit housing developer with several projects in the pipeline. In the past 28 years, Aeon has developed more than 2,000 affordable housing units

“We’re trying to prevent generational poverty,” Ciganik said. “A child that grows up homeless is more likely to get pregnant as a teenager, have medical issues, wind up in jail or in treatment.”

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