Minnesota pledged $100 million this year to put roofs over people’s heads.
It’s the largest single investment the state has ever made in housing, and this week was the deadline to apply for a slice of that pie. Applications poured in from nonprofits in every corner of the state — enough proposals to spend all the available money three times over.
“This is so exciting and so immensely needed,” said Minnesota Housing Finance Agency Commissioner Mary Tingerthal, whose staff will spend the next several months sifting through proposals. The agency, which has $80 million to award, received more than $233 million worth of requests before Tuesday’s deadline — more than 80 projects in all, intended to build, preserve or improve housing for homeless or struggling Minnesotans.
On any given day, there are an estimated 14,000 homeless Minnesotans, half of them children. Hundreds of thousands more struggle to stay in their homes, sinking large chunks of their paychecks into just paying the rent.
“Air. Water. Food. ‘Home’ is really right there underneath those things, along with love, fundamental things we need to sustain our lives,” said Alan Arthur, president and CEO of Aeon, a nonprofit developer that provides affordable rental properties to thousands of people throughout the Twin Cities. Aeon has several projects in the works that could use a share of the state money, including a plan to provide housing for homeless teen parents.
The state aid is invaluable, he said, not just to the nonprofits but to the people they serve. The other day, Arthur fielded a phone call from a couple who had just graduated from college and now have an affordable home that he helped find.
“They were sitting on the porch, looking at the sunset,” he said. “They were looking back on their life, looking back on their challenges they had in their lives … and reflecting to me how important it had been for them to get a stable place to live.”
The Legislature included the housing funds in this year’s $1 billion bonding bill. Of the $100 million, $20 million will go for needed repairs at public housing projects throughout the state. The rest will be awarded competitively to the projects that best serve the housing needs of homeless or at-risk Minnesotans. The funding is expected to create or rehabilitate at least 5,000 homes in the coming year.
“It sounds like a big number to everyone,” said state Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, chairwoman of the House Capital Investment Committee, who fought to keep the full $100 million in the bill. “We’re going to run out of money. … Everyone knows it’s going to be very competitive.”
This is the second big investment the Legislature has made in the fight against homelessness. In 2012, when Republicans controlled both houses, they passed a half-billion-dollar bonding bill that included almost $40 million in housing infrastructure bonds.
This year, supporters lobbied hard for a bigger investment. Nonprofits organized letter-writing campaigns and rallies, and showed lawmakers maps that highlighted housing projects in their home districts: a public-housing project in Pipestone, a center for homeless teens in Duluth, supportive housing on the White Earth Nation reservation, the Fort Snelling housing project for homeless veterans.
“Homelessness is one of those things people don’t think about [regarding] Greater Minnesota,” said Lisa Graphenteen, chief operating officer of the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership.
Homelessness is a real problem in the 30 mostly rural counties the nonprofit serves. It has submitted funding requests for four projects, including a supportive housing community in St. Peter for women who are trying to overcome histories of drug abuse and incarceration to regain custody of their children.
“Our goal is to get these families stabilized and connected to services,” Graphenteen said. “When you don’t have stable housing, it’s very hard for any of those other things to fall into place.”