Even before Charles Thorstad bought the townhouse he was renting, he’d made it his own.
He papered the living room with posters from hip-hop shows and put strips of tape on the floor to help map out his dance steps. He has a wall in the garage autographed by visiting dancers from around the world — artists he invites to stay in a spare bedroom upstairs.
Now the home actually is his. After years of renting the townhouse in Minneapolis’ Heritage Park neighborhood, Thorstad bought it. He is one of the first people to become a homeowner through the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, or MPHA, lease-to-own program, an effort to help low-income renters become homeowners.
Standing in his kitchen, coffee brewing, 41-year-old Thorstad described homeownership in a single word: “surreal.”
The program began about five years ago with 20 townhouses that the MPHA purchased from a bankrupt developer during the recession.
The intent was “to stabilize the neighborhood and provide ownership opportunities to MPHA applicants,” said Jan Hughes, lease-to-own administrator.
MPHA has made an effort to invest in homeownership, one of the settlement conditions of a 1995 class-action lawsuit that accused the agency of violating the Fair Housing Act by concentrating public housing in certain areas of the city.
The Heritage Park townhouses are largely occupied, but the program still is open to new applicants. To qualify, tenants must meet income requirements and be ready to buy within five years or less. If they miss the deadline, they lose the townhouse.
There’s an incentive to buy early: In the first two years, the townhouses sell for $130,000 or the appraised value — whichever is less. After two years, they sell for the appraised value. The MPHA holds 10 percent of rent paid in escrow to help with the down payment.
Public housing lease-to-own programs can be fleeting, because they’re based on a limited housing supply. The St. Paul Public Housing Agency started a homeownership program in 1994 and closed it eight years later after 34 of 35 units had sold.
The MPHA program will end when the last unit is sold, unless the housing authority decides to expand it, Hughes said.
The future is uncertain, given an expected rise in interest rates and potential decline in public housing funding under President Donald Trump.
For the few who already have become homeowners through the program, though, the future looks bright.
People who’ve bought homes recently through the program “seem to be really excited about having become homeowners,” Hughes said.
Thorstad, a systems administrator for Hennepin County, was one of the first to move in and said he got his pick of what then were mostly empty townhouses.
“I like being on the corner, where I can see the park,” Thorstad said.
Thorstad is not too worried about crime, he said, but remembers the anxiety last year following a string of armed robberies. This year, he’s planning to take on the role of block captain for the area’s nascent Neighborhood Watch.
A native of Cannon Falls, the Vietnamese adoptee likes living in what he describes as a “multicultural, multi-income neighborhood.”
He plans to stay indefinitely.