Eden Prairie, thought of as a wealthy and predominantly white city, has become increasingly diverse, home to the third largest Somali population in the Twin Cities.

But now as demand for apartments soars metrowide, Somali families say they’re being forced out of Eden Prairie in waves by a shortage of affordable housing and the rejection by landlords of Section 8 vouchers.

“I loved Eden Prairie, but there’s nothing we can do,” said Saynab Egal, a single mother of five who left the suburb after 17 years for Chaska when her landlord stopped accepting Section 8. “I couldn’t find anywhere to live.”

Communities across Minnesota are facing a lack of affordable housing, especially as developers convert apartments into luxury units and in the process displace low-income residents who are often people of color.

Hennepin County, which has about half the affordable housing rentals in the Twin Cities and 30 percent of all rentals in the state, has seen affordable buildings go upscale in St. Louis Park, Richfield and Golden Valley. In Eden Prairie, Somali families are also facing more landlords refusing Section 8 vouchers.

Residents’ increasing frustration culminated last week at a community forum, following similar events in Golden Valley and St. Louis Park.

“Housing is about human rights,” said Asad Aliweyd, a resident and executive director of the New American Development Center. “Everyone should have the right to a place to live.”

The outer-ring, affluent suburb likely is better known for its Minnesota Vikings practice facility and one of the metro area’s few gated neighborhoods than for its immigrant or low-income communities. But over the last 20 years, Eden Prairie says it’s grown to have the third largest Somali population in the Twin Cities, after Minneapolis and St. Paul. It counts an estimated 3,500 to 5,000 Somalis among its 62,000 residents.

Businesses like a Halal grocery store have opened along with mosques, and the Somali language has become second only to English in schools.

‘Our kids were born here’

“We work here, our kids were born here,” Aliweyd said about Eden Prairie, known for its safe streets, schools and jobs. “We love to live in this city.”

But in the last four years, he estimated that a third of the East African community in the city has moved out and that nine apartment buildings have stopped taking Section 8 vouchers.

“This is a moment for Eden Prairie to demonstrate we’ve heard concerns from folks,” said Russ Adams, executive director of the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability, which helped organize the community forum.

While city leaders questioned whether a third of their East African residents had left, they agreed there is more the suburb could do and cited the potential of new affordable housing along the proposed 14.5-mile Southwest light-rail line from Minneapolis.

Like other suburbs generally, Eden Prairie has seen a rise in poverty. Yet the last affordable rental unit was built in 2004, according to the Metropolitan Council. The Met Council has recommended that Eden Prairie add 1,844 affordable units by 2020.

Citywide, the median rent is at $1,182, well above the county’s $951.

How affordable is Eden Prairie? It depends on how it’s measured.

According to housing data for the 10 largest cities in Hennepin County, Eden Prairie ranked ninth for rental units affordable to very low-income households (those with income less than 50 percent of the area median income). But officials cite data that shows it has a higher percentage of publicly subsidized housing units than Bloomington, Chanhassen, Edina and Minnetonka.

“We’ve done well,” City Council Member Ron Case said. “We need to do better.”

The city has incentivized or helped subsidize some affordable housing, and officials point to a 168-unit building that was stopped from going to market-rate. A new senior housing building will include some affordable units, and developers are eyeing a former IHOP and Ruby Tuesday near proposed light-rail stations that likely would have affordable apartments.

“There’s a lot of positive action ahead,” said Molly Koivumaki, the city’s housing and community services manager.

While Eden Prairie can’t force landlords to accept vouchers, she said the city is funding social service programs to help low-income residents. They’re also considering a new inclusionary housing policy, which would require developers to include some affordable units in a project or pay to a fund for affordable housing. Cities like St. Louis Park and Edina have adopted similar policies.

“This is almost a product of our success,” Case said of Thursday’s forum that drew more than 200 residents, mostly Somali families. “This gathering didn’t happen in Edina ... [and] Minnetonka, because they don’t have the numbers of affordable housing we do.”

Someday, Egal wants to return to Eden Prairie. Until then, she drives her sons and daughter to Eden Prairie schools from their Chaska townhouse every day. “It gets very hard to find a place,” she said.

At mosques, Aliweyd hears similar stories of families leaving for other metro locales. He said there was a noticeable shift in Eden Prairie after the school district made a controversial change in 2010, in part to more evenly integrate schools.

“Somalis were living in Eden Prairie peacefully,” he said. “It created a tension between the Somali community and Eden Prairie residents who want it the way it was.”