Minnesota’s largest housing authority is preparing an ambitious new effort to reverse decades of economic and racial segregation in subsidized rental housing in the Twin Cities.

This month, the Metropolitan Council for the first time will begin recruiting more suburban landlords to participate in a federal rental-assistance program known as Section 8, and will advise families who want to use their Section 8 vouchers to move out of predominantly poor, segregated neighborhoods. Counselors will help families repair any credit problems they may have, and help parents find schools and other services for their children after they move.

The agency hopes that, with access to more affluent, diverse communities, poor families using the vouchers will be able to avoid the poor, segregated neighborhoods with higher crime rates where subsidized families have traditionally clustered by default.

Met Council data show that about 25 percent of Section 8 voucher holders in the Twin Cities live in areas of moderate, high or very high poverty.

Modeled after a similar program in Baltimore, the initiative is part of a broader effort by the regional housing authority to dismantle clusters of poverty and racial segregation that have been endemic in the Section 8 program in the Twin Cities and nationwide. The Met Council also wants to increase the probability that poor families will actually find landlords who accept Section 8, a pernicious problem in a tight Twin Cities rental market with historically low vacancy rates.

In 2014, just 50 percent of Section 8 recipients in the area served by the Met Council were able to use their vouchers, in part because many landlords don’t accept them. That’s down from 82 percent in 2010. A key barrier, say housing advocates, is a perception among some landlords that Section 8 tenants are less stable or might require more paperwork.

“We need to find more landlords who will work with us, and that involves addressing some of the misconceptions about the [people] we serve,” said Jennifer Keogh, assistant HRA manager for the Met Council, which oversees vouchers for 6,300 families in the Twin Cities.

Many poor families wait years even to be approved for Section 8 — which pays up to two-thirds of a family’s monthly rent — then find their elation at receiving a voucher replaced by anxiety as they struggle to find a landlord with vacancies who will actually accept the voucher.

Michaella Waters, 34, of St. Louis Park said she felt “euphoric” when she received a rental voucher a month ago after nearly nine years of waiting. A single mother of a child with autism, Waters had dreams of moving to Hopkins or Eden Prairie, where she says schools have better programs for children with mental health disorders. “It was like a piece of gold to me,” Waters said.

Now, a month later, Waters is growing anxious. She’s made more than 150 phone calls to area landlords but has been told, repeatedly, that they do not accept Section 8 vouchers. Waters has put her name on the waiting lists of eight apartment complexes, but fears that an apartment won’t become available before her voucher expires in mid-July.

“I’ve bent over backward trying to find an uplifting community where my son can receive the supports he needs, but I keep getting shut out,” Waters said, as she prepared her son, Jordan, 5, for school. “I’ve just gone from one waiting list to another.”

Starting this month, Met Council mobility counselors will help clients find rental units outside areas of concentrated poverty. If a voucher recipient has never lived in a single-family home in the suburbs, they might also receive counseling on skills such as lawn maintenance and household upkeep.

“If you are the only family of color in a white, suburban neighborhood, it can be scary,” Keogh said. “This is about making sure they have all the tools they need to thrive.”

In Baltimore, a similar program began in 2002, following allegations that poor residents of Baltimore’s inner-city high rises were relocated to areas that were equally poor and segregated. The city began an aggressive effort to help Section 8 recipients locate in mostly white neighborhoods with low poverty rates.

Counselors with the Baltimore regional housing authority take Section 8 voucher recipients on tours of neighborhoods in the suburbs; organize workshops on the benefits of living in low-poverty neighborhoods with low crime and good schools; and even pay security deposits on more expensive apartments in the suburbs. So far, the program has moved more than 2,700 families to higher-income areas away from Baltimore’s poor and historically segregated, inner-city neighborhoods.

“It doesn’t benefit anyone to have families receive a voucher and then fail,” said Alison Bell Shuman, executive director of the Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership. “Everyone deserves an opportunity to move to better neighborhoods.”


Twitter: @chrisserres