Several Eden Prairie residents, housing on their minds, huddled in the cafeteria at Oak Point Elementary School one evening in March.

Half lived at Arrive, an apartment complex across the street. The rest were with the Suburban Hennepin Housing Coalition, a grass-roots group that has emerged as an important advocate for low-income tenants. Coalition members were there to help tenants address their concerns about the property.

“When people speak together with one voice, it’s much more powerful,” David Saltzman, a member of the coalition’s Eden Prairie team, told the tenants.

The Housing Coalition, a network of a dozen community groups from Bloomington to Brooklyn Park, is pushing suburban cities to preserve affordable housing and advance the rights of low-income tenants. Sometimes it’s simple steps to protect tenants against displacement. Other undertakings, like creating local trust funds for affordable housing, are bold and more complicated.

“I’m really proud of the work we’ve done so far in building,” said Aaron Berc, a coalition leader and Jewish Community Action organizer.

The coalition’s mission is to spread the idea that people of all racial and socioeconomic levels should be able to live anywhere in the west metro. “It’s not appropriate to think that there should be one area ... where all the low-income people live because that’s where the affordable housing is,” Saltzman said.

City officials, partly due to efforts from resident-based groups like the Housing Coalition, have responded to dwindling affordable housing in the past few years. According to the Metropolitan Council, many suburbs now require a specific percentage of new development to be affordable to those making about $45,000 to $54,000 — that’s 50 or 60 percent of the area median income of $94,300 for a family of four.

Volunteers — drawn into the coalition by faith groups, food shelves and other social work organizations — want to keep the pressure on those officials. They’re lobbying to keep existing affordable housing and halt the transformation of aging lower-cost units into newly upscale properties.

The flipping of affordable-housing properties in a tight market — with resulting higher rents and stricter rental criteria — has pushed out cost-burdened tenants, many of them immigrants and people of color. Production of new affordable housing, while up from earlier this decade, has yet to offset those losses.

Of the 52,000 new units of affordable housing the Met Council says are needed by the end of the decade, about 7,000 had been built as of December, according to a Met Council report. The council defines affordable housing as that affordable to a family of four making below 80 percent of the area median income.

The Housing Coalition was born out of a series of informal meetings of the region’s social work agencies, with Jewish Community Action and the Community Action Partnership of Hennepin County emerging as the two organizational leaders.

Service providers chose housing as the top issue in the west metro, said Berc, 28. “And then six months later, Crossroads happened,” he said.

A cautionary tale

The Crossroads at Penn complex in Richfield, transformed by new owners into the upscale Concierge, became a cautionary tale about threats to affordable housing. Coalition members soon noticed similar property flips in other suburbs, including St. Louis Park and Golden Valley.

With help from the Housing Justice Center, a nonprofit legal organization based in St. Paul, the Housing Coalition put together a list of policy options protecting low-income tenants from which city officials could pick and choose. They range from requiring a “just cause” for eviction to creating local trust funds for affordable housing projects.

Coalition members have presented the options to city staffers and council members across the west metro. They caught the attention of Richfield City Council members, who sprang to action last year after tenants at a large complex had a displacement scare.

“This work really takes strong leadership from all different angles,” Council Member Maria Regan Gonzalez said. “I hope this group becomes one of those community leaders.”

A piecemeal approach

In March, St. Louis Park enacted a rule requiring new property owners to give displaced low-income tenants more time and relocation fees. Richfield reduced building permit fees for developers of low-income housing. Edina this month set a $100,000 “buy in” fee for developers who want to bypass affordable housing requirements; the money will be used for affordable housing projects.

Golden Valley and Brooklyn Park set affordability requirements for new housing within the last six months. Golden Valley Mayor Shep Harris said groups such as the Housing Coalition have helped shed light on the affordable housing issue and keep the topic fresh in the minds of decision­makers.

“A natural part of local, grass-roots democracy is getting residents involved ... in an issue they’re passionate about,” Harris said. “We’re thrilled that [the coalition has] been part of it in terms of pushing that agenda.”