The Met Council's public housing agency is proposing that 270 of its tenants using federal rent-assistance vouchers start paying at least $50 for their rent — a move they're hoping will save the agency money.

The Metropolitan Council Housing and Redevelopment Authority's (HRA) proposal would affect 4% of the more than 6,000 voucher holders across Anoka, Carver and suburbs of Hennepin and Ramsey counties. Under its 2020 annual plan, the Metro HRA is proposing that the council consider minimum payment responsibility for holders of Section 8 housing vouchers who currently pay below $50 or nothing at all for rent.

Of the 10 public housing agencies in the Twin Cities, seven, including the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority and St. Paul Public Housing Agency, have minimum rent requirements for voucher holders.

Officials at Metro HRA estimated they would save $162,000 with minimum rents, in hopes of putting a small dent in the agency's $1.9 million deficit and preserving its voucher system. But tenant advocates said that the proposal would burden low-income residents who already have limited funds.

Terri Smith, director of the Metro housing authority, said that federal dollars for the program have not kept up with rising rents across the Twin Cities area or demands to get one of the coveted vouchers.

"The reality is the number of families we can serve will become less unless we figure out how to serve families more efficiently, more cost effectively," Smith said. "Everything we're doing is trying to minimize impact to families."

With Section 8 vouchers, tenants pay no more than 30% of their income toward rent, which takes into account information such as utility costs, number of children in the household, disability status and if someone is receiving a Social Security or disability check. Those income adjustments means voucher holders may pay a nominal amount for rent each month. Under federal rules, Metro HRA would have to allow residents to apply for temporary or permanent hardship exemptions if they cannot pay.

At three meetings with its resident advisory board in July, Metro HRA officials received some positive feedback about the minimum rent's benefits to tenants, including the ability to reach more families with vouchers. But residents were also concerned about the threat of evictions or loss of vouchers, as well as families not understanding the hardship exemptions, choosing between food or rent, bringing in unauthorized tenants to help pay for rent or potentially resorting to risky behavior to make money, according to notes from the meeting.

Dorinda Wider, a housing staff attorney with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, a nonprofit legal advocacy group, said that she has had clients start collecting recycling in hopes they'll have enough to make the minimum rent, people on disability taking temporary work, and adults going without food. Wider said some are evicted for "shamefully low rent amounts where we could've dug into the couches at court" to pay it off.

"It just seems wrong to try and balance the books on the back of those people making the least amount of income, and then I think it's somewhat disingenuous to think you're making a significant dent when you have that big of a shortfall in the budget," Wider said.

Part of the pushback with minimum rent comes from how people "underestimate the power of families to take care of themselves," said Adrianne Todman, CEO of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, the organization for housing authority leaders. She said public housing authorities that are cash-strapped or want to help more families get off the voucher waiting list often have minimum rents in place to ease the expenses that come with overseeing a voucher. She said that she was "surprised" to hear the agency had not set minimum rents sooner.

"The concept of minimum rent in recent years have gotten a bad rap because the need is so great and it's just harder for families these days," Todman said. "But I think a responsibility of minimum rent helps with the solvency of the program."

The agency sought feedback on the plan last month and is slated to present it to the Met Council on Sept. 16.

Marissa Evans • 612-673-4280