Pipe Dream Sweet Pipe Dream: Duluth’s housing market leaves families out in the cold

June 13, 2017


Richard Thomas

Zenith News


When she became one of Duluth’s estimated 1,000 homeless, Alison had two children, a longtime boyfriend, and—like most people who experience homelessness—she had a job.

Then her boyfriend was diagnosed with cancer. Various friends and relatives came to stay with them. Alison (not her real name) became addicted to drugs. “I asked the county for help. They watched me fall apart for four months, then took my kids away.”

The children were placed with her mother, but the county would not allow Alison to stay with them. Then she found out she was pregnant again. Her landlord told her he was selling the house she had been renting. He gave her two and a half months to find another place.

Trouble was, she had an eviction on her record, so no one else would rent to her. When the time came, some people she thought were friends helped her move her belongings into a storage locker, but in the process, they stole many of her things.

She and her boyfriend spent a month in a hotel, draining their savings. A friend let them crash in her apartment—a tiny one-room unit in public housing, for which her friend risked eviction. In the end, living in such close quarters all but ruined their friendship.

Alison’s boyfriend’s chemotherapy was successful, but his immune system was compromised, leaving him to suffer frequent bouts of vomiting. She called the United Way 24-hour helpline at 211, and got on a waiting list for a Section 8 voucher. Eventually, a housing company told her they had an apartment for her.

Alison was overjoyed, especially because this meant she could get her kids back. But the apartment never came available. Meanwhile, the housing company mistakenly told social services she had moved in, so she was kicked off the waiting list. Because she was still homeless, she couldn’t bring her kids home and lost her place in line for the Section 8 voucher.

Her baby was born last October and went straight into the care of her mother, with Alison allowed only limited visits. Shortly before Thanksgiving, the friend she was staying with moved to another apartment and couldn’t bring them along without being discovered.

For a month in the dead of winter, they lived in Alison’s storage locker. “I found no matter how many layers, how many coats, how many blankets you have, you can’t get warm.”

Just before Christmas, she found a basement apartment through a church group. She was grateful to be indoors, but the stern religious setting and lack of windows made her uncomfortable.

Since March, she’s been housesitting for a friend, which allowed her to regain custody of her baby. But it’s only a temporary place, and she isn’t sure where she’ll go next or whether her family will be reunited.

“There is virtually no affordable housing [in Duluth] for people earning between $9 and $15 per hour,” says former Third District City Councilor Sharla Gardner. “And that’s a huge problem. We have more high-end housing than we need. The problem is new affordable housing must be subsidized because of the high costs of new construction.”

In 2014, while she was still on the City Council, Gardner introduced a resolution for a Homeless Bill of Rights, which reaffirmed the civil rights of people experiencing homeless and made it public policy that homelessness is not a crime.

The resolution passed the City Council unanimously—and then it stalled. Last December, a coalition of church groups, businesses, and non-profits drafted an 11-point Bill of Rights and delivered it to Duluth Mayor Emily Larson after a march to City Hall.

The Bill of Rights’ tenets include:
•The right to be in public spaces, including to rest;
•The right to “protect oneself from the elements in a non-obstructive manner;”
•The right to occupy a legally parked motor vehicle;
•The right to 24-hour access to hygiene facilities;
•The right to refuse emergency shelter; and
•The right to speak with an outreach worker when questioned by police.

Under former Mayor Don Ness, the city’s approach was to increase “workforce housing” (i.e., rents of about $950 a month for a two-bedroom apartment, affordable to those making between $25,000 to $70,000 a year) to accommodate incoming employees of companies such as Enbridge, Maurices, and Cirrus.

“The city has met or exceeded the need for executive-level housing,” says Joel Kilgour of Loaves and Fishes Community, which provides housing for the homeless. Kilgour doesn’t think the increase in high-end units did anything to alleviate Duluth’s housing shortage and, while he believes Larson favors a more direct approach, “They’ve got a lot on their plates.”

Ness told the Zenith in 2015 that Kilgour misconstrued his words. To support his position, Ness pointed to the annual Housing Indicator Report, showing that the lowest vacancy rates were in properties valued at $250,000 and up. “Downward demand,” Ness contended, was pushing those who could afford higher rent into workforce-rate housing, crowding out low-income families, for whom upgrading is not an option.

Since 2000, rents in St. Louis County have increased by 16 percent, while the average renter saw a 13 percent drop in income, according to a 2015 study by the Minnesota Housing Partnership.

The Housing and Urban Development standard is that a family should pay no more than one-third of their income for housing. But in Duluth, 83 percent of renters and 71 percent of homeowners pay more.

Eight hundred households (625 individuals and 175 families), most of whom are currently homeless, were on the Coordinated Entry waiting list for permanent supportive or transitional housing. Many had been on the waiting list for six months. The list was recently closed because it was overwhelmed.

The Duluth Housing and Redevelopment Authority has 1,017 households on its waiting list for public housing, with a wait time of three to six months. Section 8 has 1,910 households on its waiting list for subsidized housing with a wait time of 12 to 18 months.

On May 31, about 100 people attended the fifth annual Housing For All Summit at Coppertop Church. Last year’s summit kicked off the Landlord Incentive Program, which provides support for landlords to accept tenants with records of criminal activity, eviction, bad credit, property damage, or non-payment of utilities. This year, advocates are hoping to establish an Affordable Housing Trust Fund that can be tapped to purchase distressed homes and renovate them to create new affordable housing units.

Minneapolis has had such a trust fund since 2003, using it to add 6,100 units for seniors, the homeless, people with AIDS, families, veterans, artists, and others with special needs. The program creates jobs and increases the tax base by restoring blighted properties.

Housing trust funds can be established by city, county, or state governments. They can accept private donations, but are not public-private partnerships. They do not operate from interest and other earnings.

The Affordable Housing Coalition estimates it will cost approximately $3 million to set up the fund—but where would the money come from?

“Good question,” said Kilgour. “It’s not super-easy. It does need to be a sustainable annual resource.”

One proposed source of funding is a 0.25 percent sales tax, which Kilgour acknowledges will depend on whether the community wants it. “Everyone has a vested interest in keeping people in housing. The city needs to decide whether to provide it.”

Kilgour says institutions that have contributed to the local housing crisis can give back by donating to the fund. The University of Minnesota Duluth, for example, has increased enrollment over the last two decades without providing enough student housing. In 2011, St. Luke’s Hospital tore down two dozen housing units to make room for its new parking lot.

Alison is sober now, and working through the requirements to get her children returned home. Her boyfriend has recovered enough to move back to his hometown of Seattle, where he found a more supportive environment and a job. Alison plans to stay in Duluth for a year in order to regain custody of her children, before the family is finally reunited out West.

“You can choose to be a little happier. I’m getting really good at waking up in the morning and knowing there are a lot of shitty things going on and looking at all the things I still have. Because I lost all.”

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