MinnPost: Could Minneapolis be doing more to address its affordable housing crisis?

MinnPost photo by Jared Goyette
Rally attendees protesting rent increases outside the Uptown Minneapolis offices of Nexus Real Estate Services on Sept. 6.

Flora Dominguez lives in a one-bedroom apartment in a nondescript tan brick building on Pleasant Avenue in the Whittier neighborhood of Minneapolis. There's not much space for her and her husband, Alfonso, their two teenage children, and the newest arrival, an 8-month-old baby girl named Zueleyka.

But while the space is cramped, it's also filled with the kinds of things — a stroller and a baby walker, a stuffed Bugs Bunny, a picture of grandma on the shelf next to art projects the kids made in school — that convey a sense of home.

It's a home Dominguez may soon lose. In the 12 years that they've lived there, Dominguez and her family have seen their fair share of rent increases. But the latest one, which came after a new company took over the management of the building this April, was a step too far. “When they gave us an increase in rent, it wasn't more than $40 or $50,” said Dominguez. “This time it's $75. We came to live here because the rent is cheap. We are poor, we don't make a lot of money. And what we earn isn't just for ourselves. It's for our children.”

The rent increase would bring the monthly payment to more than the family can afford with what Alfonso Dominguez makes as a landscaper, and they haven't been able to find another place in the neighborhood at a similar rate, at least not one that would allow a family of five. Many apartments in the neighborhood now have leases restricting the number of residents to two or three people per apartment.

Another factor that weighs heavily on Dominguez's mind is that her 14-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter are now settled in school, with teachers and friends they know. “They have the trust to speak with their teachers, and if they go to a new place they'd have to get to know everything from scratch — the neighbors, the place, the school,” she said.

So instead of moving, Dominguez has resolved to fight. Working with the affordable housing advocacy group Inquilinxs Unidxs por la Justicia (Renters United for Justice), she and a group of nine families in the building are refusing to pay the higher rates. They complain of repairs left undone, including a broken front door lock, which allowed strangers to wander in.

In response, the company that now manages the property, Nexus Real Estate Services, initially agreed to meet with the group to negotiate. But then the company changed tack, serving seven of the families with eviction notices and taking them to court, a process that started last week. (Nexus President Mike Tempel declined to comment for this story.)

Limited policy options

There are two well-established and related trends at work behind the loss of affordable housing in Minneapolis: developers building new luxury apartments in mixed-income areas, and developers buying old buildings in those same mixed-income areas and then increasing the rent. The Dominguezes' situation is due to the latter, as their building was one of several purchased over the last year by a California-based landlord, who in turn hired Nexus to manage the properties.

To address the loss of low and moderate-income housing from these two developments, the city of Minneapolis has two general categories of policies at its disposal. There are those that promote the building of new affordable housing, and those designed to help preserve the existing stock.

In Minnesota, one well-known policy option is off the table: There's a state law pre-empting the ability of local government to impose rent control. That would be difficult to change or circumvent, but Inquilnxs Unidxs is pushing to start the process, with a “Rally for Rent Control” set to take place Friday at City Hall.

Minneapolis renter Flora Dominguez holding her daughter
MinnPost photo by Jared Goyette
Minneapolis renter Flora Dominguez holding her daughter, 8-month-old Zueleyka.

But state law also casts doubt on the city's ability to use one of the tools many cities employ to increase the number of new affordable housing units: inclusionary zoning. That is, requiring developers of new apartment buildings to include affordable units as part of the projects.

Even so, Minneapolis City Council Member Lisa Bender says that exploring inclusionary zoning as a policy option should be a “no-brainer.”

“We need affordable units, and this is a way for the market to provide that,” said Bender, whose Ward 10 includes Whittier. “I know that there is pushback, but if we do it correctly, I think the market can absorb the cost of the units.”

Bender admits there are “different interpretations” as to how and if the state law would apply to an inclusionary zoning ordinance. “The question for the city would be how much legal risk to assume,” she said. “We could adopt an inclusionary zoning policy and it would likely be challenged in the courts and then the courts would decide how the state law should be interpreted and applied to this policy.”

In a statement emailed to MinnPost, Cecil Smith, board chair of the Minnesota Multi Housing Association, which represents landlords, said that rent increases in Minneapolis have been lower than other comparable cities across the country, and that the MHA is ready to “join with leaders throughout the Twin Cities to urgently develop a thoughtful regional approach” to housing issues.

“In other markets, government and others have partnered to identify more funding for affordable housing,” said the statement. “Unfortunately, in our region, local governments keep suggesting more regulations and burdensome policies that will have significant negative, unintended consequences. None of the proposed policies, like mandatory Section 8 and advance-notice of sale, actually help create affordable housing. Just ask residents of New York, Seattle or Portland whether policies like these are working. Those cities struggle with chronic homelessness and unaffordable rents. The increased regulation adds costs to owners and managers that are passed along to renters.”

Other tools

There is another tool that has gained popularity in other cities that have tried to stabilize the availability of affordable housing, one that developers would be unlikely to greet with a court challenge: Freezing property tax increases for property owners of affordable housing apartments. Such a move would likely answer the concerns of property owners, who argue that increased city assessments of their property values are part of what's forcing them to increase rents.

Minneapolis does incentivize developers to include affordable housing units in new projects by providing city financing via the Affordable Housing Trust Fund Program, and Mayor Betsy Hodges recently proposed including another $6.5 million for the fund.

But Bender says that the trust only helps create a few hundred new units each year, which is far below the pace at which the city is losing affordable housing. She sees more promise in ramping up the city's efforts to help preserve existing affordable housing — often called “Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing” — by helping housing nonprofits purchase apartments.

In theory, at least, an expanded version of those efforts could have helped Flora Dominguez. If the city were to require property owners of affordable apartments to notify the city when the buildings are up for sale, Bender says, that could give nonprofits with access to NOAH funds a better chance of purchasing them.

For now, though, Flora Dominguez is fighting — in court, and on the street. On Sept. 6, Dominguez spoke at a community meeting at the Calvary Lutheran Church on Blaisdell, which was followed by a rally outside's Nexus's offices in Uptown Minneapolis. And though she and her family face an uncertain housing future, she has found meaning in her activism, she said. “My plan is that if I don't achieve our goal, of blocking the rent increases, and if have to leave, I'm going to continue to fight for those who stay.”

Update: This piece was updated to include comments from the Minnesota Multi Housing Association.

By Jared Goyette | 09/18/17

The Progressive: ‘Renter Week’ Brings Protests to Corporate Landlord and HUD Offices


September 19, 2017

U.S. Department of Agriculture HUD Secretary Ben Carson.

Renters in dozens of U.S. cities are organizing demonstrations this week under the banner of “National Renter Week of Action and Assemblies.” The purpose is to push back against the Trump Administration's threat to cut billions from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and make the case that renters rights are human rights.

President Trump's 2018 budget proposes cutting $6 billion from the agency's $46 billion budget, a move HUD Secretary Ben Carson supports. “We will use whatever resources we have very efficiently,” Carson assured The Hill newspaper in June.

The mass demonstrations taking place in more than forty-five cities this week will denounce this budget-slashing, and promote other policies to increase renters rights.

“Our communities are under constant attack,” says Darnell L. Johnson, an organizer with the group Right to the City in Boston. “From policies of mass deportation and incarceration to gentrification and mass evictions, we are facing displacement in many forms. Renters have had enough.”

During the National Renter Week of Action and Assemblies, which runs from September 16 to 24, demonstrators will protest outside the personal residences of corporate landlords, drop banners from buildings and protest outside of HUD offices.

Angel Ross, a research analyst for PolicyLink, an Oakland-based research institute supporting the week of action, says a sluggish economy for lower income Americans and rising urban rents have combined to stoke the anger driving this week's demonstrations.

“Renters face a toxic mix of rising rents and declining incomes,” Ross says. “Nationally, median rent increased by 9 percent from 2000 to 2015 while median renter household incomes declined by 11 percent in real, inflation-adjusted terms. In many cities, the situation is even worse. In Oakland, for example, median rent increased by 16 percent while median renter household income declined by 11 percent. Unsurprisingly, the share of renters paying more than 30 percent of income on rent has grown since 2000.”

The protesters are demanding renter protections, including just-cause eviction policies and rent control, the right for all tenants to collectively bargain for cheaper rent, and full funding for HUD.

The notion that poverty is inextricably linked to housing was buttressed by Matthew Desmond's 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Part ethnographic study, part political call-to-arms, Evicted set the urban development crowd abuzz with its empathetic portraits of impoverished Milwaukee renters' consistent inability to make rent.

Desmond lived with people whose rent drained more than 70 percent of their monthly income. He rode along in an SUV with exploitative landlords as they issued last-minute eviction notices on a freezing Wisconsin night before jetting off for a Caribbean vacation. He watched a mother hold back tears in civil court as a judge decided how much money she would owe her former landlord after being evicted.

In Nashville, a city with a booming housing market, the waiting list for public housing vouchers is currently about 10,000 people long. And it is no longer accepting new applications. Soaring urban real estate markets exacerbate the problem, as gentrification nudges poorer renters to the fringes of cities, away from jobs, friends, and churches.

According to Desmond, this cycle of coerced movement and eviction could be dramatically slowed down by a universal housing voucher program. Families “would dedicate 30 percent of their income to housing costs, with the voucher paying the rest,” Desmond writes. Britain and the Netherlands operate similar systems.

Right to the City's Johnson, for one, believes that renters do have power if they stick together and make their presence felt: “We're powerful and we won't back down.”

Lucas Sczygelski is a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an editorial intern at The Progressive.

Activists push for more affordable housing, rent control in Santa Ana

File photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG
By | | Orange County Register
September 18, 2017 at 7:51 pm

A coalition of Santa Ana community groups has launched a “week of action” to highlight renter's rights in Orange County's second-largest city, with the goal of enacting protections like rent control and “just cause” evictions.

Local activists also are pushing Santa Ana leaders to develop more than 90 city-owned parcels for public benefits such as open space, affordable housing and economic opportunities.

Activities from Monday through Saturday include a renter's rights workshop, a march on City Hall, a bike ride, and a film and art exhibit. Participants also will join an annual church drive to wash the clothes for the homeless.

“We need protection for renters in Santa Ana,” said Luis Sarmiento, a member of the year-old Community Lands in Community Hands coalition. “There's a huge, huge population of renters who are facing inhumane conditions and rising rent and evictions.”

An Orange County renter has to earn almost $35 an hour to afford the typical rent for a two-bedroom apartment of $1,813 a month, according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition's 2017 report. That translates into an annual income of $72,520, or 3.3 minimum-wage jobs. The county has the fifth-highest “housing wage” needed in the state, the 2017 report said.

The Santa Ana coalition cited recent polling data showing that 84 percent of Santa Ana voters surveyed are concerned about rising rent and the rising cost of living, while one in four is very concerned about losing their current housing. Almost half — 45 percent — said they know someone who has been evicted or forced to move.“We need a policy that will put a stop to unjust evictions, which disproportionately affect vulnerable groups,” said Isuri Ramos, a community organizer with the Kennedy Commission.

Sarmiento said the coalition is pushing for rent control and for “just cause evictions,” which would require landlords to state a reason for evictions such as destruction of property or non-payment of rent.

Currently, landlords can evict tenants for any reason so long as they give adequate notice. An Orange County Register investigation published in May showed eviction rates have been declining steadily in Orange County and throughout Southern California since 2009 as employment and the economy rebounded from the Great Recession. But evictions still are devastating for those going through the process, creating a black mark on their record which makes it harder to find new housing, the Register report showed.

“Evictions are happening, leaving a lot of people to either move into overcrowded housing situations or, in the worse-case scenario, people are ending up on the streets,” Sarmiento said. “There's this growing fear of displacement and a growing fear of eviction.”

Coalition members include such groups as Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities and the Kennedy Commission, an affordable housing advocacy group, Sarmiento said.

Community activists long have advocated for more open space in Santa Ana, saying that obesity problems, especially in lower-income neighborhoods, are due to a lack of public land. Other proposed uses of city-owned land include micro-farms to grow produce, a “mercadito” or marketplace for locally produced crafts and other types of economic development.

Santa Ana is one of 46 U.S. cities participating in a national Renters Day Of Action organized by the Renters For All housing group. Local activities this week include:

  • Monday, Sept. 18: A renter's rights workshop in the Lacy neighborhood sponsored by VELA or Vecindad Lacy en Accion from 5-8 p.m. in the parking lot at North Garfield and Brown streets.
  • Tuesday: A renter's rights march on Santa Ana City Hall from 5 to 8 p.m. starting at Latino Health Access at 450 W. 4th St. A press conference is planned outside City Hall.
  • Thursday: A bike ride and Laundry Love event. The ride will be from 5:30-7:30 p.m. starting at the El Centro Cultural de Mexico, 837 N. Ross St. The clothes washing event for the homeless is planned from 7:30-10:30 p.m. at 406 E. Santa Ana Blvd.
  • Saturday: The showing of the KCET film “City Rising” about anti-gentrification efforts and an art exhibit will take place from 4-7 p.m. at the El Centro Cultural de Mexico.

Activists push for more affordable housing, rent control in Santa Ana

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Housing Activists Kick Off “Renters Week of Action” in Santa Ana

Tuesday, September 19, 2017 at 7:32 a.m.

Yardas and a lonchera in working-class SanTana Photo by Julie Leopo

Remember when SanTana topped the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government's nationwide “urban hardship” list in 2004 as America's toughest place to live in? After gentrification in downtown followed, Forbes recast the city as the 20th coolest place to live, work and play a decade later in 2014. But an organized “Renters Week of Action” shows that getting by in SanTana is still so rough, so tough out here.

The “Community Lands in Community Hands” coalition joins the national #HomesForAll campaign in pushing for policies to alleviate housing instability. Their demands are threefold: eviction protection for tenants, rent control, and community land trust development. And the need is urgent. A public-policy research company recently surveyed SanTana voters and found housing to be a key area of concern.

An overwhelming 84 percent expressed concerns about rising rents. A quarter of those polled feared losing their housing while nearly half knew people who already had. And that's not even counting non-voters who didn't participate in the survey! “Currently a renter can be evicted for any reason as long as they get proper notice,” says Ruben Barreto, Communications Coordinator for Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities, a coalition partner. “We need a policy that gives renters protections from unjust evictions.”

Rent control and community land trusts are two proactive strategies the coalition is pushing for. Activists have identified more than 90 vacant city-owned plots, some large enough to become sites of future affordable housing developments. A community land trust allows for a locally-based nonprofit to gain control of the lot once it's given or sold by the city. “Ultimately allowing the community to be investors by transferring land to the community land trust would allow the development of affordable housing that remains affordable,” Barreto adds.

With the slogan “Permanacer y Prosperar” (Remain and Thrive), the week-long series of events kicked off yesterday with a renters rights workshop and vigil in SanTana's Lacy neighborhood; one particularly prone to chronic overcrowding and gentrification. Tenants learned their basic rights, including the right to refuse anyone who tries to enter their unit without a written notice. The focus shifts to city council this afternoon where a renters rights march from Latino Health Access will end with a press conference.

On Thursday, an afternoon bike ride gentrification tour—sure to be the opposite downtown SanTana's recent Great Neighborhood Award victory lap—ends with a Laundry Love event at night. El Centro Cultural de Mexico hosts a screening of KCET's City Rising, a documentary on gentrification that features SanTana, in closing out the week of activism on Saturday.

The flurry of renters rights events recalls the great Santa Ana Rent Strike of 1985. Back then, Latino tenants aired similar complaints about rising rents and poor housing conditions. Hermandad Mexicana Nacional's Nativo Lopez helped organized the strike against slumlords where hundreds of residents refused to pay rent until their demands were met. The struggle ended up in the courts where protesting tenants won protections against eviction and reduced rents for units in disrepair.

Decades later, there still remains a housing crisis in SanTana. But the Rent Strike provides an inspirational reminder of how to fight back. “When renters get organized, they are a power to be heard,” Barreto says. “When you know your rights and you talk to your neighbor and they talk to a neighbor, renters power becomes visible.”

Gabriel San Roman is from Anacrime. He's a journalist, subversive historian and tallest Mexican in OC.

Philadelphia Magazine: Time for a Protest: Ben Carson Is Coming to Philly on Tuesday

The HUD secretary is being welcomed the Philly way.

By | September 19, 2017 at 9:33 am


Image courtesy of Gage Skidmore via Flickr/Creative Commons

You might get the chance to see Ben Carson in Philly on Tuesday.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary will attend the ribbon-cutting celebration of Sharswood's Vaux Big Picture High School, which recently received $15 million in renovations from the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

Carson will join officials like Mayor Jim Kenney, City Council President Darrell Clarke, PHA President and CEO Kelvin A. Jeremiah, Superintendent Dr. William Hite and more. The reopening event will kick off at 1 p.m. near 23rd and Master streets.

Because this is Philly, a protest is planned for Carson's appearance. Demonstrators with the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities are expected to gather outside Vaux Big Picture High School at 12:30, just ahead of the celebration. They plan to denounce the $6 billion cuts to HUD funding in President Donald Trump's proposed budget plan, which has not yet received approval from legislators.

The PHA, which is working to bring more affordable housing to Sharswood, receives more than 90 percent of its funding from the HUD. Many in Philly who oppose the decrease in funding argue that it would be catastrophic for affordable housing. Affordable Housing Online, which provides Federal housing assistance data, estimates that Philly would lose more than $103 million annually as a result of the proposed cuts, which the organization says could impact up to 15,254 households in the city per year.

“Trump and Carson's cuts will have devastating effects on the country's most vulnerable,” the Facebook event page for the protest reads. “Senior citizens, people with disabilities, veterans and working poor people with children are all at risk of ending up in homeless shelters because of these egregious cuts.”

Carson is also expected to tour a veterans center in Old City, according to CBS3.

Follow @ClaireSasko on Twitter.


Next City: Here’s What U.S. Cities Gain If Housing Is Affordable

By Angel Ross | Op-Ed | September 19, 2017

Demonstrators protest against evictions in San Francisco in 2015. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

This week, as part of the #RenterWeekofAction, September 18 to 23, renters in over 45 cities will take to the streets to demand better protections from displacement and more community control over land and housing.

Recognizing the severity of the housing affordability crisis facing renters from Oakland to Miami and the need for policy solutions, the National Equity Atlas, a partnership between PolicyLink and the USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, analyzed the growth of renters in the nation and in 37 cities, their contributions to the economy, and what renters and the United States stand to gain if housing were affordable.

We found that renters now represent the majority in the 100 largest cities in the U.S. and are growing as a share of the population nationwide, comprising 35 percent of the population — a 27 percent increase since 2000. Renters also make tremendous contributions to economic, social and political life. They bring vitality, culture and connection to their neighborhoods and cities; they vote and volunteer in local schools; they bring dollars into their communities. Nationally, they spend $1.5 trillion per year after paying for rent and utilities, contributing billions to local economies across the country.

But that spending power has been shrinking. Renters, in many cities, are also facing a toxic mix of rising rents and declining incomes. Since 2000, median rents increased by 9 percent while median renter household incomes decreased by 11 percent. And these are real, inflation-adjusted changes. Given these circumstances, it's not surprising that more than half of renter households now spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities, up from 39 percent in 2000. Today, nearly 50 million people nationwide live in rent-burdened households.

If no renter households paid more than 30 percent of income on rent, they would have an extra $124 billion to put back into their family budgets where they could pay for the basics like healthcare, child care, transportation or food. This $124 billion in renters' pockets averages out to roughly $6,200 per rent-burdened household. This is enough for 90 percent of an entire food budget, nearly two-thirds the cost of child care, almost all transportation costs, or two-thirds the cost of tuition at a public four-year university (living expenses are based on a three-person household). Across the largest 100 cities, the average gains per household range from roughly $13,000 in Irvine, California, to $4,000 in El Paso, Texas. In all cities, it would provide an opportunity for families to save and invest in their futures.

It would also improve the health and livelihoods of the nation's most vulnerable renters. Nearly one in five households is paying more than half of their income on rent nationally. Studies have shown that these severely rent-burdened households spend less than half others do on food, which is often cheaper and less nutritious. And when those families are finally able to secure housing vouchers (often after years on a waiting list), one of the largest spending categories of the additional cost savings is food.

What's Holding Us Back?
Every year, renters are evicted from their homes by the millions. And landlords and corporate investors are profiting off of these evictions. One of the major findings of Matthew Desmond's research in his bestselling book, “Evicted,” was that evictions are not just a condition, but a cause, of poverty. After evictions, families are often compelled to accept substandard housing, and dealing with the aftermath of an eviction can lead to job loss. Eviction and housing instability also have serious mental health consequences. Recently, there have even been cases of landlords threatening immigrant tenants with deportations if they refuse to leave, if they make complaints about housing conditions, or if they challenge rent increases.

The housing affordability crisis is not only taking a toll on renters, it's also impacting municipal pocketbooks. Research from the Urban Institute shows how renters' economic and housing insecurity drains city budgets: In a typical year, one in four households experiences an income disruption due to job loss, health or a pay cut of 50 percent or more. And this has major cost implications for cities when it comes to homeless services, unpaid utilities and uncollected property taxes. One remedy is reducing evictions by providing legal counsel to tenants facing eviction. Just this year, NYC became the first city to guarantee lawyers to tenants who are facing eviction.

This affordability crisis is particularly wearing on black and brown women and their children. Desmond's research also found that one in five black women renters report being evicted at some point in their lives. For white women, it was one in 15. Families with kids were also three times as likely to get evicted than those without kids (even after controlling for how much money they owed a landlord).

Our analysis found that women of color are the most impacted by the renter crisis. Six in 10 women of color-headed households are rent-burdened nationally while the number drops to four in 10 among white men-headed households. Importantly, there are roughly the same number of renter households headed by white men (11 million) as there are renter households headed by women of color (10.8 million).

Women of Color Continue to Face the Steepest Rent Burdens
Share of renter households paying more than 30 percent of income on rent, 2000 and 2015

There Is a Better Way
Evictions and displacement are violent and disruptive. They cut tenants off from their communities, schools, doctors, services, places of worship and their homes. Policymakers at all levels need to address the renter affordability crisis. They should support policies that strengthen the social and economic vitality of our communities. These policy opportunities include:

  • Tenant protections like just cause eviction and rent control ordinances, as well as eviction prevention. New York City was the first to provide legal counsel to low-income tenants facing eviction, the vast majority of whom go to eviction court without a lawyer. Baltimore and Philadelphia are among a growing list of cities considering similar tenants' right to counsel laws.
  • Full funding for HUD: There are multiple federal funding sources for direct housing assistance (including public housing, Housing Choice vouchers and Section 8), but only one in four eligible families actually receives any kind of assistance. In many cities, the waiting list is measured in decades or closed. Each year, federal expenditures for direct housing assistance is just a fraction of what is spent on homeowner tax benefits (most of which go to wealthy families). Still, President Donald Trump's administration and HUD Secretary Ben Carson are attempting to drastically cut the Department of Housing and Urban Development budget.
  • Community ownership of land and housing through the creation of community land trusts, as well as ensuring that public land is used for the public good, and not just sold to the highest bidder.
  • Diverse affordable housing strategies: The production of affordable housing (via affordable housing linkage/impact fees or inclusionary zoning), as well as the preservation of single-room occupancies (SROs) and “naturally occurring affordable housing.”
  • Living wages: The other piece of the housing crisis puzzle is stagnating wages and the need to raise the floor on low-wage work. From 2000 to 2015, median renter household income declined in real terms in 88 of the 100 largest U.S. cities. Policymakers and employers should support minimum wage increases and living wage ordinances.

The direct actions and mass renter assemblies taking place this week across the U.S. are demanding these policies. Join the movement by visiting, Right to the City and CarsonWatch, and following #RenterWeekofAction and #RenterNation on social media.

Ángel Ross is a program associate at PolicyLink, where they research and collaborate with local and national partners through the National Equity Atlas and the All-In Cities initiative. Ángel specializes in leveraging data to support advocacy and to build the case for equity and racial economic inclusion.

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