Housing & Real Estate

Elizabeth Emerson
VISTA Tenant Advocate

Imagine walking into a grocery store in search of a pack of hot dogs, only to find shelves filled with filet mignon and little else. You can either bust your budget, or go hungry.

And so goes the Twin Cities housing market. Whether one is speaking of rental housing or home ownership, the current metro trends of the past decade assure current residents and new arrivals that prices will be high and quantity will be scarce. In a healthy and economically viable community, it can be said that there exists a rental vacancy rate of around five percent (for every 100 apartments, there are five vacancies). This allows a prospective renter a myriad of style, price and amenity choices, while still providing landlords with necessary income. On the homeownership end, many claim that a high rate of home ownership is a positive indicator of a strong economy, higher incomes and individual wealth. However, in many areas nationwide the availability of affordable rental housing has decreased, causing a higher rate of homeownership which can be dangerous, as high demand forces prices to sky-rocket (in accordance with the economic principles of supply and demand). The American Housing Survey reports that 7.5 million, about 22% of all, renter households are experiencing a severe housing problem (defined by the American Housing Survey as cost burdens above 50% of income and occupancy of severely inadequate housing). Conversely, about 16.6 million homeowners experience moderate or severe housing problems. (The statistics appear balanced once noted that there are twice as many homeowners as renters nationwide.) Housing problems have severe effects on the individuals living in such conditions, but they also have an effect on the community at large. A family unable to maintain stable housing may suffer on a number of fronts: children with an unstable home life typically do not perform at an optimal level, heads-of-households may lose pay or employment due to days missed in order to find future housing, attend financing/lease signing/viewing appointments, and relocation time necessary to each move. These problems can lead to others, many times causing financial and familial stress.

The Twin Cities metropolitan area, in the 1990s, experience a huge population jump; at the same time, its housing supply increased at the lowest rate since at least the Great Depression. The result, as mentioned, is two-fold. In the rental housing market, a lack of available units force more individuals to live with family members (Minnesota ranks tenth in the nation), push more people into homeless shelters (Minnesota’s numbers are three times the national average) and demand that renters pay more than affordable rents (Affordable rent is defined as at or below 30% of one’s income). Because of this crisis, the Twin Cities area now boasts the smallest percentage of idle units of any metropolitan area in the country, according to the latest census.

Finding the region’s real-estate shelves stocked almost exclusively with owner-occupied home and townhouses, with a few high-dollar rental properties thrown in, would-be renters are increasingly jumping into the ownership market.

So in a day where interest rates are, for the moment, low, the Twin Cities has surged to become the nation’s leader in homeownership rates, a title which may be attributed to the low supply of rental housing. Mary Bujold of Maxfield Research, Inc., also attributes this trend in homeownership to the rental market.  Rental prices have increased so dramatically that Bujold (like many others) speculates that renters everywhere ask themselves, if my rent is going up 100 bucks a month, can I find some way, shape or form to find the money that I need to move into owner-occupied housing? During April 2000 in the metro area, the median sale price for a home was $165,000, a ten percent increase from 1999. Still, to those frustrated by the rental market, buying is still a more attractive option.

Standing in the way of solving the crisis in housing, the many interest groups disagree on proper solutions.There are those that claim that the current property-tax structure needs to be reexamined. (Currently, landlords pay higher property taxes than do homeowners for property of equal value.) Others blame the lack of land available for high-density multifamily developments.This debate has not stayed within the ranks of healthy housing market advocates, recently exploding at the state level. Both Minneapolis and St. Paul have adopted plans to address the issue of affordable housing, and state legislation is pending. It will be necessary to collaborate and compromise to address the concerns of homeowners, developers, landlords and tenants to create a viable solution to this widespread problem.

If you feel that you are in a housing crisis, there are a few possible options:

1. Locate an assistance program near you. Assistance may be obtained through your city, county or even state. It is best to contact your city’s social services department, who will direct you.

2. Apply for public (Section 8) housing. In the metropolitan area, there are many agencies who administer the Section 8 program:

Minneapolis Public Housing Authority
1001 Washington Ave. N
Minneapolis, MN 55401

St. Paul Public Housing Agency
480 Cedar St. Suite 600
St. Paul, MN 55101

3. Apply for transitional housing.

Elim Transitional Housing Inc. Alliance of the Streets
3989 Central Ave NE
Columbia Heights, MN 55421
Minneapolis, MN 55404
763-788-1546 or 612-870-0529

YWCA of St. Paul
476 N. Robert St.
St. Paul, MN 55101

4. Shelters have identification requirements, so be sure your ID cards are available and current.

5. Keep an emergency bag ready. If you have more than two bags (one for children), you should find someone you trust to hold your things. Most shelters have baggage limits. Pack only what you need. Try to have $20-50 on hand for emergencies, because some shelters charge. A housing crisis may also affect other areas of your life. If your housing crisis is going to affect your employment, or your employment (or lack thereof) is causing a housing crisis, contact your local social service agency immediately. They may be able to help.

Even if you don’t have shelter, you will need to provide food for yourself and your family. There are several soup kitchens, and food shelves in the Twin Cities area:

Alliance of the Streets Dorothy Day Center
1829 Portland Ave. S 183 Old 6th St.
Minneapolis, MN 55404 St. Paul, MN 55102
612-870-0529 or 651-293-1919

You may also want to pursue local food pantries or food shelves:

Cecil Newman Resource Center
Hallie Q Brown Community Center, Inc.
703 Emerson Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55411
612-374-1511 and…

N 270 N. Kent
St. Paul, MN 55102

Centro Chicano
1915 Chicago Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55404-1904

Emergency/Short Term Crisis Housing:

Community Emergency Services (for couples without children):
1900 11th Ave. S
Minneapolis, MN 55404

Mary Hall (for men and women):
438 Main St.
St. Paul, MN 55102

Sabathani Community Center (for women and children):
310 E. 38th St.
Minneapolis, MN 55409

Our Saviour’s Housing (for men, women and families):
2219 Chicago Ave. S
Minneapolis, MN 55404

Read Up

Paths to Homelessness: Extreme Poverty and the Urban Housing Crisis, Doug A. Timmer, 1994.

Rescuing the American Dream: Public Policy and the Crisis in Housing, Rolf Goetze, 1983.


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