The Rent Squeeze

Dara Lee (left) and Dawn Bacon head Clay County and Moorhead’s efforts to provide affordable housing to people with disabilities, the elderly and families overcoming homelessness. They’re standing by River View Heights, the 104-unit high rise in north Moorhead. Some 1,000 individuals and families are on waiting lists for housing assistance. (Photo/Russ Hanson)

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

Renters account for one in three Clay County households. For an alarming number of them, the cost of keeping a roof over their heads is not only the biggest item in their monthly budgets – it’s a big bite that may leave only crumbs for all the other expenses on the table.
“Affordable housing is in short supply in Moorhead and throughout the county,” says Dara Lee. For 14 years, the Yale Law School graduate has headed the Clay County Housing and Rehabilitation Agency, watching the need for housing assistance grow … while the resources to help provide it remain static. “The demand,” she adds, “far exceeds our ability to meet it.”
Yet there are shining success stories. One is providing homes and support services for veterans. Working with the Fargo Veterans Administration and the HRA’s counterparts on the other side of the river, the Northwest and West Central Minnesota Continuums of Care organization announced two years ago that communities have ended the homelessness problem among that vulnerable population. “We basically have no homeless veterans here,” Dara emphasized.
Working with the Moorhead Public Housing Agency, she and Moorhead director Dawn Bacon oversee two public offices that have patched together funding from a variety of federal and state programs to offer relief to hundreds of local households. Most of them include a person with a disability, are more than 75 years old, or are transitioning out of homelessness into permanent supportive housing, thanks to publicly owned apartments and other homes or monthly rental vouchers that cover a portion of their rent. But they say that leaves as many as one in four families who qualify for help behind.
Traditionally, “affordable housing” describes costs amounting to no more than 30% of household income. Individuals and families squeezed to spend more than that are considered “cost-burdened.” In Clay County, where Moorhead represents the lion’s share of the population, 51% of renters fall into that category. Among them, more than one out of four, or 28%, bear what’s considered a severe cost burden, paying out more than half of what comes in each month to their landlords.
Both income and rents have risen in the past 20 years, according to the 2019 State of the State’s Housing report released last summer. However, they haven’t stayed in step. Rents are 28% higher today than they were in 2000, reaching a local a median of $779. The median income of renters, however, has grown only 12%.
Public housing measures aim to close the gap among those whose income qualifies them for help. Rents at Moorhead’s River View high rise, Sharp View apartments and scattered twinhomes and single homes – a total of 181 units – is set at 30% of the occupants’ family income. With units in short supply, the public housing program seeks to serve those in the greatest need first. Dawn and her staff of six maintain long waiting lists for units as they become available. Some are years long.
The same is true of the county’s agency. While the city group manages living units, the county HRA focuses more on housing choice vouchers. Participating renters pay 30% of their income; the vouchers make up the difference and assure landlords of a stable source of rent. The county does manage 176 rental units in Moorhead, Ulen, Hawley and Dilworth, including some for the general population.
Dara estimates that “somewhere north of 1,000” households are on waiting lists for Clay County’s programs. “We’re probably serving one-fourth of the people who are eligible,” she says.
Moorhead’s program goes back to the 1960s, when the high rise was constructed. The county’s is a bit younger; it was created by the county commission in 1975. Its main source of funding is HUD, which despite widespread agreement that housing is a good use of public dollars, is consistently under-funded. “We’ve been at 87% funding of the acknowledged need since 2003,” Dara says.
Yet, thanks to creative thinking and funds from Minnesota sources, the HRA has taken on another major challenge. “We were one of three pilot locations to develop new approaches in 2014,” she explains, along with north Minneapolis and St. Paul. The local model combines housing assistance with supportive services by the Lakes and Prairies Community Action Program to help extreme-low-income families deal with issues and concerns that may threaten their stability.
Dubbed “Homework Starts at Home,” the program last year received $1 million in state funding to expand its work across the seven counties in the West Central area. It works with 56 Clay County children in 30 families, including 46 in the Moorhead School District, among a total of more than 100. A small countywide tax levy funds the Lakes and Prairies CAP case manager who helps solve the families’ challenges. Dara proudly points out that three formerly homeless teens whom they helped graduated from Moorhead High this spring.
“We think that if we had $3 million in funding, we could virtually end family and child homelessness,” she observes.
They’re looking for new directions to provide more options for those who face challenges in keeping a roof over their heads, whether they’re elderly, disabled or families hard-pressed to cover the rent. “Funding for public housing right now is erratic and insufficient,” she says. “New affordable housing will not be public housing. You never know what the funding will look like.” The private sector may play a part, using tax credits and other tools.
Long waiting lists trouble both agencies. “I feel bad for our staff sometimes,” Dara says. “We get calls – especially with winter coming on – from people desperate for help. Staff have to tell them about long waiting lists and turn them away because in the short run, there’s just nothing we can do.”
The need, Dawn says, still seems to be growing. “We are making progress, but we’re still chasing the need. Rents are going up, and wages aren’t growing. The poor are getting poorer.”
Despite the daily challenges, they’re optimistic about meeting more of the community’s housing needs. Dara and Dawn cite the spirit of collaboration among the professionals who work with needy households as the key to Moorhead’s success, which regularly outpaces most other Minnesota agencies. From the United Way, Community Action and the F-M Coalition To End Homelessness to churches and other agencies addressing the persistent problem, this is a community that has tackled homelessness with a vigor that impresses visitors from other locales.
“This is a community that believes, culturally, that eliminating homelessness is important,” Dara reflects. “No one wants the veterans who fought for us to be living on the street. No one wants school kids to have nowhere to go home to at the end of the day.” She continues, “Landlords don’t want to see kids homeless, either. The private sector, as well as government, has stepped up. It takes everyone rolling in the same direction to get where we want to go.”

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