The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 15, 2013

No Direction Home, Day 2: For homeless, housing help hard to come by

Housing voucher program closed in Mankato

By Robb Murray
The Mankato Free Press

---- — Read Day 2 in pdf format

How difficult is it for people with low or no income to get help with housing in Mankato?

Consider this: The city’s housing coordinator said they don’t even take names for the waiting list anymore for the Housing Choice Voucher Program or what used to be known as Section 8.

The program, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, has helped millions of people since its inception in 1937. But in recent years, funding has decreased.

Mankato is approved for 425 vouchers, but because the program’s funding has been scaled back, the city is only working with 406 vouchers.

Making matters worse was the federal funding sequester (the automatic across-the-board spending cuts that went into effect March 1). Because of the sequester, the Housing Choice Voucher Program is operating on 94 percent of what they had in 2012.

“HUD gives us a dollar amount and says help as many as you can but don’t go over your limit,” said Patti Ziegler, the city of Mankato’s housing coordinator. “Funding has been stagnant, but rent is going up.”

Ziegler is right about the rent.

Minnesota’s median rents remained relatively constant for the past 10 years, according to the website Department of Numbers (which is not a government website). Mankato, however, has seen rents rise. In 2005, the median rent in Mankato was $635. In 2012 it was $708. (Median rent spiked in 2010 at $756.)

Nationally, the number of families using Housing Choice Vouchers is up 6 percent, or 110,000, since 2005. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the additional families served accounts for $1 billion of the $3.6 billion increase in the program from 2005 to 2011. If the sequester cuts continue into 2014, the center estimates, as many as 185,000 low-income families will lose assistance by the end of next year, according to the organization.

At the Minnesota Valley Action Council, where they administer the Housing Choice Voucher Program for area counties, they’re feeling the pinch of decreasing budgets, too.

“If I had a magic wand, I’d triple the number of vouchers,” said MVAC’s Kate Hengy-Gretz.

MVAC has a 12- to 15-month wait for vouchers. “I’ve never had a time when we didn’t have a waiting list,” MVAC’s Mary Phillips said.

MVAC serves 118 families in Le Sueur County and 92 in Faribault County. Families or individuals who get one will pay about 30 percent of their gross income to housing.

“It can really be a tough situation in Faribault County,” Hengy-Gretz said. “When you lose a job in Faribault County, there’s not a lot to offer there.”

Beyond handling the Housing Choice Voucher program, MVAC deals with many non-voucher families struggling to get by. They’ve got some emergency funds available to help people make a rent payment but not enough to help people long term.

“Sometimes people will, for example, decide to buy Christmas presents for their children instead of pay their rent,” Hengy-Gretz said. “It’s hard for people.”

Sometimes people need the kind of help that falls beyond financial. Hengy-Gretz said there are times when people haven’t tried to, for example, talk with their landlords about struggles they’re having in paying their rent. She said she’s also noticed younger people having expectations that they be allowed to “float along” until they have the money to pay their rent.

And for others, Hengy-Gretz finds herself giving out advice recently that she never thought she’d have to. “I talk to a lot of people about, you may just need to find a place to park your car,” she said. “Places like Walmart tend not to kick people out of their parking lot. Walmart has lighting, security cameras, bathrooms are available. I’ve talked to people about finding a tent. ... When I first started, I hardly ever had to have that conversation. Now, I’m having it with someone weekly.”

Housing options limited

In addition to the Housing Choice Voucher program, the city of Mankato also has a number of public housing options.

The city operates 179 public housing units, 101 of which are at Orness Plaza. The other 78 are scattered about town. Just as with the Housing Choice Voucher program, residents in public housing pay about 30 percent of their gross income to rent, and there is no limit on how long they can stay.

Like the Housing Choice Voucher program, the public housing units at Orness are difficult to get into. The waiting list sits at about 80 people.

Another option from the city is the so-called Shelter Plus Care vouchers, which are reserved for the homeless. The city has four such vouchers for individuals and four for families. All who receive them are housed at Cherry Ridge Apartments.

Finally, the city offers some additional services to veterans through the Veterans Administration supportive housing outreach. Through that program, VA social workers come down from the Twin Cities weekly to meet with and advise veterans.

Ziegler said one of the problems is there isn’t enough lower-income housing in Mankato. The recently built Sibley Parkway apartments added to the number, but she said the number of people who need affordable housing in Mankato could fill several more complexes just like it.

In the past, the federal government offered incentives such as tax credits to builders of affordable housing, who would then reduce rents for a prescribed time period. But as those time periods expired, many landlords chose to raise rents and maximize profits, leaving the market with little affordable housing.

Other affordable housing complexes in Mankato include Cherry Ridge, Homestead Apartments, Village Place Apartments, Riverfront Court and Gus Johnson Plaza. Eastport Apartments are being renovated now with tax credits.

“At one point, all the new pretty apartments in Mankato were all tax credits,” Ziegler said.

The city is also spending $85,000 to help the Salvation Army start a women’s shelter (it now has only a men’s shelter). No word yet from the Salvation Army when that might be done, but the plan is to include laundry facilities, a shower room and kitchenette.

Affordable housing options, of course, aren’t an issue for someone who has a job with a decent wage. But that’s not always easy to find, either.

Wages still low

Talk of affordable housing and wages often leads people to wonder how many people in Mankato are in a desperate situation.

According to the Jobs Now Coalition:

n The average annual cost of meeting basic needs for a family of four with two workers is about $54,000. To cover these costs each worker must earn $13.04 per hour.

n In Greater Minnesota, 44 percent of jobs — more than 460,000 jobs — pay less than a family-supporting wage of $13.04 per hour.

n At the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, a couple with two children would have to work 144 hours a week to meet basic needs.

n If one parent stays home with the children in a family of four, the other must land a job that pays $16.49 per hour to cover basic needs. Fifty-nine percent of jobs in Greater Minnesota pay less.

n If the purchasing power of the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation since the late 1960s, it would be $9.95 per hour. In Greater Minnesota, 24 percent of jobs — nearly 260,000 jobs — pay less than $9.95 per hour.

n A single person with no dependents must earn $11.46 per hour to meet basic needs. In Greater Minnesota, 35 percent of jobs pay less.

n The annual cost of basic needs for a single person with one child is about $35,000 — more than $20,000 higher than the federal poverty line. To cover these costs a person must earn $16.80 per hour.

In Mankato specifically, roughly 27 percent of the people are living at or below the poverty line. Mankato’s unemployment rate is 3.3 percent, which is lower than the state average of about 4.1 percent.

But even those who are employed often find themselves with wages so low they can’t make a dent in their debt and or climb out of their low-wage existence.

According to Job Vacancy Survey from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, job openings in south-central Minnesota are up 156 percent compared with four years ago. In south-central Minnesota there now are 2,700 job openings — the largest number of openings in eight years.

But 45 percent of them are part time. The median wage for part-time openings is $8.97 per hour. According to this survey, 6,600 job seekers are competing for 1,500 full-time job openings. Job seekers outnumber full-time openings by more than 4 to 1.

Just 32 percent of all openings required education or training beyond high school. And only 15 percent require a four-year degree.

These kinds of figures are partly behind the recent push in Minnesota and many other states to get the minimum wage increased.

Minnesota is one of only four states with a minimum wage lower than the federal minimum. During the last legislative session, a lobbying effort pushed passage of a bill that would raise it, but the bill stalled. It is likely to be addressed again this year.

Across the country, five states and four local governments raised their minimum wages via legislation. In one city in Washington, the minimum wage was raised to $15 per hour.

The national rate is $7.25 per hour, and even with a few bumps up and down over the years, its buying power has decreased as inflation marches on. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that of the 75 million people nationwide who work for an hourly wage, 3.5 million worked at or below the minimum wage last year.