“Cheerleader-in-Chief for Housing”
by Ben Helvick Anderson, Director of Public Policy
Commissioner Jennifer Ho agrees with the principle of rent subsidy and commits to being a partner working for service funding.
On the beautiful autumn evening of September 26, over 170 Beacon leaders gathered at Colonial Church of Edina. We assembled to celebrate Beacon’s achievements, proclaim a new vision for housing policy in Minnesota, and discuss this vision with the Commissioner of Minnesota Housing, Jennifer Ho.
Beacon leaders were excited to hear how Commissioner Ho would respond to our bold policies because of her inspiring advocacy background. Commissioner Ho has tirelessly worked for her entire career inside and outside of the government to end homelessness. Housing advocates celebrated when Governor Tim Walz appointed her as commissioner and have high expectations for her tenure.
Commissioner Ho did not disappoint the Beacon leaders and engaged in a lively and passionate discussion with Laura Helmer, Chair of Beacon’s Board of Directors, and Matt Pletcher, a congregational leader. Their first point of discussion was bonding dollars for housing. Minnesota is unique in that it sells state bonds to raise capital for the private development of housing to serve people who are chronically homeless, seniors, and to preserve current affordable housing. Under Commissioner Ho’s leadership, Minnesota Housing has asked for an unprecedented $180 million for Housing Infrastructure Bonds for the upcoming 2020 legislative session. Beacon has used past bonding dollars to build several developments.
Matt celebrated the proposal and asked the commissioner how Beacon leaders could support her in securing that significant amount and keep the dollars focused on those most in need. Commissioner Ho challenged the audience to call the Governor and the leadership in the legislature and “let them know this is important to you.” She was more cautious about speaking to the eligible uses. She mentioned that those in greatest need “look different in different places,” and that Minnesota Housing worries that the current focuses might not generate the needed demand for all the new funds. In a later discussion, Commissioner Ho encouraged Beacon to keep asking for these bonding dollars for the crucial homes we are building and not to be discouraged if we do not receive it because presently only “one in four projects” receives funding. We hope to have continued conversation with the Commissioner and her staff about the barriers they face in awarding the bonding money to housing projects and why they are concerned with “getting the money out the door,” when their appears to be ample demand.
One of the indispensable programs Minnesota has to care for people with disabilities is called Housing Support, which supports folks through rent assistance and service funding. Unfortunately, this program only has one flat rate of support funding, and it’s intended for one individual, not families. Parents who depend on this program for support struggle to afford an apartment that fits their family and seek the holistic services their whole family needs to thrive.
Laura engaged Commissioner Ho about this dilemma and asked her to help Beacon work with the Department of Human Services to “family-size” this program. Commissioner Ho agreed and pledged that “I will be your partner is working to solve service financing,” and urged us to bring this problem to her counterpart at the Department of Human Services, Commissioner Jodi Harpstead.
The big culmination of the night was Matt asking Commissioner Ho about Beacon’s boldest idea: a state rent subsidy program. The often hidden and unrecognized part of the housing crisis facing Minnesota is that rent inflation has left thousands of people with low incomes spending over 50 percent of their income for housing every single month. This situation leaves people across the state in a constant state of instability. Beacon affirms the value that we have the resources as a society to solve this problem. By creating a state rent subsidy program, we can ensure everyone who is low income and housing insecure would not pay any more than 30% of their income on rent.
Laura challenged Commissioner Ho on this concept and asked her if she agreed with the principle that everyone who qualifies for rent subsidy should get it. Commissioner Ho responded, “I absolutely believe everyone should have a home they can afford.” She lamented the state of the federal rent subsidy program, Section 8, which does not come close to meeting the current need. She saw in her work the difference a rent subsidy vouchers would make in a family’s life. She proclaimed that “it’s just so clear the difference between having a Section 8 voucher – a housing choice voucher and not – is the difference between a kid going to the same school, a reduction in family violence, the increase in kids mental health, and increased food security…having a housing voucher isn’t just about housing stability; it’s about life.”
Commissioner Ho encouraged Beacon to keep pushing for bold solutions because we are in a moment when all corners of the state are feeling the housing crisis. She encouraged everyone in the room to take action and that “you will be the difference,” and she committed to continuing to be the “cheerleader in chief for housing.” Beacon leaders left the convening invigorated and excited by the commissioner’s words. Her passionate and honest answers gave direction and energy toward moving our vision forward and helped launch Beacon’s new policy effort. As one member of the Walz administration, Commissioner Ho was careful not to officially support a policy without it being the governor’s official position and urged everyone to bring these issues to the governor. Beacon has already invited Governor Walz to our next convening in January, and we hope to work with Commissioner Ho in gaining the governor’s and other state leaders’ support for a vision where all have a home.