In St. Cloud, apartment shortage splits up families

A shortage of rental housing for large families in St. Cloud has forced some families to split their household into two apartments.

About 150 largely immigrant families who are on the waiting list for Section 8 housing vouchers need four-bedroom or larger apartments.

When he moved to St. Cloud from New York four years ago, Ali never imagined he and his wife would have to live apart. But he had to move out two years ago when their fifth child was born and his family began receiving a Section 8 housing voucher.

"This apartment ... they are not allowing for more than six people," said Ali.

He does not want to use his last name for fear of running afoul of the occupancy limits set by federal housing policies.

Today, Ali and his wife have six children. One of their daughters went to live with him in an apartment about three miles away.

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As Ali is rarely home because he works and goes to school full time, his daughter stays with his wife -- even though she's not supposed to.

"This issue is not something only in my family," said his wife, who did not want to be identified. "I see a huge number of families have been separated, live in different addresses, different areas in the city."

She said she knows single mothers who have sent some of their children to live with friends.

The families are in a jam because there isn't a large enough inventory of four-, five- or six-bedroom apartments, said Louise Reis, housing director at the St. Cloud Housing and Redevelopment Authority.

Reis said she doesn't see a solution soon as developers and building owners likely don't think multi-bedroom, affordable rental housing, brings a big enough return. Instead, they seek investments.

"That doesn't always necessarily help a person of limited income," Reis said.

St. Cloud housing officials have been working with faith, community, and social service groups to explore options.

The Rev. Steve Cook, president of Isaiah's Great River Interfaith Partnership, said his organization has looked into buying old dormitories from St. Cloud State University. He said it might be possible to convert two-bedroom units into four-bedroom units.

Cook also said a Section 8 homebuyer program might be helpful

"We've talked about the possibility of moving families into homes, particularly foreclosed homes," he said.

Cook considers allowing families to use large living rooms as bedrooms as the most practical solution. But with strict federal regulations and codes, few of these ideas are likely to become solutions.

Reis said she, Section 8 landlords, and housing advocates have begun working with the Minneapolis field office of the federal Housing and Urban Development department to come up with creative solutions. She said much of the financial burden falls on landlords.

Lisa Marvin, CEO of Essence Property Management, a developer of moderate-to-low income housing, agreed. Marvin said joining two apartments, for example, would be expensive.

"You look at the price for two two-bedrooms compared to one four-bedroom, and it just doesn't make financial sense for an owner to do that," she said. "It's hard for people to understand -- housing is very close to your heart and it's very passionate for us -- but we are running a business."

To help meet the demand, Marvin and another developer submitted a proposal sought more than a year ago to build 40 town homes with four, five, and six bedrooms. But she said the proposal didn't meet the minimum qualifications.

St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis said this subsidized housing issue doesn't fall under his jurisdiction. But he supports several ideas pushed by advocates, including moving families into foreclosed homes, instead of building new apartment buildings.

"I think the solution is using existing stock," Kleis said. "It took care of us [in a] generation when the demographics had large families and it can do that again."

This housing issue isn't unique to St. Cloud. Housing authorities in the Twin Cities and Rochester are also having a difficult time housing large families.