Affordable housing advocates 'excited' for bonding bill cash

Eddie Chambers
Eddie Chambers was homeless in the early 2000s and now lives in Aeon's Coyle Apartments just south of downtown Minneapolis. Chambers also serves on Aeon's board of directors.
Matt Sepic/MPR News

Twelve years ago, Eddie Chambers had been working construction, landscaping and factory jobs off and on until accidents and health problems left him unable to work, and eventually homeless. He couch-surfed, slept on the streets, and took his chances at shelters.

"Some of them are set up where they hold lotteries, and people go there and they sign up for a bed, a 30-day bed," Chambers said. "If you're lucky, you'll win the 30-day bed. Because if it's cold outside in the wintertime, if you're lucky enough to be chosen you get to be there for a month, and then for those who don't win, they have to go elsewhere."

After more than a year on the streets, Chambers, 47, connected with Aeon, a Minneapolis nonprofit that develops affordable housing. Today he's still unable to work. But with his public assistance check and a Section 8 housing voucher, Chambers is able to pay the rent at Aeon's Coyle Apartments just south of downtown. It's a building he shares with 25 other formerly homeless people.

"I was just fortunate to be given a chance by this organization, and if it weren't for this organization, I don't know where I'd be right now," Chambers said.

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Organizations like Aeon could soon get a monetary boost from the state to help more people like Chambers. Homeless service agencies across Minnesota are eyeing a slice of the $100 million state lawmakers set aside for affordable housing in this year's construction bonding bill.

Alan Arthur
Alan Arthur is president & CEO of Aeon, a Minneapolis nonprofit that develops affordable housing.
Matt Sepic/MPR News

The measure is awaiting the governor's signature. About $20 million is already earmarked for upgrades to public housing, but the rest will be used to build and rehab below-market-rate homes. Advocates say quality housing for low-income people is key to ending homelessness in Minnesota.

"We certainly have a lot of aspirations to do more for the community in the area of affordable homes for people and we'll continue to work on that, and we hope to have some of the money to do that," said Alan Arthur, Aeon's president.

If Aeon gets a piece of the bonding money it'll likely pay for improvements to some of the apartments the organization built when it first started in the 1980s, Arthur said.

Two hundred miles north of Minneapolis in the Iron Range community of Virginia, Leah Hall with the Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency has a similar idea. Hall said there's high demand for low-income housing across the region. And try as they might, she said many private landlords struggle to keep up with repairs while keeping rents down. Hall said her agency hopes to use $5 million to $6 million of the state money to buy and rehab a large, aging apartment building in Virginia.

She said in past years it's been difficult for rural housing advocates to compete for public funds, but now Hall said she's more hopeful.

Ripley Gardens
Ripley Gardens is a former maternity hospital in North Minneapolis that Aeon rehabbed and turned into affordable housing. It opened in 2007.
Matt Sepic/MPR News

"This year the stars have aligned. A project came through that looks competitive to us, it serves a great need, and we might actually have a fighting chance this year, so we're really excited about it," Hall said.

The money approved by the state Legislature last week is an unprecedented amount for affordable housing, said Cathy ten Broeke, Minnesota's Director to Prevent and End Homelessness. While she said it's not enough to to put a roof over the heads of the estimated 10,000 to 14,000 people in Minnesota who'll sleep on the streets tonight, it's a big step in the right direction.

It's especially important for children, ten Broeke said.

"When families get stable, their children do better," she said. "We have all kinds of studies that are showing us that educational achievement for young children when they have housing stability is far better than children who are even equally poor who do not have housing stability."

Dorothy Day Center
A homeless woman sits among the sleeping mats at the Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul, Minn.
Julie Siple / MPR News, File

On its own, the bond money could pay for the construction or rehabilitation of 5,000 housing units and will likely go further when combined with private donations and federal money, ten Broeke said.

It may also reduce the need for other social services, saving taxpayers money, she added.

While permanent, low-cost housing is the focus of advocates for the homeless across Minnesota, Tim Marx, CEO of Catholic Charities in the Twin Cities, said there's still a need for temporary shelter.

"Unfortunately the great recession caused homelessness to increase and shelter is part of our housing continuum for the next several years, and hopefully we will not need much more of it," Marx said.

In addition to the $100 million for affordable housing, The public works bonding bill includes $6 million for Catholic Charities to re-do and expand its overcrowded Dorothy Day Center in downtown St. Paul.

But with long-term solutions to homelessness in mind, Marx said Catholic Charities is also applying for some of the affordable housing bond money to build apartments nearby.