St. Paul families gain rent relief in pandemic-battered economy

A woman stands outside her house, holding her dog in her arms.
Shaneka Swift and her dog, Diamond, outside of her east St. Paul home on Tuesday.
Nina Moini | MPR News

A St. Paul housing assistance program started before the coronavirus pandemic is keeping some families in their homes, and officials want to know if it could help in ways that other housing assistance does not.

The city of St. Paul teams up with the school district to identify 250 families who may be at risk of losing their homes. Those families receive a $300 monthly rent supplement and supportive services, such as career readiness training, advocacy and mediation help, and housing mentorship. The program is funded with city and nonprofit funds for three years.

Shaneka Swift was learning to be an EMT, working as a security guard and raising six children, when she learned about the Families First Housing Pilot earlier this year. It turned out to be a bigger help than Swift had imagined, after her classes stalled and her working hours were cut in COVID-19’s wake.

The $300 goes directly to Swift’s landlord, freeing up money in Swift’s budget for other bills.

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“Every little dime counts, so it took pressure off me,” Swift said.

Shellie Rowe, a housing stability manager at Neighborhood House, helps families in the pilot program. She sees more people every day who can’t pay any rent during the pandemic.

“We see a lot of families that are doubled up because they can’t afford it,” Rowe said.

There are 36 families enrolled in Families First so far. Rowe said the pandemic amplified an existing housing crisis, especially for families earning the least. It’s why Rowe and her staff are working with some St. Paul schools through the end of the year to identify 90 more families that qualify during this round of applications.

St. Paul Director of Housing Kayla Schuchman said about a quarter of St. Paul residents have filed unemployment claims since the start of the pandemic.

“We have this double whammy of housing cost-burdened and unemployment hitting certain communities hardest,” Schuchman said.

Families First includes households making around $30,000 a year for a family of four, paying 40 percent or more of their income for rent. Qualified families do not receive Section 8 or live in public housing.

Schuchman says the Families First program hopes to enroll families over the course of three years. At the same time, they’ll study how the flat $300 a month housing aid works for families.

Swift said St. Paul's program has helped, but she still worries about a lack of work during the pandemic and being able to support her family.

“I just keep them as my motivation and try to stay focused. Every time I feel like I get myself down, I will think about them,” Swift said. “They watch me, I have to keep going.”