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Coalition fighting homelessness seeks $100M in bonding money for affordable housing

Rhonda Otteson, coordinator for the southwest region of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, said $100 million in new bonding money is needed to provide more affordable housing across Minnesota. (Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange)

WILLMAR –– A statewide homeless coalition with roots in west central Minnesota wants the Legislature to approve $100 million in bonds this year to build affordable housing.

The money is needed to ensure stability in families, schools and communities, said Rhonda Otteson, southwest regional coordinator for the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless. Otteson is based in Willmar.

Gov. Dayton has proposed allocating $50 million in the bonding bill for housing.

Otteson said 97 percent of Minnesota counties do not have adequate affordable housing for families living in and on the edge of poverty, including senior citizens, people with disabilities and youth.

“We need more affordable housing for our workforce and for families,” said Otteson, citing a 2012 Wilder Foundation study that found 46 percent of Minnesota’s homeless are children.

“We keep talking about how we’re going to support children in schools and help them achieve. You can’t achieve if you’re not at home, eating well and are living in a hotel or a car,” said Rep. Mary Sawatzky.

“We need to support our families,” said Sawatzky, DFL-Willmar.

The current lack of housing is taking its toll across the state.

Homelessness may look different here than it does in urban areas, but it is a reality in rural Minnesota, said Otteson, who also works for The Link, a nonprofit group based in the New London-Spicer area that is a member of the statewide Coalition for the Homeless.

People do live in cars, she said.

“I met with somebody who was living in an unheated garage in the dead of winter,” said Otteson.

A local agency reported a family living in a heated dog kennel.

“People are trying to survive,” she said.

The coalition intends to lobby legislators aggressively for affordable housing funds when the Legislature kicks off the new session on Feb. 25.

On March 6 supporters will gather at the Capitol for “Homeless Day on the Hill.”

Sen. Lyle Koenen said he supports upping the homeless housing bond allocation to $100 million.

Historically, the majority of money is dedicated to homelessness in the metro area, said Koenen, DFL-Clara City.

“I’m not denying there’s a need in the metro area,” he said. “But we have homeless problems in greater Minnesota too.”

Instead of taking money away from urban communities and shifting it to rural Minnesota, Koenen said the entire pot should be increased.

He acknowledged, however, requests for bonding money far exceed available funds. He predicts a final bonding bill of $800 million to $850 million.

If bonding money is approved for housing, Otteson said there would likely be a competitive process put in place for communities to access the funds.

Priorities including constructing new affordable housing and rehabilitating current housing, such as apartments that need upgrades to make them more energy efficient and affordable to families.

The coalition wants $80 million in infrastructure bonds to build and rehabilitate 1,700 units, and $20 million in general obligation bonds dedicated to rehabilitate 3,500 public housing units.

Otteson said it’s a “really smart approach” to preserve and upgrade existing housing and make it easier for communities to build new affordable housing or acquire and rehabilitate foreclosed homes.

Along with seeking additional state funds, Otteson said Kandiyohi County’s homeless task force has developed two initiatives, including Heartland Community Action Agency’s “Safe Harbor” program that provides motel vouchers to families.

There’s currently enough funding for five vouchers in the county, which allows families to stay in a motel for several weeks while more permanent housing is obtained.

Otteson said the county needs more than five vouchers.

“The need definitely exceeds the availability of resources that we have to address these issues in a timely manner,” she said.

Another initiative is Family Promise of Kandiyohi County that has volunteers, local agencies and the faith community exploring a program to provide food and temporary overnight shelter at area churches for families with children.

There are currently six or seven churches that have signed on to the program and the First Presbyterian Church in Willmar has remodeled and donated office space for the program, which is modeled after the national Family Promise organization. She said 13 churches are needed before the program can be launched.

Besides lobbying for additional bonding money, the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless is also asking legislators to increase the minimum wage and remove education and training barriers for parents enrolled in the Minnesota Family Investment Program.

Otteson said helping low-income people get more education and training is another way of increasing community stability.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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