Rooming Houses Are an Important Part of the Affordable Housing Patchwork

By Barbara Jeanetta, Executive Director of Alliance Housing Inc.

I read almost weekly about the ills of rooming house life. My google alerts bring me stories of fire, over –crowding, and substandard conditions. In Minneapolis, zoning codes prohibit new rooming house licenses. Some of you will be surprised to hear that there are still a few rooming houses out there. I toured a few existing properties a few years ago and found many of the properties worn out, but at full occupancy.

Alliance Housing gets multiple calls every day from single adults looking for an apartment. Some are not too keen on the idea of sharing a kitchen and bathroom with other adults until they learn they’ll have a lease in their name and rent is under $350. Once they are in our attractive, well-cared for building in Whittier, or one of our properties in the Powderhorn, Phillips, and Central neighborhoods, they quite happily settle in having more control over their housing situation than they’ve had for a long while.

A profile of our rooming house tenants makes it hard to put a finger on exactly who needs this type of housing. Our tenants who rent rooms are varied: men, women, working, not working, old, young. 38% of them are working, 45% are disabled and on some sort of government program, 14% are retired and receive a government or VA pension. The kinds of jobs our tenants have range from parking lot attendant to retail clerk, from fast food and janitorial work to day care. A few work seasonal landscaping and construction labor jobs. The most unique employment is a job on the carnival circuit. Some jobs pay cash. Most pay no benefits.

At an average income of $11,734, men and women who want their own place are well matched with the price of rent in an Alliance room. The average one bedroom apartment in south Minneapolis costs $788 per month. To pay 30% of one’s income or less for this rent would take a minimum wage person 65 hours per week or a much higher wage at less hours. Alliance’s rooms are affordable under the same terms for 27 hours per week.

24 of 27 tenants at our Pillsbury rooming house over the past year had lived there over 6 months. The longest tenured tenant has been there 15 years. The average tenancy is 3.5 years. There is no time limit for how long someone lives in the rooming house as long as they are paying their rent and respecting the property and their neighbors, but we hope some are able to move on to a bigger place of their own. Some find the price aligns with their income and are quite satisfied. Some get asked to move on after unsuccessful attempts to negotiate and collect rent or because of their inability to control either their own behavior or the behavior of friends.

Alliance supports the tenants’ sense of community and enforces a few rules to keep its rooming house calm and an asset to tenants and neighbors alike. Over the past year, police were called 27 times. More than 75% of the calls were for issues the police keep anonymous – help with issues related to mental health and issues that don’t involve a crime. Admittedly, six were for fights or concerns about drug activity. We take those seriously and follow-up to ensure they don’t happen again, at least with that tenant at our property.

A recent editorial by Ed Murphy of Open Your Heart to the Hungry and Homeless noted that we have eliminated much of the housing in this community for tenants like Alliance’s at 2011 Pillsbury. Urban renewal cleared out residential hotels and pay-by-the-week housing to make way for high amenity condos and apartments in downtown Minneapolis. Coupled with higher incarceration rates and deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill without good solutions on the other side, the number of homeless adults who can’t afford or get screened out of today’s affordable housing options continues to increase. Well-run rooming houses like Alliance’s are part of the solution. Better public policy and use of government support would encourage their presence and focus on keeping them well-managed in order to keep low-wage and low-income adults housed.

Menu