Here at Alliance Housing, we’ve been advocating and agitating for many years for our belief that rooming houses and sleeping rooms can be part of the solution to the problem of homelessness. In this past year our efforts have begun to bear fruit. We were able to expand our portfolio with the addition of a 31 unit rooming house in the Stevens Square neighborhood. At the same time, we’ve seen a resurgence of interest in this idea among policy-makers. To me it feels like luck, but Board member Fran Neir reminds me that we’ve put in a lot of time laying the groundwork.
Let me tell you about our newest property. Because we believe in rooming houses as a viable and valuable option for people with precious little money to spend on rent, Alliance has been actively seeking another rooming house property for several years. Last summer we looked at a property at 143 E. 19th Street that was owned by Volunteers of America. They were consolidating some programs and wanted to sell this property.
Alliance could not afford to buy it and operate it at the asking price, but we knew that Hennepin County was looking for properties to purchase with federal CARES Act dollars, for permanent housing for the men and women staying in the shelter hotels during the pandemic. We shared the sale information with them. To make a long story short, Hennepin County purchased the property, and Alliance was selected to manage it along the lines of our existing model.
After rehabilitation by Hennepin County, the doors opened in December and the first tenants moved in December 30, 2020. We call it Stevens Square Residence.
Among the first to move in was R. Torkelson – a 53 year man from the shelter. He had been homeless for the past 4 years, in and out of the shelters and was grateful to move into a place he could settle in and call his own. Mr. Torkelson expressed how his health has been an issue and he hasn’t been able to address it being homeless. Stevens Square gives him a 2nd chance to take care of himself, again.
Joining Torkelson and the others is David Sobata. He had previously lived at another Alliance Housing property and was excited to know Stevens Square is managed by us, as well. David enjoyed being at one of Hennepin County’s “shelter hotels” over the last year and was worried about the transition to his own unit. Yet, he know no shelter was permanent and needed some assurance of stability in his life. After a few months David says, “having my own room and being independent is wonderful.” He has made his unit his own and has been an advocate at Steven Square to keep things clean and running well.
At the same time, we’ve noticed that our advocacy efforts around the issue are paying off, as well. New rooming houses have been forbidden in the City of Minneapolis for decades. The only way to provide additional units was purchase of a rooming house with an existing license. I’ve looked at several existing properties, and there aren’t many worth purchasing, or living in. Most are the kind of properties that give rooming houses a bad name: poorly managed and poorly maintained for decades.
But this year, attitudes toward the rooming house model of affordable housing began to shift. Two initiatives have invigorated the conversation. First, the City and County have each formed a task force to increase the number of rooming houses in Minneapolis and Hennepin County. As a representative of an organization with experience operating rooming houses, I was asked to join both task forces. Minneapolis Councilmembers Gordon, Schroeder and Goodman are leading the City study process, with the goal of crafting a resolution allowing new sleeping room licenses in Minneapolis. The legislation is expected to be in front of the City Council in Spring 2021.
Concurrently, Hennepin County Commissioner Opat urged the County to do what it could to encourage quality rooming house properties as part of the broader County affordable housing strategy. He started a study committee to learn what was needed and what barriers existed to build or renovate them in various communities across the County. The committee continues to meet even with the exit of Commissioner Opat from his seat, and is expected to present its recommendations this summer.