Our Interest List Paints a Doleful Picture of the Unhoused

At Alliance Housing, we’ve always kept an ‘interest list’ of completed applications.  We can’t call it a ‘waiting list’ because vacancies are few and far between, and most people looking for housing can’t wait. With the incredibly low vacancy rate in the Twin Cities, especially for those at the low end of the income scale, that list has grown to 500 for single adults and 250 for families.  When we started, the list was intended to create a pool of applicants, ready to move in when we have a vacancy in our sleeping rooms or 2-3 bedroom apartments.  Since we only have a handful of vacancies each year, being number 213 on our list doesn’t give much hope.

We keep adding to the list, though, and it serves as a bit of an olive branch for the 5-10 people who call us each week looking for a home.  We have nowhere else to refer them, so we offer them a free application and a slight chance that we might be able to help them somewhere down the line. Our list also serves as a bellwether for the demand for deeply affordable rental units that will give applicants a 2nd chance to access rental housing even if they’ve had an eviction, have criminal convictions, or do not meet standard rent-to-income ratios.

Whenever I mention the 500 person list for sleeping rooms, I observe a lot of incredulous listeners.  Yes, we tell our callers, “For single adults we rent sleeping rooms.  You will have a lease in your name, you will have the room to yourself but you’ll share a bathroom and kitchen with other unrelated adults for around $360 month.”  Now we’ve had to add, “The last person to come off the list waited over two years.”  And still, people complete an application to get their name added to the list.  Some dutifully call regularly to find out where they are on the list or to update their contact information.

Recently, we had a studio apartment open up in one of our contract-managed buildings.  As I called people on the list to see if I could pass their name along, I thought about how I could describe who is out there waiting for our singles housing. Analyzing the applications, I found:

  • About 30% had no income, or had $200 in General Assistance payments from the County. They simply can’t afford to rent from us (remember, they have to come up with $360/month!), unless they begin to earn some income or can secure rental assistance. That rental assistance is scarce; only 1 in 4 eligible persons actually ends up getting it.
  • About 40% had Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) of about $800 per month. These folks can pay the rent for one of our sleeping rooms and still have some money for other life expenses.  While waiting for a vacancy at Alliance Housing, there is little else they can afford in the current housing market.  Some private market sleeping rooms rent for as high as $700 per month.  Studios are hard to find under $800.   And so, the list grows.
  • The balance (30%) had some other sort of retirement income or employment. I don’t have to tell you how many people today have inadequate pensions, savings, or other income for retirement; the statistics are dismal. On our waiting list, retirement income amounts are around $1000-$1200 per month.  Workers reported ??? per month.

I felt a bit sad about the state of affairs in our ‘market-based’ housing market.  The market simply isn’t up to the challenge of providing housing for everyone, and there are insufficient public resources to house everyone.  Our City parks were populated by homeless encampments this summer, and it’s no wonder. Hennepin County reports around 1000 adults in shelters and shelter hotels.  Homeless single adult numbers continue to rise. (Reported homelessness among families and youth has actually decreased.)  I suspect that those 1000 adults mirror our interest list population.

As I called down the list to fill our recent vacancy, I focused on those earning $1000 or more per month since the studio apartment was $459/month.  Yes, you read that correctly; if you’re the lucky one, you can rent a studio apartment for $459/month. Alliance Housing built Hiawatha Commons, Gateway Lofts, and Minnehaha Commons with a strategy that included primarily non-amortizing debt and other public support.  This allows rents sized for adults and families earning 30% of area median income, which is about $21,700 for a single adult and $34,000 for a family of 4.  It’s real estate development the hard way.  Most of what gets built these days, even by nonprofit mission-oriented developers is focused on people earning 50%-60% of area median income so the property can support debt. It makes funding easier to secure, but it prices out those most in need of support.  Alliance focuses all of its real estate development effort on those adults and families who many nonprofit and for-profit developers sidestep.

To my relief, a good number of folks on our list who had income of $1,000 or more had managed to find other housing.  That’s a good thing.

So what do we need to do?  Alliance Housing’s Board of Directors has set an objective to increase our housing portfolio by 35% over the next 3-5 years.  We’ll do our part for those at the bottom end of the income scale and those that traditionally get screened out by other landlords.  We know from multiple studies, from common-sense, and from our experience that people who are housed are able to care for themselves and their families.  Stable housing is a springboard for just about anything positive to happen in one’s life.  The unhoused are more of a drain on public services – hospital emergency rooms, crisis services and public safety.  Hennepin County has made similar conclusions and increased the amount of resources it will dedicate to its high priority clients over the next 10 years.  State Housing Agency plans indicate similar interest.

We simply need all affordable housing capital funders to align and focus resources with the need.  The market will take care of those with more income and options.