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Seniors deserve stable housing

State lawmakers must act now to stop rent gouging in affordable housing

apartment door key

When we moved into our Dominium apartments, we both thought we were settling into our forever homes. Newly retired and qualifying as extremely low income, we were grateful to see the big banners on the sides of the newly constructed buildings in Columbia Heights and Coon Rapids that boldly promised “affordable housing” and “senior living.” We never expected that, just a few years later, we’d be picketing outside those same buildings, desperately struggling to stretch our fixed incomes to stay housed, with neighbors holding signs saying “I paid my rent so I have somewhere to starve.”

Like so many taxpayers, we assumed that when the government gives subsidies or tax breaks to a housing provider, tenants are protected from skyrocketing rents and egregious fees. We were wrong.

A Plymouth-based corporation, Dominium is one of the largest private affordable housing developers in the nation, with more than 40 buildings in Minnesota alone. To create their affordable housing projects they rely on federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits and a variety of state and municipal subsidies. Casting themselves as benevolent actors addressing the affordable housing crisis, they plead hardship to take huge sums from public coffers. But, as residents who have been gouged and manipulated, we know they are a central cause of that crisis, taking every opportunity to squeeze more money out of their renters.

This is simply wrong. And our state lawmakers agree. Sens. Jim Abeler (R-Anoka) and John Hoffman (DFL- Champlin) have introduced a bi-partisan bill in the legislature that would place reasonable restrictions on private developers, like Dominium, who receive state subsidies. In the closing weeks of the 2023 session, we need action from the legislature and Gov. Tim Walz to stabilize rents for low-income affordable housing residents to protect the interests of taxpayers and safeguard our most vulnerable neighbors.

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Over the past six years, Dominium has raised our “affordable” rents by almost $500 – a devastating increase when you’re on a fixed income of less than $25,000 per year. We might understand those costs if there were evidence that our money was being put to good use, maintaining and improving our housing. But it’s not. Instead, we live in already shoddy conditions just a few years after Dominium bankrolled our buildings with millions in taxpayer dollars. Meanwhile, more and more of our neighbors receive deliveries from local food shelves. More and more of our neighbors forgo or ration necessary medications and end up in the hospital because it’s the only way they can make rent. And, without intervention from lawmakers, we know it’s only going to get worse.

While other Minnesotans eagerly embrace the start of spring, we’re more anxious every day as we wait for the release of new Area Median Income (AMI) data. Why? Because this measure is what Dominium uses to justify raising our rent – sometimes by hundreds of dollars per month. According to federal and state rules, affordable housing providers have to keep their rents at 30% to 60% of the Area Median Income. This means that as the economy recovers and working people get more affluent across our region, seniors on a fixed income are somehow expected to come up with more money. Last year, when the AMI went up, Dominium spiked our rents by 12.5%. To be clear, there is no mandate that they raise the rent. They choose to do it. And they stick us with the maximum amount allowable by law.

When we first moved in, we signed leases that were 32 pages long. A few years later, our renewal leases had ballooned to 52 pages. Within that legalese, Dominium tucked in provisions that allowed them to increase our rents mid-lease. Just imagine that. You sign a year-long lease but, come May, you could get notice that your rent is going up $20 or $200 per month. How would you budget or plan for that? We know from personal experience how that uncertainty wrecks havoc on your daily life, both physically and emotionally.

That’s why we’ve come together with other Dominium tenants to push our policymakers at all levels to change the rules so developers who take public money have to act in the public interest not private gain. While their corporate executives and community managers have tried to undermine our efforts – prohibiting tenant meetings, removing flyers we’ve posted on neighbors doors, infiltrating private meetings with local officials – we have rallied bipartisan support for measures that would decouple our housing costs from ever-rising AMI, stabilize increases at 3% or 5% annually and create reasonable regulations that would make sure Dominium puts critical repairs in our buildings ahead of maximizing their revenue.

In these final weeks of the session, we need state lawmakers to act on these critical policies – and we need the governor poised to intervene if lawmakers fail to take these urgent steps. The stability of thousands of low-income seniors – and the hard earned tax dollars of every Minnesotan – hang in the balance.

Jan Bragelman and Julie Zapp are senior renters in affordable housing owned and operated by Dominium.