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New documentary captures the human cost of the Twin Cities' affordable housing problem

The documentary, “Sold Out: Affordable Housing at Risk,” debuts Sunday.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
A documentary put together by TPT Minnesota and the Minnesota Housing Partnership is using the stories of the displaced tenants to examine the broader problem of affordable housing supply in the Twin Cities.

“Crossroads” was the name of a large, almost-50-year-old apartment complex in Richfield that, in 2015, was purchased, renamed and “upscaled” to bring in higher rents in a tight market.

Because of that transformation, which displaced several thousand low and moderate income renters, “Crossroads” also connotes the ongoing loss of what’s called “naturally occurring affordable housing” (NOAH) as investors and developers buy buildings, renovate them and increase rents. 

Now, a documentary put together by TPT Minnesota and the Minnesota Housing Partnership is using the stories of the displaced tenants to examine the broader problem of affordable housing supply in the Twin Cities. The documentary, “Sold Out: Affordable Housing at Risk,” debuts Sunday.

At the heart of the story are economic forces that have broad implications for the region. Apartment developers are chasing the higher end of the market, partly due to the high cost of construction in the area, and partly because high demand makes it especially profitable. At the same time, the public and nonprofit sectors are not building enough new units to meet current demand for affordable housing. That disconnect is made worse by the loss of buildings like Crossroads. 

“In 2014, the region was able to build 770 new affordable units, using all of our resources and all of our efforts,” Tim Thompson, president of the Housing Justice Center, says in the documentary. “When the 700 units in Crossroads were converted, that in effect canceled out virtually all of that gain from that year's worth of effort.” 

During a panel discussion following a preview of “Sold Out,” one affordable housing developer spoke of the pressures in the market. “The last eight weeks we’ve been bidding on property after property after property and not getting them,” said Alan Arthur, the president of Aeon, an affordable housing developer. “Those are all going to disappear as affordable.”

Arthur estimated the ongoing loss of affordable units at 100 a week in the Twin Cities. Over the next two decades, he said, “We are facing the toughest, harshest housing problem for low-income people in this country,” since the Great Depression. “I don’t think there’s anything we can do to totally stop it, but we need to do all we can to mitigate it.” 

A market that works — for some

Though the documentary is not especially friendly to building owners and developers — especially Crossroads developer Jim Soderberg — it does take time to explain the market forces that have led to the problem at lower-rent levels. Buildings are being sold not only because the market is hot and current owners can make a sizeable profit, but also because many of the properties are at an age when they require extensive and expensive renovations, says Bernadette Hornig of Hornig Cos, which owns apartment buildings. 

“The reason they’re selling is [because owners] are actively choosing not to reinvest,” Hornig said. “Someone else needs to step in and be the steward of that building moving forward.” 

Added Cecil Smith, chairman of the Minnesota Multi Housing Association: “We’re refreshing what’s in the market right now because there is the available capital to do that, there is available market opportunity to do that and it is good for the long-term health of the housing stock.” 

But Warren Hanson, president of the Minnesota Housing Fund, said that while the market is working for those with higher incomes, it is failing for those with lower incomes. 

The ‘Undesirables' 

The loss of Crossroads plays into the broader story of housing availability in the Twin Cities. But “Sold Out” also tells of the impact on individuals and families who were forced to leave. It wasn’t just the new owner’s decision to stop accepting Section 8 and other government rent-subsidy programs that caused displacement. The owner also increased rents dramatically and required all tenants to reapply under more-stringent qualifications. Higher credit scores were required as were higher income levels and caps on the number of tenants per bedroom.

One former Crossroad tenant, Bernard Campbell, said he was able to pay the increased rent by having his fiance move in to share the rent. But they were still forced to leave because his credit score was beneath the new standard. “Between the both of us, we have four jobs — two apiece — and if that’s not enough, I don’t know what to say,” he says.

Another tenant who spoke anonymously said she and her husband had a baby after they moved in. That put them beyond the new cap of two persons in the one-bedroom unit.

The tenants organized and helped each other deal with the crisis. They also sought help from tenants activists HOMELine and the Housing Justice Center. In a still-pending federal class action suit, Thompson argues that the displacement violates the protections in the Fair Housing Act because the new policies had a disparate impact on minority and low-income tenants. The new owner made public statements about his hope to get rid of “undesirable tenants” and “attracting great residents to live in our communities.”

“To get up in the newspaper and say I'm an ‘undesirable resident’?” says Charles Ward, a former Crossroads tenant. “I told them, ‘He don't even know who I am. He don't know how I live.”

Jurline Bryant, Maria Johnson and Bernard Campbell
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
After a preview airing of the documentary "Sold Out," three former tenants of the Crossroads apartments talked about the experience. They are, left to right: Jurline Bryant, Maria Johnson and Bernard Campbell. The panel was moderated by Met Council Regional Policy & Research. Manager, Libby Starling, at far left.

All of the displaced tenants were put out into a housing market that already was short on supply. Many said they found housing, but only in unfamiliar communities that lacked the connections, transit service and amenities of their old neighborhood.

The transformation of the building — it's now called the Concierge — also disrupted the community around it. A small grocery store closed. And the combination of the changes at Crossroads and other similar buildings in Richfield led to a reduction in enrollment at the city’s schools. That led to a loss of 31 staff — teachers, aides and administrators — said Steve Unowsky, Superintendent of Richfield Public Schools. 

“Sold Out” ends with some hopeful news. Hanson of the Minnesota Housing Fund said the organization this week announced the completion of its fundraising drive for a plan to help maintain naturally occurring affordable housing. The $25 million fund has contributions from government, nonprofits and community banks, and will be used to purchase or finance the purchase of buildings like Crossroads that are on the market. The investment from the fund will help new owners keep rents lower than might occur had the building been sold to more profit-oriented buyers.

But the ambitious goal of saving 1,000 units over three years, while significant, is not enough to replace those being lost, Hanson said. Activists and advocates said there must be more investment in affordable housing by the state and federal governments.

“I think it’s really up to the political leaders, both rural and urban, [and] to each citizen in the community to really step up to the plate,” said Met Council member Gary Cunningham. “Because people of color, low-income people aren’t going anywhere.”

The documentary was produced by Kevin Dragseth under the TPT Partnerships program, with funding provided from the Metropolitan Council, the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund, the NOAH Impact Fund, the Family Housing Fund, the Beacon Interfaith Housing Cooperative, Aeon and the McKnight Foundation.

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Comments (11)

How about we let people build

I consider myself the last thing from a market ideologue but it sure seems like the left-leaning leaders of the cities and inner ring suburbs are shooting themselves and their constituents in the foot in their efforts to show their disapproval of capitalist developers. If new market-based developments didn't universally face the ire of neighbors and a web of zoning codes that make basically any traditional building design illegal, there would be more market-rate units being built - units that would compete with, and maybe make it less appealing, to do major upgrades to older, affordable buildings.

Not to mention if we had been building at all in the last forty years there would be more older buildings to be affordable. New developments aren't affordable for the same reason new cars aren't affordable - because they cost money to build, especially when you need to build in a few hundred K for skirmishes with NIMBYs and required underground parking.

I don't think it is a left/right thing

The suburbs have their own maze of development requirements that encourage 5 acre lots and McMansions. I agree that mixed density housing should be encouraged. Concentrating all the apartments in one area and all the large lots in another is not an ideal use of space.

Squeezed out

Informative story.
It appears that not only are these low-income residents losing their housing, but they are also trapped by low wages. People with less money are still people, and strong leaders are needed to respond to both affordable housing and minimum wage.

The problem W/O a solution

"I think it’s really up to the political leaders, both rural and urban, [and] to each citizen in the community to really step up to the plate,”

Does this assume that all these folks have taken responsibility for their personal lot/decisions in life and stepped up and gone a 110%? Where does societies support for these folks end and their responsibility begin?

Responsibility

I don't know--4 jobs between two people to afford the rent and still be denied. Seems responsible to me.

I'm also not so sure that judging another person without walking in their shoes for a while makes a lot of sense.

Affordable Housing

As long as we, as a community and nation, refuse to recognize that HOUSING IS A HUMAN RIGHT - as are livable wages, affordable healthcare, affordable transportation and fully-financed public education -- these stories will continue to be told. And they will multiply.

As long as we refuse to recognize that the "free market" is an expensive luxury for the vast majority of us that devastates our lives and destroys our communities and nation, we are lost.

There is absolutely no reason that private developers and landlords should hold this kind of power over our lives. Especially when their private, self-interested decisions are largely paid for by public subsidies and a rigged taxation system.

That's capitalism folks. Choose capitalism or choose life.

The End Of HUD And Section 8

The former owners of Crossroads had every right to sell it. The new owners have every right to do what they want with the property as long as it is legal and so far they have broken no laws.

Housing advocates want taxpayer paid subsidized rent for as many people as they can get it to but fortunately that is not going to happen. The Federal government (Congress) holds the purse strings to HUD and Section 8. HUD has seen funding cuts every year since 2005 and next year will see the biggest cuts in its history.

The vast majority of Americans do not approve of their tax dollars paying lifetime housing benefits to other people. The vast majority of Americans want HUD eliminated as well as most of its programs. The vast majority of Americans want an end to the welfare state. Now we have a congress and President who are going to make the changes needed to shrink the number of people on welfare.

In addition to the cut in funding for Section 8, there will be new mandatory work requirements, time limits on benefits and strict new rules on eligibility. Portability is also going to be ended. The days of having a housing voucher for 30 or 40 years are over. By this time next year Housing Authorities all over the country will be rescinding vouchers. They are already doing this in Houston and Dallas, some 2,000 rescinded so far.

The private sector and religious and charitable organizations are going to have to give up their gold plated church pews and start paying for these subsidies, because the government wants out of the business. It's about time.

You know

The red states tend to be the heavy users of Welfare, medicaid, social security etc. etc. $. They tend to pay the lowest amount of taxes but get way more than their fair share of the federal tax dollars. Now, Ask yourself the question: Do you think those red state politicians are going to cut off their voters? Hopefully they do! But we do know what they will campaign on next election cycle!

https://wallethub.com/edu/states-most-least-dependent-on-the-federal-gov...

"The vast majority of

"The vast majority of Americans do not approve of their tax dollars paying lifetime housing benefits to other people The vast majority of Americans want HUD eliminated as well as most of its programs. The vast majority of Americans want an end to the welfare state." I don't think I've seen any credible research that comes to these conclusions. Just because you wish it to be so does not make it so....

Your fervent hopes are, of course, the legacy of Ronald Regan. You want to eliminate the approach we (the U.S.) has taken since the Great Depression: we are all in this together and we should give some help to those who need it. For all their protestations that we have become an ungodly society, the conservative right seems to forget the most basic of Christian tenants: Love thy neighbor.

Are you aware that many

Are you aware that many Section 8 tenants are low-income elderly?

These are people who have worked hard all their lives at low-paying jobs.

There are far too many smug affluent people with overheated imaginations about legions of "freeloaders" sponging off "people who work."

New flash: Affluent Republicans and Libertarians are not the only people who work.

The people you seem to despise work at jobs that you would turn your nose up at, jobs that are necessary for society but are dirty, dangerous, and depressing. The haughty admonitions to "just get a better job if you need more money" are a clear indication that the speakers have no knowledge of life outside their office park bubbles. For one thing, someone will always have to do these jobs, and if everyone gets an MBA, we will have a glut of MBAs, just as we now have a glut of lawyers, and anyway, who will clean their offices?

Poor people exist, and most of them work. Our society has three choices: 1) Pay them a living wage, 2) Keep paying them starvation wages but recognize that they will need subsidies to survive, 3) Keep paying them starvation wages, cut off their subsidies, and see social pathologies of every sort skyrocket, as in Victorian England. We're already seeing an epidemic of deaths from drug overdoses.

When people go on and on about how "their" tax dollars are wasted, as if they were financing the entire federal government by themselves and should have veto power over expenditures, the portrait they paint of themselves is not at all flattering.

In real life, most Americans are generous and humane.

No

You'll be assisting. Unless of course you believe you have the wherewithal to fend off millions of the desperate, homeless, and hungry. You didn't expect the rest of us to aid in your defense, did you?