Affordable housing advocates prepare for the future

MARSHALL – Staring in the face of what is known in some circles as the “age wave,” affordable housing advocates are in the middle of a push for state bonding monies this year.

In an interview with the Independent on Monday, Kenza Hadj-Moussa, communications and development director for the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, said the Homes for All group is requesting $130 million in bonding this legislative session.

“There has been very strong bipartisan support for housing, strong support all around the state,” Hadj-Moussa said. “We’re coming in with a $130 million request, and bonds for housing can be used for three things: develop and preserve supportive housing experiencing homelessness, to buy land for community land trusts and affordable home ownerships, and the other is to preserve federally-funded housing.”

Homes for All was created about five years ago and has grown since its inception. Its members include Western Community Action and the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership. This year, it’s adding a fourth potential use of state dollars: affordable senior housing for Minnesotans ages 55 or older who are living at 50 percent or less of area median incomes.

Hadj-Moussa said seniors make up the demographic that has been rising in numbers the fastest in recent years in Minnesota.

“We have an age wave coming – it’s already happened in different ways,” Hadj-Moussa said. “The demand for affordable senior housing is high now, and it’s only going to grow in the next five years.”

Hadj-Moussa said by the year 2020 – when that wave hits – there will be more Minnesotans aged 65 or older than there are in K-12.

“It’s coming,” she said.

The issue is truly a widespread one and hard to ignore, especially when you break down projections for the future. Lincoln and Murray counties are among the top 12 counties in the state with an estimated number of 55-and-over adults. According to the Minnesota State Demographer, 43.5 percent of Murray County’s population is 55+, while nearly 42 percent of Lincoln County’s population is 55+. The number of Minnesotans who will turn 65 in this decade is greater than the number that has turned 65 in each of the past four decades.

Among counties with the highest proportions of renter households 55+, Lyon County ranks No. 8 at 25 percent, which is on part with a dozen other counties across the state. According to the Minnesota Housing Partnership, by 2030, the number of residents in Lyon County aged 65 and older is expected to go up by about 62 percent. And of the 2,321 senior-headed households, 61 percent of renters and 21 percent of owners are currently cost-burdened.

Hadj-Moussa said Homes for All is working to put together financing that will be put to good use – not just for the immediate future – but five years from now.

“Even though the Legislature is kind of gridlocked right now, we’re making a strong case,” she said. “We’re asking for $130 million because we still need to keep on building supportive housing for Minnesotans experiencing homelessness, we still need to preserve the housing that we already have – it’s cheaper to preserve than to build new housing – and then we also have to be thinking ahead to how we’re addressing senior housing in the future.”

The Legislature bonded for $100 million to affordable housing in the last bonding year in 2014. And Hadj-Moussa said the House and Senate are about $900 million apart in their respective funding plans for affordable housing this year. Still, she’s confident something will get done, despite the fact that affordable housing has some stiff competition for dollars – namely transportation, which is at the top of most legislators’ to-do list in 2016.

“I think we’re aware that in some ways we are competing, but the difference is we think that this is one of the few proposals in the bonding bill that is listed as statewide,” she said. “You see it in all communities.”

Justin Vorbach, Southwest Minnesota Continuum of Care coordinator, recognizes the need for a comprehensive transportation package this session, but said affordable housing is equally important for the economy.

“Some of the foundational needs of a community are jobs, infrastructure and housing and they all kind of have to go hand-in-hand,” said Vorbach. “When you talk about an economic ceiling – something we don’t want – jobs are limited to the number of homes and apartments available for workers. In order to keep the economy robust, we need all those thing coming together – affordable housing, employers and roads and infrastructure.”

According to Wilder Research, the homeless rate in Minnesota has actually dropped in recent years. Preliminary data show that as of Oct. 22, the total number of homeless people was at 179 – that includes people in emergency shelters, hotel rooms, domestic violence shelters and transitional housing. Overall, the homeless population is down 9 percent since 2012.

“There’s still a need for affordable housing though,” Vorbach said. “If you can get these people housing, you can help the community by keeping them from more expensive interventions. Even a motel room costs more than an apartment. Certainly jail, hospitalization and detox cost more than an apartment. There’s an incentive involving supportive housing when these bonds get put out for bid.”

Vorbach said where this housing gets built is determined by things like land availability, city investment and the number of employers who would have a stake in seeing more affordable housing. And he said when people reach a certain point in their lives, they need to leave their homes and finding an affordable place to live can be tricky.

“Nursing homes are the highest, most expensive intervention, other than hospitalization for the aging,” he said. “If you talk to the Area Agency on Aging, they’re all about aging in place and staying in their homes as long as possible. A lot of the nursing homes are paid for by the Department of Human Services because people cannot afford them.”

According to Maxfield Research Inc., since older adults are living longer, turnover will be lower in existing facilities than before as an increasing proportion of older adult households elects to rent and to move to age-restricted housing and then age in place until they are forced to seek services outside of an independent living arrangement. This, research indicates, will continue to place a heavier burden on the existing facilities, with waiting lists likely to increase rather than decrease.

“A lot of what happens, as people age is they want to downsize, and they want to be in an apartment, and if those apartments don’t exist they may end up staying in a place that’s not as safe in terms of being out, isolated and unable to maintain their properties,” Vorbach said.