Parishes help provide leadership for affordable housing

| Debbie Musser | October 18, 2019 | 0 Comments

Jen Collins and her daughter, Faora, make dinner in the kitchen of their apartment at Sienna Green in Roseville Oct. 15. In the background is Jen’s husband, Mike. DAVE HRBACEK / The Catholic Spirit

Six years ago, Jen Collins was newly married and enrolled in both Luther Seminary and Bethel Seminary in St. Paul.

“It was difficult to find a place to live that was affordable for our income; we didn’t have a lot of wiggle room,” she said. “We knew we wanted to be fairly close to the seminaries and my husband’s job in Minneapolis.”

After a six-month search, the couple found Sienna Green, an affordable housing development of 170 apartments in Roseville. They moved into a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment and still live there today with their 4-year-old daughter, who knows Sienna Green as her only home.

“We love the emphasis on community and family, and Roseville is a great area where we wanted to see our family blossom,” Collins said. “I took a call to serve as a pastor in Forest Lake and we did look at housing there, but it’s just not affordable for us. We’ve gladly stayed at Sienna Green, which is a diverse community where people care for one another and connect.”

The need for affordable housing, which the Metropolitan Council, a regional planning and policy-making body for the Twin Cities area, defines as costing households no more than 30 percent of their annual gross income, is found not only in the inner cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. It’s prevalent, and increasing, in the suburbs.

And Catholics are stepping up to help by backing and creating initiatives for affordable housing in their communities, with the belief that every family needs a place to call home.

In this third part of a four-part series on homelessness and affordable housing in Minnesota, The Catholic Spirit looks at efforts to create affordable housing in two such communities — Roseville just north of St. Paul and Maple Grove, northwest of Minneapolis.

The city of Roseville is a mature, first-ring suburb of St. Paul. Craig Klausing, a member of Corpus Christi in Roseville, was raised in the suburb and returned after he got married.

“I volunteered to be on a citizen housing advisory committee as I had grown up here and thought I knew the community,” he said. “I quickly saw how things had changed, with an aging housing stock and an older, more diverse community.”

Klausing went on to serve on the city’s planning commission and city council, followed by two terms as mayor from 2004 to 2010.

“While I was mayor, the city was supportive of the Sienna Green affordable housing project, which really raised my awareness of the impact of housing on people’s lives,” he said. “I’ve also known people who have struggled with mental health issues, and saw how important housing was for them to deal with those issues.”

The developer of Sienna Green, Minneapolis-based Aeon, relied on several sources of funding to build the apartments, including low-income housing tax credits based on income or disability, and deferred local-government loans.

In addition to screening criteria, the apartments have income requirements. Sienna Green offers apartments for households earning 60 percent or less of the area median income (AMI), 50 percent of AMI or less and 30 percent of AMI or less.
Ten apartments at Sienna Green are for residents who have a history of housing instability due to homelessness or disabilities. Aeon partners with a service provider to support those residents.

Sienna Green also features amenities such as a community room with a full kitchen and a community garden that residents manage.

Roseville Housing Network

Klausing, a retired lawyer, serves on the boards of Minnesota Housing, the state’s housing finance agency, and the Family Housing Fund, a collaborative effort at creating affordable housing across the Twin Cities. Klausing also is involved with the Roseville Housing Network, which he describes as a loose association of people who believe that everyone needs a safe and affordable place to live.

“Roseville Housing Network was a method to make sure that those voices were heard — to be a voice for people who will be a part of the community in the future, but are not yet,” Klausing said.

“As a Catholic, I believe in the requirement to live out your faith, as professed in James, chapter two: ‘What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?’” he said. “I appreciate my own home so much; I want others to have that as well.”

In his efforts to support affordable housing, Klausing said, he has often seen fear and misconceptions when such projects are proposed.

“It’s important to recognize that people who live in affordable housing are just like everyone else,” he said. “It might be a new teacher, a firefighter, a day care provider, a retired senior. They are our neighbors, who may not be able to find housing that fits within their budget in what is a very tight housing market in the Twin Cities.”

The Roseville Housing Network works to educate the public on affordable housing options.

“People may have in mind high-rises of concentrated poverty, which was the model 50 years ago,” Klausing said. But today, affordable housing includes people who hold jobs and retirees who might want to live in smaller homes, older apartment buildings, duplexes, or new affordable developments, such as a proposed three-story project called Owasso Gardens.

Developed by CommonBond Communities, a Catholic-founded nonprofit affordable housing developer, property manager and service provider, the project will be located on the corner of Rice Street and Owasso Boulevard in Roseville. Construction is scheduled to begin next summer, following funding approval.

Owasso Gardens would include 60 apartments made affordable through low-income tax credits, housing infrastructure bonds, Ramsey County HOME funds, Metropolitan Council “livable communities” funds, water and sewer development credits from the city of Roseville and a deferred developer fee.

Targeted to seniors 55 or older on low, fixed incomes, eight of the apartments will be available to people with incomes at 30 percent of AMI. The remaining 52 apartments will be set at 50 percent of AMI.

Formed in 1971 and based in St. Paul, CommonBond manages a portfolio that serves nearly 12,000 people.

“Our story is embedded in social justice and social change, and the faith community has always been a key partner and influencer of affordable housing,” said Cecile Bedor, executive vice president of real estate for CommonBond.

Corpus Christi parishioner and Roseville Housing Network participant Amy Barrett said she attended a June 3 city council meeting to speak in support of Owasso Gardens.

“I feel compelled to help people meet their basic needs so that they can live in dignity,” Barrett said. “If those of us who live in the suburbs were to ask ourselves, ‘What would Jesus do?’ we know the answer is that Jesus would open the doors of his own home to people in need. The very least the rest of us can do is create affordable housing in our community.”

Roseville’s changing demographics is an indication of the growing need for such housing. Jake Von De Linde, director of teaching and learning for Roseville Area Schools, notes that students who qualify for free and reduced priced meals have some financial struggle within the family.

“In the last 15 years, those numbers have had a really high increase,” Von De Linde said.

“Roseville used to be about where the statewide average is (36 percent of students qualifying for free and reduced priced meals), and now we’re well above, at 48 percent. And we typically see about 80 to 100 student families reporting homelessness, which is right about 1 percent of our total student population.”

Von De Linde said that worries about basic necessities such as housing impact students and their performance.

“We find that with stability in housing, students are able to stay at a school and develop connections and relationships with teachers. That definitely increases their rates of learning.”

Housing for All

Unlike the older suburb of Roseville, Maple Grove has seen tremendous growth in the past 30 years, and it is still growing. Back in 1999, Roxanne Smith, a member of St. Joseph the Worker in Maple Grove, had served as the parish’s director of social justice for 10 years.

“We were doing charity activities like collections at Christmas, Thanksgiving baskets and Feed My Starving Children packings with other churches,” Smith said. “But I would get calls from people looking for affordable housing, and I didn’t know where to send them.”

Smith recalls feeling a strong call from God to help meet the need for quality housing for all in her community.

“I knew that Maple Grove was growing and would continue to build lots of ‘McMansions,’ but I felt that if affordable housing was going to happen here, it was going to take the faith community to get behind the effort,” she said.

That’s exactly what happened with Housing for All, a collaboration of faith congregations in the Maple Grove area that is involved in developing and maintaining affordable housing in the Northwest suburbs. St. Joseph the Worker was the founding congregation and continues to play a lead role.

“We first came together as a group of six faith communities — Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists and nondenominationals — to support a proposal for Lake Shore Townhomes in Maple Grove,” Smith said. “We went to city planning and council meetings, wrote letters and publicly testified in support of the family housing project.”

Smith said people came out in droves to oppose the proposal. “But we had a good mayor, a good city manager, and a brave city council, and it passed.”

That project, developed by CommonBond and opened in 2000, created affordable housing through city, county and state funds, many in the form of loans with reduced or deferred interest that must be paid back if the property is sold, refinanced, or no longer used as affordable housing. The federal low-income housing tax credit program was also used, through which the IRS allocates tax credits to states, which award them competitively to developers. Developers, in turn, sell the tax credits to investors, raising equity to develop the housing.

After Lake Shore Townhomes’ 19 units were built, the city of Maple Grove remained receptive to similar affordable housing options, Smith said.

“We organized ourselves better, and Housing for All was always at the city council meetings when these developments came up for discussion,” Smith said. “We brought in allies such as a representative from Maple Grove Hospital who explained that of the 6,000 health care jobs coming to the community, two-thirds of those workers — the cafeteria worker, the receptionist — would need this type of housing. We made the case that these people should be able to live in the community where they work.”

Smith, now retired but still active in affordable housing initiatives, said Housing for All holds an annual legislative breakfast for federal, state and local policymakers to build relationships and proclaim, as people of faith, that everyone needs a home.

The group also hosts a fall bus tour every year of affordable housing developments and future sites, showing the interior of homes and meeting with residents who share their stories.

“There’s a human face to connect to, which is such a good way to break down the stereotypes people have when they hear ‘affordable housing,’” Smith said.

Jane Warren is one of many passionate St. Joseph the Worker parishioners who jumped on board with the Housing for All ministry. Warren said she had a strong desire to get involved in social justice.

“Through this work, I feel I am living out Catholic social teaching by caring for our neighbors,” she said. “We have been instrumental in persuading several cities to build affordable housing, and that’s been very rewarding for me.”

“God has used us to be that voice,” Smith said. “Maple Grove is considered a high-opportunity community, with all the things a family needs to survive and thrive. That’s why it’s so important that we provide affordable housing options here in our suburb.”

Homelessness logoThe Catholic Spirit is taking a four-part, multi-faceted look this year at homelessness in Minnesota and the ways agencies, governments and people work to prevent and eliminate homelessness.

Homelessness Series:

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