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Carolyn Lange, Forum News Service, Published February 20 2014

Minnesota coalition seeks $100 million in bonds to address homelessness

WILLMAR, Minn. – A statewide homeless coalition with roots in west-central Minnesota wants the Legislature to approve $100 million in bonds this year to build affordable housing.

The money is needed to ensure stability in families, schools and communities, said Rhonda Otteson, southwest regional coordinator for the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless. Otteson is based in Willmar.

Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed allocating $50 million in the bonding bill for housing.

Otteson said 97 percent of Minnesota counties do not have adequate affordable housing for families living in and on the edge of poverty, including senior citizens, people with disabilities and youth.

“We need more affordable housing for our workforce and for families,” said Otteson, citing a 2012 Wilder Foundation study that found 46 percent of Minnesota’s homeless are children.

“We keep talking about how we’re going to support children in schools and help them achieve. You can’t achieve if you’re not at home, eating well and are living in a hotel or a car,” said Rep. Mary Sawatzky.

“We need to support our families,” said Sawatzky, DFL-Willmar.

The current lack of housing is taking its toll across the state.

Homelessness may look different here than it does in urban areas, but it is a reality in rural Minnesota, said Otteson, who also works for The Link, a nonprofit group based in the New London-Spicer area that is a member of the statewide Coalition for the Homeless.

People do live in cars, she said.

“I met with somebody who was living in an unheated garage in the dead of winter,” Otteson said.

A local agency reported a family living in a heated dog kennel.

“People are trying to survive,” she said.

The coalition intends to lobby legislators aggressively for affordable housing funds when the Legislature kicks off the new session Tuesday.

On March 6, supporters will gather at the Capitol for “Homeless Day on the Hill.”

Sen. Lyle Koenen said he supports upping the homeless housing bond allocation to $100 million.

Historically, the majority of money is dedicated to homelessness in the metro area, said Koenen, DFL-Clara City.

“I’m not denying there’s a need in the metro area,” he said. “But we have homeless problems in greater Minnesota, too.”

Instead of taking money away from urban communities and shifting it to rural Minnesota, Koenen said the entire pot should be increased.

He acknowledged, however, that requests for bonding money far exceed available funds. He predicts a final bonding bill of $800 million to $850 million.

If bonding money is approved for housing, Otteson said there would likely be a competitive process put in place for communities to access the funds.

Priorities including constructing new affordable housing and rehabilitating current housing, such as apartments that need upgrades to make them more energy efficient and affordable to families.

The coalition wants $80 million in infrastructure bonds to build and rehabilitate 1,700 units, and $20 million in general obligation bonds dedicated to rehabilitate 3,500 public housing units.

Otteson said it’s a “really smart approach” to preserve and upgrade existing housing and make it easier for communities to build new affordable housing or acquire and rehabilitate foreclosed homes.

Besides lobbying for additional bonding money, the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless is also asking legislators to increase the minimum wage and remove education and training barriers for parents enrolled in the Minnesota Family Investment Program.

Otteson said helping low-income people get more education and training is another way of increasing community stability.