by Stephanie Dickrell
What does “home” mean to you?
Molly Weyrens asked that question to a group at the Church of St. Joseph Sunday night, April 14.
Community members gathered to learn more from Weyrens about the need for affordable housing in St. Joseph. Weyrens, of Central Minnesota Catholic Worker, is part of Faith in Housing, a group of area church members working on housing issues.
So what does a home mean? Family, warmth and comfort, Weyrens said.
Most importantly, Weyrens said, home is a place to feel safe.
The informational meeting comes amid discussions of new affordable housing in St. Joseph. Sand Development has proposed a new apartment building southwest of the U.S. Army Reserve facility on 20th Avenue SE. It would include 48 units, including one-, two- and three-bedroom units. Sand Development is asking for support from city and county officials, so they can apply for a state housing grant.
So far, the City Council members have voted to move forward in preparing the grant. They discussed the land in question at an Economic Development Authority meeting on April 16. A vote approving the submission of the grant is expected at the May 6 City Council meeting.
Weyrens said affordable housing is critical to a community’s economy and well-being.
“Stable housing … it’s a health concern,” Weyrens said. “That’s been a big shift in the last couple years. … Hospitals and medical people are starting to really work for good housing because they know it adds to people’s health.”
Weyrens quoted several statistics.
• One in four people in St. Cloud spend more than 50 percent of their monthly income on housing. Experts recommend people spend no more than a third of their income.
• More than 400 children in area schools experienced homelessness in 2018.
• The cost of housing has increased much more than incomes in the last 20 years. For instance, for a college graduate, incomes have increased 6 percent while the cost of housing has increased 47 percent.
Weyrens explained the “housing first” model, which is gaining traction among social welfare organizations across the country. Nonprofits first settle people experiencing homelessness into stable housing. Then, they can address other issues which may affect their stability: poor mental and physical health, addiction, inadequate education and lack of job or low wages.
Studies have found this model results in more stability for the people it helps and can save money in the long run. For instance, emergency room visits and police calls tend to go down when housing first is implemented in a community.
It’s challenging for communities to build affordable housing, Weyrens said. There are a number of factors: the high cost of land and construction, burdensome government regulations, and lack of innovation and lack of funding.
But by far the most difficult obstacle is NIMBY, the “not in my backyard” attitude of existing residents. People sometimes object to affordable housing projects based on stereotypes including a perceived increase of crime and law enforcement presence, an increase in traffic and based on racial bias and other forms of discrimination.
Despite those challenges, Anne Buckvold, a member of the St. Joseph City Council, said she’s encouraged by previous community support for newcomers, including refugees. She cited work to pass a resolution in 2018 to say St. Joseph was a welcoming community.
“There’s a lot of people who want to welcome more people and reach out,” Buckvold said.
She also stressed people should not equate poverty with race. They should resist stereotypes.
“This isn’t just refugees. This isn’t just black people. This isn’t just Latinos. … This is a white issue,” Buckvold said.
“It should just be a human issue,” she said.
Weyens said no one project will solve this problem. Central Minnesota needs a variety of housing to meet a range of needs.
That includes places which provide emergency shelter to families, including Place of Hope, the St. Cloud Salvation Army and Anna Marie’s Alliance. Supportive housing is also needed, for people with more intense health or social needs.
That includes places such as River Crest Apartments, which provides housing for people with a chronic addiction to alcohol and who are homeless, and Al Loehr Veterans and Community Studio Apartments.
Finally, there are housing programs which help reduce the housing cost for families, through rental vouchers and other programs.
There are economic reasons to support affordable housing, too, Weyrens said. Area companies are having trouble filling positions. CentraCare Health leaders have said they have trouble finding and keeping staff, because of the lack of housing.
There are other societal benefits, including reduced costs for health care, law enforcement and other public services.
As the baby boomer generation enters retirement age, communities will see more seniors will be at risk of homelessness, Weyrens said.
Causes include inadequate Social Security benefits, the lack of retirement savings, as well as accessibility and health issues. Weyrens said while the St. Cloud area has a lot of senior living options for people with resources, low-income seniors have fewer options.
Weyrens and Buckvold encouraged people supportive of affordable housing to make their opinions known. Write letters to the editor in newspapers, contact city officials and attend city council meetings, Buckvold said.
Weyrens also asked people to share the information they learned, to increase community support for affordable housing. For more information, contact Weyrens at firstname.lastname@example.org.