Providing Direct Financial Assistance
“This will buy me time. I need to figure out how I am going back to work having 5 children that I need to help with school.”
As the coronavirus pandemic took thousands of Minnesotans out of the workforce beginning in March, it became clear that new financial assistance was necessary to keep families afloat. While several new sources of public support became available, FHFund worked to identify and begin to fill assistance gaps. In early April, we allocated dollars to emergency housing assistance intended to support households who are ineligible for most types of public assistance, including undocumented immigrants. We partnered with Comunidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio (CLUES) to administer the funds and learn about the families served. 175 households received financial assistance over the course of the year, and the program informed our approach to emergency financial assistance as the pandemic continued.
“This will help me until my husband can come back to the house. He is in a ventilator now. (It will also) help me until I feel better to go back to work.”
Housing and Unemployment: Hardest-hit neighborhoods
In late July, just as the weekly $600 federal unemployment benefit was set to expire, FHFund and Wilder Research published a report that identified the communities and households hit hardest by COVID-related unemployment. We overlaid unemployment data with pre-existing housing cost burden data to identify the zip codes where families were most at-risk of losing their homes. In addition to locating these claims, we learned that over half of all families with children under 18 years old reported having lost at least one adult’s employment income. Workers in the food service and retail industries were especially hit hard.
We used this data to advocate for extending federal unemployment benefits, as well as prioritizing other financial assistance outreach to these neighborhoods, workers, and families with children.
How the Pandemic Affected Local Landlords
FHFund and HousingLink worked together to survey landlords who manage smaller rental properties and smaller rental portfolios. We wanted to gain insights into how these landlords perceive the rental crisis, its impact on their business, and their relationships with tenants. A primary goal was to fill the knowledge gap on rent payments for properties with fewer than five units and learn how landlords with small portfolios are weathering the pandemic.
We learned that over half of landlords of small properties (buildings with fewer than five units) had at least one unit with rent past due. Landlords also indicated that if no additional rental assistance became available, they would likely defer property maintenance, incur additional debt, or put their building up for sale. These survey results indicated real concerns among the small rental market and suggested that the scope of the need had been underestimated until that point.
Streamlining Public Financial Assistance
In November 2020, FHFund and HousingLink worked together with Hennepin County and Dakota County to rapidly launch two rental assistance programs to cover rent payments for households financially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. These programs were time sensitive due to federal obligations to spend allocations from the CARES Act before the end of 2020. To expedite processing and complement existing programs accepting applications from tenants, this program was designed to receive applications from property owners on behalf of all of their tenants who were behind on rent.
Dakota County payments were approved and sent out within ten days of the application deadline. The County was able to pay all eligible applications received, totaling $1,544,848 – over 205% of its original program budget. This resolved rent arrears for over 450 renter-households through payments to approximately 120 landlords. Hennepin County prioritized payments for households living in affordable homes, and payments were sent out within two weeks of the application deadline. Roughly $5 million was delivered through payments to 540 landlords, stabilizing housing for 2,500 renter households living in homes that are affordable at 60% of the AMI. We are pleased that by partnering with these two counties, we were able to help thousands of households become current on rent before the year ended.
Building Equity in Small Multifamily Ownership
Over the course of the year, FHFund developed and launched a plan to increase the supply and support local ownership of small multifamily (2-4 unit) buildings. Our primary goal is to reduce racial wealth disparities by helping BIPOC homebuyers purchase 2-4 unit buildings in their neighborhoods and build wealth as owner-occupant landlords. In addition to reducing racial wealth disparities, we aim to prevent displacement in these neighborhoods by supporting local ownership and control of the land. Our strategy aims to:
- Address the constrained supply and high competition for 2-4 unit buildings by providing construction and rehab loans to local BIPOC-owned development firms, helping them build their businesses.
- Ensure homebuyer have access to capital and training so that they equipped to be successful homeowners and responsible landlords.
We are immensely grateful to have secured a $4 million, three-year grant from the JPMorgan Chase AdvancingCities Challenge to pilot this work in Minneapolis' seven cultural districts. We will continue to raise additional capital funds for the regional expansion of this work in 2021.
New Models for Infill Development
FHFund provided site acquisition and predevelopment support to Envision Community, a demonstration project of a new type of housing that prioritizes the perspectives of people who face housing instability and homelessness. The effort is staffed primarily by people who have past or present lived experience with homelessness. When complete, Envision Community will house 16-24 people in 8-12 microhomes with a common kitchen facility. A prototype home was completed in 2020, and Envision is now searching for a site to purchase for the community. We are hopeful that once this model is proven successful, it will be replicated. With increased visible homelessness and public attention to the health risks that homeless populations face during the pandemic, the Envision demonstration project is urgently needed.
Reducing the Cost of Housing Construction
FHFund continued to serve as the fiscal sponsor for the Construction Revolution, a collaborative aiming to reduce the cost of housing by advancing offsite construction techniques in the Twin Cities. Following the 2019 Construction Revolution Summit, the collaborative published an action plan in 2020 which summarized necessary next steps for developing this industry in Minnesota.
To help developers overcome the starting barriers to adopting modular techniques, a key recommendation of the action plan is to create a cross-industry learning environment for construction and design professionals. In 2020, FHFund sponsored this offsite accelerator course, and the first cohort was completed in early 2021. Participants reported that they now feel inspired to incorporate offsite techniques in future projects and are dedicating time to learn more.
Prior to the pandemic, FHFund partnered with Anoka, Dakota, and Ramsey County Courts to implement Court process changes and expand access to legal, mediation, social, and financial resources in order to prevent evictions in the metro. By co-locating services both onsite at Court and in community settings, we aimed to create a sophisticated eviction system that could get ahead of eviction filings.
When the pandemic and resulting eviction moratorium temporarily closed the courts, our partners quickly pivoted to remote consultations with renters to help them understand their rights under the eviction moratorium and navigate new financial resources available. We also convened courts throughout the region to coordinate reopening plans. When the courts reopened and began hearing some eviction cases, our partners began offering Housing Court Clinic services both remotely and onsite where possible. Our mediation partners also conducted remote community mediations ahead of eviction filings. Now, we plan to co-locate COVID-19 financial services at court as more eviction cases are heard. The regional eviction prevention system that we have been building over the past few years is now proving critical during the pandemic.
Recommendations for Emergency Financial Assistance
Fair, predictable, and timely access to emergency financial resources can make the difference between remaining stably housed or bearing the costs, stress, and health risks of displacement. FHFund examined emergency assistance programs in the 7-county Metro, St. Louis County (Duluth area) and Olmsted County (Rochester area) as they operated before the pandemic in order to inform improvements to program policies and procedures. We published our recommendations for improvement on our website and engaged with local and state leaders to advance our ideas. Building upon lessons learned from the pandemic response, we see an opportunity to build a stronger emergency assistance system that responds with urgency to the needs of all families facing a housing stability crisis.
Ensuring Homes are Safe and Healthy
Our efforts to improve housing quality through proactive litigation of habitability cases became even more important this year. The pandemic turned home into an essential refuge for protecting health, but as people spend more time at home, it more critical than ever that their homes are safe and healthy. We continued partnering with legal assistance organizations across the Twin Cities region to identify troubled buildings and litigate habitability cases to ensure repairs are made. Our partners served a combined 171 families across the metro. Of these, 146 households benefited from improved housing conditions as a result.
As part of our efforts to ensure homes are safe and healthy, FHFund supported the development of training modules for small, part-time, and new rental property owners. This includes an online training platform in management, legal, and maintenance planning fundamentals, city-specific information regarding regulatory obligations and affordability incentives, and a suite of technical supports. So far, twenty-six training modules are now available and more are in development.
Elevating Housing as Economic Infrastructure
FHFund continued to engage leaders in the business community to raise awareness on the economic impact of the region’s housing shortage. In response to the pandemic’s economic fallout, we communicated a clear message that a sufficient supply of housing will be critical for the economic recovery from COVID-19. Using data from the Housing and Unemployment report that we co-published with Wilder Research, we offered new insights on how the pandemic was affecting workers in different industries and neighborhoods. We met with multiple chambers of commerce around the region and hosted two panel discussions at the virtual InterCity Leadership Visit. Throughout the year, we advocated for additional state and federal housing resources – both emergency housing assistance funds and investments in housing infrastructure – and we saw business leaders and policymakers step up to advocate for a strong housing policy agenda.