OWATONNA — In two months, Diane Schroht will have to make some difficult decisions about where she’s going to live.
The rental home where she and her grandson live currently costs her $985 a month. She can afford that, thanks to assistance she gets through Transitional Housing of Steele County. But that assistance will end in April, and Schroht, trying to feed, clothe and house herself and her grandson on $10 an hour at a fast-food restaurant, says that she’s not sure how she’ll fill that gap.
“I know there’s a two-bedroom not far from me, but I believe that’s $750, and you still have to pay your cable and electric, and that’s in an apartment,” she said. “There just aren’t any affordable, decent housing options in Owatonna.”
Schroht is one of the Owatonnans Julie Anderson, Transitional Housing executive director, calls the working poor: people putting in often 40 hours or more every week but still struggling to get by. And nowhere, she says, is that struggle more clear than in the difficulty of finding low-income housing in Steele County.
“People are having to choose between buying groceries and paying rent once they get housed, if they’re lucky enough to get housed,” said Anderson, whose organization provides rent assistance for homeless families and those at risk of losing housing around the county. “We’re having a hard time finding housing inventory, we’re having time finding affordable housing when we can find a place, and some of our people do have some issues in their history. All of those issues combined make it challenging.”
In fact, Steele County families have a uniquely difficult time finding affordable housing. A recent report by the Minnesota Housing Partnership looked at the number of affordable housing units available per 100 low-income renter households, defined as households earning less than 30 percent of the county median income. Steele County ranks fourth-lowest in the state, with only 29 affordable units per 100 households. Only in Sherburne, Anoka and Blue Earth counties is supply more restricted.
That’s not a surprise for local housing advocates such as Anderson.
“I have seen so many reports, that we’re one of the more challenging [counties],” she said. “There’s a disparity between the haves and the have nots here.”
Identifying the causes of the problem, and possible solutions, is tricky. Anderson said Steele County’s large industrial sector is a mixed blessing: industrial companies can offer good wages and valuable job skills, but are also highly sensitive to market ebb and flow, which can see temporary employees idled when orders are down. A lengthy construction slowdown during and after the recession has made it difficult for renters in lower-rate housing to move out to larger apartments or homes. And despite several recent developments offering workforce or market-rate housing, there hasn’t been a corresponding movement to build new subsidized units in the county.
“We have seen market rate places going up, and that’s been encouraging, but we just need more interest in affordable housing,” Anderson said. “There are many people in the community that are gathering to try to figure out a solution, but in terms of investors and new housing going up, it’s a good question.”
And for the 71 percent of low-income families who don’t have access to affordable housing units, there are few good options, Anderson said. Some couch-hop between friends and family, or “double up” with friends in rental units without the landlord’s permission. Others are forced to pay 50 percent or more of their income for any housing they can find. And Transitional Housing has a six-month waiting list for housing assistance.
Schroht is also on the waiting list for Section Eight assistance through the Owatonna Housing and Redevelopment Authority, but that waiting list, she said, is two years. And she doesn’t want to return to the days of choosing between the garbage payment and the electric bill.
“Even though I’ve made progress on the [Transitional Housing] program, I still can’t afford the rent in Owatonna, and I don’t want to have to move, because [my grandson] has always gone to school here, and one of my main goals is for him to feel stable,” she said. “I realize there are towns south of us, really all around us, that are cheaper in rent, but I can’t uproot him, so I’m not sure what I’ll end up doing.”
And the problem is unlikely to get much better, Anderson said, until there are more rental units to go around.
“Anything we could do to attract new housing would be welcome, low-income and market-rate,” she said.