Rice County Housing Department staff were flooded March 29-31 with 263 heads of households seeking rental relief through Section 8 housing.

The voucher program was open last week for the first time since September 2015 when 250 applied for the waiting list. This most recent sign-up window showed that the need for affordable housing in Rice County has not decreased, and in fact, slightly increased from 2015.

Though a large number of people applying for Section 8 indicates a lack of affordable housing in the county, Housing Director Joy Watson is happy to see those in need seeking resources.

“I think it was a good turnout,” she said. “Wednesday (March 29) was by far the busiest day. I think it went well. It was pretty well organized. People came in right away and got their paperwork filled out.”

County staff will now need to sort through the applications and add all who qualify to the waiting list. A certain number of applications are expected to be denied for one reason or another, whether the family is over the specified limit, was disqualified from the program within the last five years, or others.

Families in the Rice County Section 8 housing program are required to put 30 percent of their income toward rent, and then the county covers the rest through federal funds.

There were 149 households on the Section 8 waiting list before the window opened. That number should increase to at least 300 after the applications are sorted through.

Meanwhile, 293 families are already utilizing the voucher program. The county is allocated 329 vouchers in all, but it doesn’t generally use all of them at any one time.

As families currently using the vouchers come off the program — due to reaching a higher income level or because of disqualification — families from the waiting list will be added. The average waiting time for a household on the waiting list is 28 months.

An average wait of 28 months indicates some families are waiting longer, closer to three years in some cases. If a household is on the waiting list, it’s because the family’s income is already below the limit required for Section 8. So for families waiting two or three years to get access to the vouchers, more immediate solutions might be needed.

There are options available in the county, providing similar benefits to the Section 8 program. The city of Faribault offers public housing, which also charges 30 percent of the renter’s income. Some apartment complexes have their own subsidy programs built in, and some others come with tax credits.

The Rice County Housing and Redevelopment Authority recently received a grant to help house residents with serious mental illnesses, as they wait for Section 8 availability. Watson noted that options exist, but there “is always more need than services available.”

Affordable housing

The standout issue in Rice County is a lack of affordable housing in general.

According to a report from Minnesota Housing and Urban Development, 59 percent of Section 8 users in Rice County are already receiving at least some of their income from working. That compares to 42 percent of Section 8 users statewide.

About 4 percent of Rice County Section 8 users, or 12 households, receive all of their income solely from public assistance. Meanwhile, 34 percent of the heads of households are disabled, while 16 percent are elderly.

What the numbers show, according to Watson, is that those who are able to work are working. The fact that so many residents working full-time jobs still need programs like Section 8 is indicative of the availability of affordable housing in the area, she said.

“I think we have people that are working,” she said. “If you’re earning $25,000 per year, you’re working at least one full-time job. It’s just expensive to live. So people are working and doing the things asked of them, and it’s still not always enough.”

According to a 2017 Minnesota Housing Partnership report, Minnesota’s southern region — including Rice, Steele, Blue Earth, Dodge and other counties — features a notable lack of affordable housing in rural counties.

“For renters in rural counties, wage depreciation has made it increasingly difficult to afford the growing cost of housing,” the report states. “From 2000 to 2015, the median renter income decreased in every county except one (Brown County) with declines ranging from 3 to 28 percent.”

The report notes that more than two in five renter households in the southern Minnesota region experience cost burden (spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing). Homes in the region are also aging with 40 percent of owners living in a home built prior to 1960. The researchers project a 72 percent increase in the senior population in southern Minnesota by 2035.

According to the report, the top five in-demand jobs in the region include registered nurses, heavy and tractor truck drivers, personal care aides, nursing assistants and food preparation/service workers. The median incomes for the latter three positions all fall below the expected needed salary to rent a two-bedroom apartment in Rice County.

Among all southern Minnesota counties, Rice County has the highest threshold for salary needed, in order to rent or own housing.

“The salary needed to afford a median-value home ($55,560) or rent for a two-bedroom apartment ($32,724) is far higher in Rice County than the vast majority of counties in the region,” the report states.

The report illustrates that Rice County is already lacking the affordable housing needed for its current workforce. With the most in-demand jobs in the area consisting of lower wages, and the senior population expected to grow significantly, the lack of cheaper housing is likely to only become more apparent.

Watson knows the problem exists, and she and other area housing leaders are attempting to address the problem. But there’s no quick fix.

“I think our population is growing faster than the buildings seem to be,” she said. “It would be nice (to add affordable housing), but you have to be realistic and know that the money has to come from somewhere.”

Reach Reporter Philip Weyhe at 507-333-3132 or follow him on Twitter @nfnphilweyhe.

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