Hennepin County Medical Center - Local 977

Opportunity Comes Knocking

Local 668 members Terry Hardin (left) and Corina Serrano

No one can accuse Terry Hardin and Corina Serrano of refusing a challenge. In a state with some of the worst racial disparities in the nation, in an area where people of color are increasingly surrounded by poverty, and in a market where it’s increasingly impossible to find affordable housing, they’re working to get parents closer to better-paying jobs and to get children into better schools. One family at a time.

A new wrinkle in subsidized housing

Hardin and Serrano are the first “mobility counselors” for the Metropolitan Council’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority. Metro HRA, as it’s more commonly known, oversees the state’s largest Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program.

Section 8 provides rental assistance for working families and retirees. They rent apartments, duplexes, or single-family houses in the private sector. But to keep their home affordable, they pay only about one-third of their income toward the rent. The voucher – covered by federal funds – covers the rest.

Metro HRA operates in Anoka, Carver, and suburban Hennepin and Ramsey Counties. It helps 6,335 families keep a roof over their heads, with an additional 2,000 families on its waiting list. A family of four must make less than $41,450 to qualify; an individual must make less than $29,050.

The new mobility program hopes to help a fraction of these families break out of their comfort zone, out of limits in the marketplace, and out of patterns that lock poor families into impoverished neighborhoods, often for generations.

Expanding ‘income diversity’ in the suburbs

In plain terms, Hardin and Serrano hope to find new homes in comfortable suburbs for low-income workers who now live in poor, racially concentrated subdivisions or neighborhoods.

The Local 668 members know the perceptions that leap into people’s minds. But the mobility program is pursuing more than simple racial or ethnic desegregation. The truth is, Twin Cities suburbs already have a fair amount of that diversity.

What they’re actually hoping to expand is income diversity, which is often a harder barrier to crack. “These are working families,” Serrano says. “They’re families that also want something better.”

Right now, the lack of affordable “workforce housing” near areas of high job growth means these families must endure long commutes. “They’re one snow day away, or one car problem away, from losing their job,” Serrano says. “And especially in these retail or jobs with lower wages, they don’t have the flexibility to miss an hour of work or a day of work.”

Market forces throw up obstacles

As Hardin and Serrano fire up their program this fall, they plan a lot of one-on-one counseling – both to assess what makes sense for each family, and also to make sure families realistically know what to expect. They also are working with existing community organizations in the suburbs to help make connections and transitions easier.

Right now, they’re mostly doing a lot of one-on-one recruitment of landlords. With apartment vacancy rates under 3 percent, and average rents above $1,000 a month, finding open spots for Metro HRA families is going to be tough.

But working with HRA provides an advantage that the private marketplace may not, Hardin says. “That’s where we play a role, making the owners aware, ‘I’m here to work with you. I’m providing support services for the family.’ That is very attractive to the landlords.”

Looking for good schools – and more

Met Council researchers currently are crunching numbers to figure out which neighborhoods make the most sense within the 100 or so cities that Metro HRA serves.

Access to “high performing” schools is at the top of the mobility counselors’ checklist. “I look at children as our future,” Hardin says, “so these are the generations we need to equip. When the parents succeed, the children succeed.”

But as Hardin and Serrano size up neighborhoods, their list also includes features such as playgrounds, stores, places of worship, and even the “neighborhood culture” – the kinds of things that will help a family decide how well they might fit in or how well a neighborhood might meet their needs. After all, getting families to take the leap is one of their main challenges.

Overcoming resistance on both sides

Serrano, who worked with an HRA as a member of Local 517 in Washington County, is familiar with trying to place families in well-off suburbs. “Neighborhoods not wanting people with public assistance – I think we’ve all had personal experience where there’s push back,” she says. “There’s always people that embrace you, but you tend to remember or hear those who push back.”

“Families will be moving from familiar areas, and moving into areas where they feel isolated, don’t have friends or family,” says Hardin, who did similar work with the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, where she was a member of Local 551.

“The type of person who will take that chance will have to be someone who is motivated, someone who really wants to change their life,” she says.

Adapted from the July-August 2015 issue of Council 5’s Stepping Up magazine.

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