Summoning the will to forge a fair future for everyone

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In part one of this two-part series, the News takes a look at the state of affordable housing in New Richmond. Part two will explore some of the innovative policy ideas and tools available to municipalities to address affordable housing.

Since the News' first story on the Lowrey's closing, the community's eyes have been opened to the troubling tale of the Lowrey Hotel, its impending closure by the Beebes and the uncertain future facing many of the residents living there. The News' stories have provided a look into the history and reputation of the Lowrey Hotel and manager Stacy Wright. Folks who were displaced at midnight, Aug. 31 have been given a voice.
Shortly after the Beebes announced they would be closing the Lowrey Hotel, the city convened a monthly meeting of folks known as the Lowrey Hotel Community Response Committee. The committee consists of representatives from St. Croix County Health & Human Services, West CAP, Salvation Army Grace Place, United Way of the St. Croix Valley, City of New Richmond, New Richmond Area Chamber of Commerce, New Richmond Police Department, Wisconsin Department of Corrections and the New Richmond Area Community Foundation. The committee's immediate purpose was to help find transitional or alternative housing options for the residents of the Lowrey who were going to be displaced when the doors closed on Aug. 31.
As of the Friday, Aug. 24 meeting, through the diligent efforts of the committee and their agencies, alternative housing or shelter has been secured for a significant number of the Lowrey residents. However, a week before the deadline, the future of a handful of residents (it has proven difficult to identify the exact number) still remained in limbo. Unless last ditch efforts by members of Grace Place, WestCap and Health & Human Services result in acceptable solutions for those residents, living in limbo literally started at midnight Friday.
The perplexing story of the Lowrey has made clear that limited affordable housing is a serious problem in New Richmond and throughout St. Croix County. The story demonstrates how frailties and hardships that can overwhelm an individual or a family are so often interwoven with the search to find affordable housing.
Mental health issues, addiction, abuse and criminal histories all impact the search for affordable housing stigmatizing renters and providing landlords with leverage to require additional security or avoid renting at all.
Ask a person who is battling addiction or struggling with mental health issues and they will tell you their life is defined by an absence of choices or by a few very difficult choices. Can I find a job? Can I find it within walking distance of where I live? Would I be willing to give up a job in order to have a place of my own to live? Would I be willing to risk giving up the place where I live for a job in a different community and a chance that I might not be able to find a place to live again?
The Lowrey raises several core questions. 1.) Is the community actually aware of the challenge to provide affordable housing? 2.) Does the community understand that by embracing that challenge it's also embracing the lives of those individuals less fortunate and thereby acknowledging how valuable they are as contributing community members? And 3.) Does this community, which often describes itself as caring and compassionate have the will to forge new policy solutions and provide resources to make affordable housing a realty in New Richmond?
Here are some of the challenges exposed by the Lowrey story.
As a result of being located within the Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI HUD Metro Fair Market Rent (FMR) Area, rents for apartments in Pierce and St. Croix counties including New Richmond are among the highest in the state. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) 2018 FMR Documentation System, fair rent for an efficiency apartment is $711, for a one-bedroom $864, two-bedroom $1,089 and three-bedroom $1,547.
Because of the stigma attached to many low-income households, landlords perceive those tenants as higher risk so they typically ask for a double security deposit in addition to the first month's rent. Using that math and the FMR above, an efficiency apartment can command around $2,100 and that buys you just one month; a one-bedroom apartment will cost $2,600 just to get in the door.
According to the Income Characteristics specified on the New Richmond Housing Authority's website, the average voucher household has an average annual income of $14,005.
The accepted rule of thumb is no more than 30 percent of an individual or family's income should be spent on rent. Renting even an efficiency apartment at the fair market rate adds up to $8532, more than double the $4201.50 available to a housing voucher household.
Given that no one resident at the Lowrey had the same income, if any income at all, and each person's hardships were unique, added to the paperwork required to get started on the path toward finding suitable housing and the difficulty case managers had contacting some of the residents and you can imagine the head-spinning challenge the committee members faced. And it all had to happen in three months.
Corin Tubridy is the Homeless Prevention Program Manager for West CAP — West Central Wisconsin Community Action Agency, Inc. which serves people in Barron, Chippewa, Dunn, Pepin, Pierce, Polk and St. Croix counties. Duana Bremer is the Social Services Director for Grace Place and emergency shelter operated in New Richmond by the Salvation Army.
West CAP manages the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program which provides qualified individuals and families with rental assistance. The Salvation Army also provides rent and utility, emergency hotel and transportation assistance, and transitional housing.
Tenant-based assistance is currently the most prevalent form of housing assistance provided. Programs allow participants to find and lease housing in the private market. Local public housing agencies (PHAs) and some state agencies serving as PHAs enter into contracts with HUD to administer the programs. The PHAs then enter into contracts with private landlords. The subsidies are used to supplement the rent paid by low-income households.
Whether a low-income household qualifies for a rent subsidy depends on where that income falls on an income scale determined by HUD. Income limits are location-specific and vary by household size.
One of the problems contributing to a low-income renter's ability to rent is the determination of an area's Median Family Income (FMI) by HUD. This is an important number because Fair Market Rent is based on it and low-income households are classified based on percentages of it. The 2018 FMI for the Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI HUD Metro FMR Area is $94,300. Because that number exceeds the HUD capped U.S. national median income of $71,900, the lower number is used to calculate the three low income category (Low - 80 percent, Very Low - 50 percent and Extremely Low - 30 percent) limits.
Because the median income starts at such a high number because New Richmond is considered part of the Twin Cities Metro area, even the income level for one person falling into the extremely low income category works out to $19,850, nearly $6,000 more than average voucher household income as estimated by the NR Housing Authority. Low income households in New Richmond start at a disadvantage because landlords price apartments based on the Metro FMR. Their rental subsidies do not go as far as they should.
Using the same data as HUD collected through the American Community Survey (ACS) conducted annually by the U.S. Census Bureau, DATA USA lists the 2016 Median Household Income (MHI) specifically for New Richmond at $56,422. That same year the MHI for the Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI HUD Metro Area was $70,915. A difference of more than $14,000 in a low-income, voucher household's favor could increase the amount they have available to pay rent. If landlords adjusted their rent to reflect the more accurate MHI for New Richmond specifically, that gap would close, subsidies would become more meaningful and effective.
Even if a low-income renter can qualify for a subsidized housing program such at West CAP's Rapid Re-Housing or Tenant-based Rental Assistance or Salvation Army Transitional Housing, case management and rent assistance may only continue for anywhere from 3 to 18 months. Agencies need more money to be able to extend these programs to give tenants a realistic chance to reestablish their lives.
A second problem exposed by the Lowrey story: There are not nearly enough rental apartments available in New Richmond to fill the needs of low-income subsidized households.

"Every year we're seeing a little over a thousand people who are experiencing homelessness and those are people who are in shelter or outside. That's not counting people who are housing insecure or staying at places like the Lowrey on a week-to-week basis. That's significant for our rural communities where we don't have large urban centers and we don't have transportation," said Tubridy.
"According to a recent national survey, in Wisconsin for every 100 low-income families, there are only 28 affordable housing units available. You'll have to confirm this with West CAP, but the last time I checked their prioritization list of folks who are requesting housing services in our five-county area, there were over 357 people on that list," added Bremer.
According to Tubridy, New Richmond has roughly five affordable apartments to work with.
"Finding actual apartments for rent, that's a struggle. Working within the limitations that if somebody's going to receive any type of federal funding whether that's Section 8 or state funding from Rural Housing for a security deposit, then that apartment has to fall within fair market rent which is a limit that includes the rent amount plus a utility allowance," Tubridy said. "So that narrows the choices down even more.
"Landlords at this point have the ability to be really strict with their screening because there are enough people who will pass the qualifications that they don't have to consider somebody that might be a higher risk. The cost and desirability of Pierce and St. Croix County for people who work in the Cities make them two of our tougher ones in which to find landlords to work with. But always trying to build new relationships."
There is one bright spot coming from the Lowrey's predicament.

"If something positive is to come out of the Lowrey, it's that it has brought stakeholders in the community together and started the discussion about what are the needs for these people at the Lowrey. In the past, it has been a place where people have gone that can't find housing anywhere else, out of sight and out of people's minds. Now with the Lowrey closing we're all being forced to reexamine how are we responding to people who are exiting the Department of Corrections system, people who are in our mental health system and people who happen to be low-income. That the Lowrey has brought new faces to the table, representatives from the City, Public and Mental Health, to have everybody there, those are the voices we need to have present to create new partnerships," said Tubridy.

One of the most immediate and impactful ways to support the efforts to address affordable housing issues in New Richmond is to donate to the Community Needs Fund at the New Richmond Area Community Foundation at: https://www.nracfoundation.com/ways-to-give/. For questions, contact Executive Director Margaret Swanson at (651) 246-3652 or by email at: margaret@nracfoundation.com.