Imagine you are a 27-year old black woman.
You put yourself through school at Metro State while working full-time. You have been working since you were 19 years old, just like your mother did when she was young. You are a grocery store clerk, an essential worker, just a couple of blocks away from here. Despite working full time, you cannot afford your own apartment without government support – the rent is just a bit too far out of reach and the deposit is impossible – but things have been ok because you have been able to access the safety net of a Section 8 housing subsidy for the past three years. You’ve complied with all the rules and regulations of this Section 8 voucher, and you are grateful. Without this voucher you might be homeless.
Today is your lucky day. You walk into work and your boss pulls you aside and congratulates you. You’ve been promoted to shift supervisor! You are thrilled and you deserve it, you’ve worked hard. But that feeling only lasts moment.
You quickly realize you will make $1.50 an hour more as a shift supervisor, which sounds good, but it won’t move you out of poverty, and it will strip you of your Section 8 voucher. So, here you are, forced to make a choice: Do you take the promotion and begin earning just a bit too much money to afford your home and risk being homeless with winter around the corner? Or, do you stay at your low-wage, keep your Section 8 subsidy, and eliminate any possibility of ever moving out of poverty and away from government supported housing?
You’re stuck. You’re stuck in the housing gap. You’re stuck in a broken system.
And…That’s the end of the story. You’ve hit the cliff.
RS Eden President and CEO Caroline Hood paused after sharing that story during a groundbreaking ceremony on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020. She continued, “Here we are today, celebrating a small but important step in the writing of a new story for this woman and so many others like her, one that together with others begins to close the housing gap.”
When the five-story, 52,178-square-foot building opens next year on the site of the former Bell Laboratory building just north of Walgreens along Hiawatha Ave., Amber Apartments will offer 80 efficiency units that range from 418 to 462 square feet.
With rents from $600 a month, the units are for those low-wage earners who cannot afford market rate rents, which start at about $1,000 locally. Attendees at the Oct. 21 event questioned the current definition of “affordable,” which is housing costs that are 30% of a person’s income. To afford rent payments of $700-$900 a person must make between $2,100-2,800.
“For someone like me, Amber Apartments offers the leverage to help you move from dependence to independence,” said former RS Eden client Cletus Robinson.
He moved to Minneapolis from Chicago at the age of 50 with only a single bag of clothes. It felt too late to start over. But with the support of RS Eden and others, he did. “RS Eden helped me see my potential,” Robinson stated. Today he works as a bus operator at Metro Transit.
He’s excited about RS Eden’s latest project. “Amber Apartments will be very affordable. Thank you, RS EDEN, for giving others like me the hope to continue – against the odds, but within a community,” said Robinson.
‘This project is so needed’
“This is the exactly the kind of housing that we need right now,” stated Hennepin County Commissioner Angela Conley. “We have so many people who are just trying to pay the rent. We have so many who if it weren’t for an eviction moratorium right now, would be homeless, I passed by so many tents on my way here – covered in snow –because we don’t have enough of this low-barrier, low-income housing.”
“This is a bright day in Longfellow community,” remarked Longfellow City Council Member Andrew Johnson. “This project is so needed. When we talk about the barriers keeping people down, housing is right at the top of the list because if you can get a job but you can’t afford housing, you’re stuck. This is absolutely the type of housing we need.”
Between 2017 and 2018 the number of single adults experiencing homelessness in Hennepin County increased by 21% – from 1,375 to 1,658, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Chronic homelessness among adults with a serious mental illness or substance use disorder increased 59% and 101%, respectively, and as these numbers rise, the availability of affordable housing for this vulnerable population continues to shrink. The imbalanced local rental market reflects a national trend: over the last 16 years, renters’ average income has stayed flat while rental costs have risen by 10%.
RS Eden manages or owns nine buildings with 550 units in the Twin Cities that help people off the streets and get them into stable housing. The company began with just three staff members and now has 180 employees. In each building, there are services aimed at the problems that contributed to homelessness, including addiction, mental health issues, lack of education, and more.
“The pandemic has derailed so many people’s jobs and livelihoods, while the process of homes and housing continue to increase,” observed Hood. “This inverse relationship has been devastating. Additionally, the increased substance use we are seeing (again as a result of this pandemic), and loss of connection and community, have become a trauma that we are all trying to survive through. It’s those community members among us who were already teetering on the edge, that simply didn’t have the income and supports to weather this pandemic that has continued so much longer than any of us could have imagined back in March.”
Amber Apartments will offer “peer supports” to residents. “Peer supports are making sure individuals are connected to folks with lived experience,” explained Hood. “If you have never been homeless, you might not realize that the silence of moving inside is scary, that you don’t need to leave your apartment every morning at 6 a.m. like you did in the shelters, that you don’t need to pack up all your belongings when you leave your apartment each day, and so on. Professionals can help, but people with lived experience are truly the experts.”
Mayor Jacob Frey praised the wraparound support options RS Eden includes in its projects. “It’s about the ability to transition,” he said. “This is the type of housing we need. It’s a big deal in our city and we’re proud to partner with you. Let’s make more of this happen.”
Amber Apartments had initially been slated to open in 2019, but the project funding of $18.6 million took longer to pull together. The last piece of the equation was $3 million through a new federal funding source through the National Housing Trust Fund.
“This project is a prime example of how state investments can help create new supportive housing that sets Minnesotans up for success,” said Minnesota Housing Commissioner Jennifer Ho. “We need to see more of what we’re doing today.”
‘It’s going to take all of us’
With today’s rental vacancy rate in the Twin Cities at historic lows, and the average monthly rent climbing, vulnerable renters are in a bind, and many are at high risk of returning to homelessness. Add job loss at an all-time peak due to COVID-19, and there a risk for people to backslide. “You are stretched to your ends, and the risk of returning to homelessness or other behaviors you’re trying to get away from are high,” stated Hood.
“We’re not giving people a hand out, but a hand up,” explained former RS Eden CEO Dan Cain. “They have to do the work but we provide the opportunity.”
He knows because he’s been there himself. Jailed after a theft conviction, Cain became the first Minnesota state prison inmate directly paroled into a community drug-treatment program. He entered Eden House, a start-up treatment program in Minneapolis initially designed to treat heroin-addicted Vietnam War veterans returning home.
Cain moved on from there, becoming a chemical dependency counselor at Eden House, program director and then CEO. As a single dad in those early years, he brought his daughter Amber to work with him.
“When I wasn’t in school, I was in his office,” recalled Amber Cain, who lives near Diamond Lake in South Minneapolis. The new project has been named after her.
“It’s a honor to have this building in my name,” she said. “It’s a vision and a mission I believe in.”
She has raised her children with the values she learned as a child. “RS Eden is based on building new beginnings,” Amber remarked. “This could be an incredible new beginning for bringing back our community.”
Amber works with UFCW Local 663 at Cub, and is excited about the potential for collaboration between the new housing and jobs one block away at the new Cub.
She doesn’t think it is an impossible thing to end homelessness, but pointed out that silence is complicity. “It definitely can be done, but it’s going to take all of us.”