Surprisingly, the systems that help us get housed and the systems that build housing don’t always talk to each other. In fact, through the decades, they’ve mostly operated independently. Meanwhile, the policies that shape those systems have shifted with the perspectives of lawmakers and political landscape through the decades, giving rise to new outlooks on how best to ensure people can get — and keep — an affordable place to live.
That’s what I learned in conversations with two of Minnesota’s most prominent leaders in the world of housing and homelessness.
Meet Chip and Cathy
Chip Halbach is the founding director of Minnesota Housing Partnership, a nonprofit organization that advances housing and community development through research, policy advocacy, and capacity building. In his over 40 year career, Chip organized around housing cooperatives, advocated for new and innovative tax policies, and convened housing sector leaders and advocates to help create groups like Homes for All, a statewide coalition of more than 240 organizations with a shared agenda at the State Capitol.
Cathy tenBroeke is the Director of Minnesota’s Interagency Council to End Homelessness. She’s worked on homelessness issues for her entire career at almost every level of government. Cathy began her career at a homeless shelter. As policy aide for Gail Dorfman, Cathy started on a path of deepening engagement with policy issues and solutions. Since then, she’s provided leadership in the Federal Office to End Homelessness and for Hennepin County.
My conversations with Cathy and Chip focused on the evolution of policies impacting housing and homelessness over the past 30 years. I wanted to know how changes at all levels of government have impacted people on-the-ground in Minnesota and in the Twin Cities region.
Two major themes emerged. First, drastic changes at the federal level cascaded to every other level of government, impacting policy solutions chosen by state and local government and the responses of community groups and private entities building housing or helping people get housed. Second, there’s been a growing recognition that to effectively house people, systems must coordinate and take the long view. There’s a growing understanding that success won’t happen without listening to people with lived experience of housing instability and a deep commitment to addressing racial disparities.
Chip Halbach is technically retired, but you wouldn’t know it. Even after four decades in the field, despite witnessing (or actively participating in) successes and failures to address Minnesota’s housing need, he’s keeping a close eye on public and private responses to the issue.
“How do you stick with something?” Chip asked. “It’s because it’s something you’re wired to do. Beyond that, for me, it’s an intellectual fascination with how groups form and make change.”
A changemaker from the start, Chip began his career organizing around housing cooperatives as an AmeriCorps Vista volunteer. He was part of a wave of active organizing in the Minneapolis of the seventies and eighties growing from the momentum of the 1960s and the cooperative movement. This period also saw an unsuccessful attempt to implement rent control in the city.
Meanwhile, affordable housing development at this time was more community-based. Robust federal investment in Community Development Block Grant funds supported neighborhood-based Community Development Corporations (among other things). Today, however, affordable housing development is dominated primarily by nonprofits and private companies.
Community and neighborhood-based efforts took major blows in the wake of federal disinvestment, gridlock, and changes in the types of policy solutions politicians favored over time. For example, the Reagan administration ushered in an era of federal disinvestment and choosing market solutions over public ones. The 1986 tax reform created the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), which provides a layer of subsidy to developers if they agree to keep a proportion of units at a specified level of affordability. According to Chip, the complicated nature of the Tax Credit played a role in defeating an ownership structure among tenants, effectively taking the wind out of the sails of the local movement to establish housing cooperatives. Federal disinvestment also impacted organizing and neighborhood-based efforts to develop affordable housing in the Twin Cities region.
At the same time, Chip explained that federal gridlock has resulted in “a localization of solutions.” He pointed to two major instances of this: the first during the Reagan era, and then another round of gridlock with roots in the Bush era, which still impacts us today.
Chip said federal gridlock spreads the responsibility to address issues across every other level of government. In fact, instances of gridlock in the 1980s and today spurred separate efforts at the state level to pull back, regroup, and respond to Minnesota’s housing crisis by creating a state commission or task force on housing. The most recent Minnesota task force on housing concluded in August 2018 under Governor Mark Dayton.
Chip said that he’s seen growing momentum in recent years to address housing challenges with policy solutions at the local level. “The awareness of housing issues and the receptivity to address those issues is much more prominent across the Twin Cities region,” Chip explained. He pointed to the regional housing policy plan implemented by the Metropolitan Council over the past decade as an example. The plan lays out expectations and provides information to guide communities in their strategic planning and comprehensive plans.
In the past ten years, Chip has also seen a growing “acknowledgement that race and equity need to be woven into the work of government.”
As a community organizer, a nonprofit leader, and a housing advocate, Chip has explored many facets of changemaking around affordable housing. While there’s a lot that feels out of our control, he emphasizes that we can’t stop paying attention or giving our best effort — otherwise we’ll miss out on opportunities to make real headway.
“Over time, you see that the political atmosphere changes, which opens up opportunities,” Chip explained. “It’s like star patterns: If you’re not paying attention or not lucky, you’ll just be spinning your wheels.”
He gave tenants’ rights legislation as one example of an effort that could advance under the current conditions. “For one, it’s something that can be won with relatively little money; two, landlords are in the news taking advantage of people, so you have the headlines behind it; and three, people are really in a challenging situation due to a low vacancy rate, which means there are some landlords that will take advantage of an unlevel playing field,” Chip said.
Housing is the solution
Sometimes lawmakers don’t think ahead. Or, while they may anticipate consequences of a policy, they don’t see those consequences as their responsibility. For people who have experienced homelessness, the impacts of these unfortunate realities are tragic. The impacts have proven to be tragic for our communities, too.
Three major failures of forethought or concern for consequences fueled a significant increase in homelessness during the mid- to late 20th century. Beginning in the 1940s and beyond, “Urban renewal” projects demolished extremely affordable rent-by-the-week housing options — and didn’t replace them. At the same time, policymakers de-institutionalized mental health systems, but did not ensure that people who had been institutionalized (or would have been) had access to housing options that would support their needs. Finally, federal disinvestment undermined affordable housing creation.
“When homelessness became more visible in the 1980s because of the major cuts at the federal level, we addressed it by opening shelter spaces,” Cathy explained. “We thought of these spaces as a temporary solution, separate from housing. We assumed people would find housing again once they got connected to services. But that didn’t happen because our housing stock was depleted.”
Cathy said the two systems — the one that builds housing and the one that helps us get housed — weren’t talking to each other. A major reason for that was because people didn’t necessarily see housing as the solution to homelessness.
“When I was in the shelters in the 1990s, we really thought people had to be ‘ready’ for housing,” Cathy explained. “In the 2000s, there were communities — especially in New York City — where they realized that, if housers stick to that viewpoint, there’s going to be people who never get into housing. Instead, we need to get people into housing first and then supply them what they need to be successful in that housing. It’s the major, most important way we’ve shifted over the years.”
As people began to understand that homelessness is primarily a systems problem rather than a personal one, policy solutions began to shift.
“Sometimes, the cause of homelessness is as clear as a lack of affordable housing,” Cathy said. “In some circumstances, it’s a need for housing with access to services. Once the paradigm shift started to happen in the homelessness services world, then we started to see housing policy shift as well and be more focused on how to work better for people who had more complicating factors than just their income, and targeting more pools of dollars that reach people with incomes below 30 percent of Area Median Income.”
Cathy explained that people also began to understand that no single program could effectively address and end homelessness. Leaders identified a need for homelessness prevention, and created programs like the Family Homeless Prevention and Assistance Program. They also understood the importance of data collection and assessments that could help evaluate need and distribute resources. Cathy said that it also became clear that permanent supportive housing “is the number one most important solution.” This type of housing is deeply affordable and provides services to help residents live a healthy, stable life.
In recent years, Minnesota has seen a disturbing increase in the number of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness. According to the 2018 Wilder Homeless Study, the number of people not in a formal shelter increased 62% between 2015 and 2018. To make headway on this issue, Cathy said Minnesota needs a collaborative, interagency response. But that response must be built upon listening to people with lived experiences of homelessness — because that’s the only way to create a system that responds to the whole person. “People don’t come in pieces, so our systems shouldn’t either,” she explained.
“I am concerned, worried — and also hopeful — around the issue of people sleeping outside,” Cathy said. “That’s been consuming me. We’ve had a really diverse group people including people with lived experience of homelessness, service provides, outreach workers, and more coming together to create recommendations for a systems response, in conversation with philanthropic partners.”
Cathy sees more and more partners understanding that they each have a role to play to address this issue. That collaborative spirit motivates her to press on.
A strong focus on equity by the Walz administration also brings Cathy hope. “That requires everyone to think differently about the work they do. It’s so much more than trying to target dollars or prioritize populations. Instead it’s asking (for example), ‘How do we change the way we do business so systems are better designed for people of color. It’s a different mindset than just prioritizing resources.”
Cathy sees the Hiawatha homeless encampment as an example, which was occupied primarily by American Indian people experiencing homelessness in Minneapolis. “People understood the importance of having culturally-specific outreach workers engage with people to figure out exactly what they need and want and why the existing system is not working for them. Then we need to connect people to culturally-specific resources to have better results.”