Messages from the Council Chair

Safe shelter in a pandemic

December 2020
Charlie Zelle

Many of us are appreciating our homes more than ever during this pandemic. Having a roof over my head, a safe haven from rough weather and viruses, is a blessing I try not to take for granted.

But too many people living in our region don’t enjoy what should be a basic right — safe, dignified housing. Because of this year’s deep economic downturn, many more people, including children, have become homeless and thousands more are at risk of homelessness.

Even before the pandemic, an estimated 317,000 households with low or moderate incomes were housing cost-burdened, meaning they pay an outsized portion of their income for housing and too often have to make choices between medical care, food on the table, and paying the rent.

Expanding affordable housing opportunities is a Council priority. We’ve been doubling down our efforts in 2020.

The work of our housing and redevelopment authority, Metro HRA, has never been more important. During 2020, we have made more than 81,000 rent payments to 1,800 private property owners who provide housing for 19,000 people, including 9,500 children. Because many of our voucher holders are working families who experienced reduced income or lost jobs this year, we spent nearly $5 million in federal CARES Act funding to provide larger subsidies for them.

The work of Metro Transit’s Homeless Action Team and Metro HRA’s outreach team is nothing short of heroic during this pandemic. This year, these workers:

  • Connected with 180 new referrals of people experiencing homelessness, many of whom were using the Metro Transit system as shelter; 97 are now housed.

  • Completed 69 moves with housing search assistance for hard-to-house voucher holders.

  • Referred 777 housing units to program participants.

What moves me deeply is what some staff do for these families beyond helping them find immediate shelter and referring them for longer-term housing. A standout is Lt. Erin Dietz, Metro Transit Police Department officer, who in her off-hours finds and refurbishes used furniture for families who are newly housed.

The Met Council board is stepping up, too. In the last several years, we have typically provided $2 million to $2.5 million in grants to cities through the Livable Communities Local Housing Incentives Account to support the development of affordable housing. In January, we will award $5.5 million in grants for this purpose. Cities are doing their part — many that have never before applied for this grant program submitted a proposal this year.

For the 2021 funding cycle, we are reexamining our grant criteria in the Livable Communities Demonstration Account to better reward applications that meet our foundational goals, including expanding affordable housing opportunities.

Creating enough affordable housing is a huge undertaking; the need is so great. But we will not shy away from this challenge. More than ever, there’s no place like home.