Moving into a single wide trailer in a Wisconsin mobile home park as a child was Deidre Schmidt’s introduction to affordable housing. The cheap rent and stability allowed her mother to attend college and eventually move the family into a better home in Minneapolis.
“I look back now and I think ‘Gosh, that’s really the place where I found rest, acceptance and stability,'" Schmidt said Thursday morning at The Garage coworking space in downtown Rapid City as part of the Morning Fill Up series.
Now the CEO of CommonBond Communities, the largest nonprofit provider of affordable housing in the Upper Midwest with more than 6,000 affordable rental apartments and townhomes serving more than 12,000 people in 56 cities throughout Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, Schmidt is trying to give today's families similar opportunities.
Affordable housing isn’t just a technical definition detailing a person’s income and what percentage of their income they pay for a home, Schmidt said. It’s a place offering quality and community to its residents. Too often, the conversation surrounding affordable housing — the cost of land and construction, access to land and labor, superiority of ownership over rental, providing it as an act of charity or a prevention against civil or criminal issues — becomes too repetitive, narrow and removed, Schmidt said.
In short, it veils the foundational issue below.
“When you go to talk about affordable housing in virtually any city the same themes come up,” Schmidt said. “Many of these discussions end up being a pretty thin cover for issues of race and class.”
The willingness to discuss those issues in public conversations, she said, helps change the dialogue and ultimately, the outcome.
In St. Louis Park, Minn., — a well-developed city of 40,000 just west of Minneapolis growing by increasing its density and redeveloping older structures — the city council took a lot of heat when it began to strengthen its policies protecting renters, Schmidt said. In one example, the council imposed on owners of multifamily rental buildings the requirement that they give tenants notice 90 days ahead of the sale of the building.
In Milwaukee, the city offered incentives to companies that bought and renovated abandoned, dilapidated and foreclosed properties using employees who were previously unemployed or underemployed.
When asked how, in an era of steady stock market success, rock bottom interest rates and low unemployment, the lack of adequate affordable housing has only grown, Schmidt cited perceptions and numbers.
As in Rapid City, Schmidt said many cities are experiencing housing shortages not only for low-income individuals but for high income earners too, thus broadening the constituency of those affected and increasing the visibility of the topic.
At the same time, using Minneapolis as an example, Schmidt noted that over the past decade, rent prices had risen 9 percent while income dropped 11 percent.
“We’re seeing a growing differential between where housing costs are going and where incomes are going,” she said. “This is repeated in a lot of areas where I’ve been able to find the data.”
Widening wealth gap
But the biggest cause and one that’s tied to racial and class disparities, she said, is the ever-widening wealth gap between the haves and the have nots. Income and wealth inequality is the greatest challenge facing today’s generation, she said, with affordable housing a piece to the puzzle.
And while increasing affordable housing stock is more an effort at mitigating the effects of that challenge, Schmidt said the stability a home can have on families, particularly children, means it is also part of the solution.
She noted research and data showing that students who stay in the same school district from kindergarten through sixth grade and kindergarten through high school graduation have much higher graduation rates and are more likely to attend and graduate from college.
“We (society) oftentimes focus on the adults,” she said. “‘Are the adults worthy of our investment? Are they working hard enough to justify our investment in their stability?’ It’s fine to ask those questions but let’s also recognize that we’re really investing in our kids.”
CommonBond Communities has about 3,400 children in their housing units, with most of those children headed by a single parent. Many of its other residents are seniors, most of them single women. Given the unique needs of those populations, CommonBond also offers services along with its housing, one of the first organizations nationwide to do so.
Children can receive homework help and one-to-one academic and social support, families can utilize work readiness and job placement programs, financial literacy coaching/education and lease education, and the elderly can participate in programs geared toward maintaining their health and wellness and getting socially involved through community engagement opportunities.
“When someone is stably housed ... that’s when services can assist a family in achieving what they really want to do in life,” she said. “That’s why we do what we do.”
CommonBond also offers supportive housing, which provides a broad range of social services and housing aimed toward individuals with mental, chemical and physical health issues. Many of the residents have experienced long-term or recurrent periods of homelessness.
For Schmidt, success is less about getting people out of CommonBond's programs/housing units — the average length of stay for a single family unit is six years — and more about making sure that when they leave, it’s to a better situation.
As Schmidt put it, success is “when people move on only when they move up.”
She noted that in the case of elderly tenants — seniors average eight years in their housing — a longer stay typically represents success since they usually only move when their condition or independence deteriorates. She added that tenant complaints also make her smile. By complaining, it means they feel stable, safe, have a sense of ownership over the property and are in a positive power relationship.
To start an organization like CommonBond in Rapid City, Schmidt said leaders with humility and a desire to benefit the community — sometimes in direct confrontation with profit motive — are necessary.
“Pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered,” Schmidt said.
Experienced local developers, government support and assistance, and collaboration with the local organizations already dealing with the populations the housing looks to address are also paramount.
In the end, Schmidt said that for those in attendance inspired by her work or interested in having a career that also contributes to the greater good, it’s best to follow your passion, values and spirit and let the chips fall as they may.
“Use a compass,” she said, “not a map.”