Sold Out: New documentary shares tenant stories, lifts up solutions to loss of affordable housing

The voices of tenants and employers, advocates and elected officials raise the urgency and opportunity to address the loss of affordable housing in a new documentary debuting on the Minnesota Life Channel in mid June

Produced by Twin Cities PBS, in partnership with local advocates and funders, “Sold Out: Affordable Housing at Risk reveals the price we all pay when families are pushed out of our communities as modestly priced units are replaced with upscale developments.

In 2015, an ultimatum was given to hundreds of tenants at the Crossroads at Penn: Pay massive rent hikes, pass stringent tenant requirements — or be forced out into a white hot rental market with very few options for low-income households or those on government assistance. A year later, more than 95% of the tenants are gone — but it’s not just the families who’ve suffered.

We all pay the price when low-cost rental housing is upscaled for higher income households and families are displaced,” says Chip Halbach, executive director of the Minnesota Housing Partnership. “How we answer this challenge in the near term will impact our region’s economic strength and the resilience of our social fabric. But we must act soon. Unlike cities like San Francisco and Seattle, where housing affordability has spun out of control, we still have time to make the Twin Cities a place where people at all income levels can live and contribute.”

The documentary provides first-hand accounts from numerous former residents of the Crossroads at Penn, sharing the devastating impacts of being pushed from a place where some had resided for decades. It also lifts up the work of tenant organizing and highlights a landmark legal suit brought by the Crossroads residents under the Fair Housing Act.

The impacts of apartment upscaling, like the Crossroads, ripple far beyond the individuals and households forced to move. Through interviews with elected leaders, researchers, educators and employers, the 60-minute documentary reveals how the uprooting of families negatively impacts area businesses and local schools as well as the social fabric and economic functioning of our communities. It makes clear that the current housing market fails residents struggling to make ends meet and all of us pay the price. From small businesses that lose patrons, workplaces that face more difficult commutes for employees — and schools that shed students, displacement has an impact far beyond the affected households. “With the loss of enrollment [from students formerly residing at the Crossroads], we ended up losing 31 staff [including] teachers and administrators,”  says Steve Unowsky, Superintendent of Richfield Public Schools.

Urban redevelopment is complex; its impacts are not simply good or bad. When properties are upscaled, aging units often get needed improvements — and cities get resources necessary to provide services to their residents. “The City of Richfield, for example, has huge infrastructure issues, and needs more tax base as an inner-ring suburb,” says Gary Cunningham, President and CEO at the Metropolitan Economic Development Association and Chair of the Metropolitan Council’s Community Development Committee. “They have an interest in seeing that property get developed to increase the tax base,” added Cunningham. The housing market is making that possible — and profitable.

As Tim Thompson, of the Housing Justice Center, notes: “National analysts consider the vacancy rate in the Twin Cities multifamily market to be the tightest in the country, and they’re referring to the market as ‘white hot.’” Strong growth among renter households with higher incomes — above $50,000 per year — has created a strong incentive to reposition older properties with diverse populations for younger, more affluent households. “Investors are responding by taking some of the existing housing and marketing it to higher income people,” says MHP’s Chip Halbach.

As evidenced by the Crossroads, these shifts disproportionately impact communities of color, which have faced systemic barriers to homeownership for decades and reside in areas that have been disinvested in for decades. Now, with a flood of reinvestment to capture higher income residents, these center city and inner-ring suburbs have become sought after areas — pushing long-time residents further from the day-to-day amenities, services and supports that make ends meet.

There is no single or simple solution but there is one certainty: Ensuring adequate affordable homes impacts the lives of every single resident of the region. From tenant organizing to social impact investing, community and elected leaders are putting forward strategies to keep low-cost rental housing safe, stable and available to the workers and families who play a critical role in the economy and life of the region.

By hearing directly the voices of those impacted and understanding the trends driving this upscaling, “Sold Out” aims to set the stage for a community-wide conversation focused on enacting policy and lifting up solutions from the grassroots, grasstops and public-private partnerships to stem the loss of affordable housing in the Twin Cities.

Now is the time to act. We hope you will join us in this critical discussion. Watch the documentary on Twin Cities PBS and follow the hashtag on Twitter for ways to engage! 

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