Shanty Town

Welfare reform spurs Twin Cities to compete for the area's least-impoverished tenants.

NO ONE'S ANXIOUS to house the poorest of the poor these days-- including public housing authorities. Last year, Congress told the agencies they no longer have to give preference to applicants who are homeless or pay more than 50 percent of their income in rent. So far, Minnesota's two biggest housing authorities have stuck with the old rules, continuing to serve as housing of last resort for those who can't pay private-market rents. But in St. Paul, that may soon change.

The shift started six months ago, when the St. Paul Public Housing Authority considered a proposal to give preference to working people who applied for its units. That sparked protests from advocates, who feared that, with waiting lists already jammed, the new policy would eliminate any chance for the poorest applicants to get in. Instead, the authority came up with a first-come-first-served system that would treat people in the most desperate need no better than anyone else, but would give extra "points" to full-time students and St. Paul residents.

The rationale isn't hard to figure out. In a report, PHA staffers note that under welfare reform, government agencies are supposed to encourage work over assistance. Plus, they note, other agencies around the Twin Cities have already changed their policies, meaning that if St. Paul doesn't do likewise, its "concentration of low-income households will increase." One thing the report doesn't say is that attracting an even marginally better-off clientele will help the agency's budget, since most tenants pay a third of their income in rent. As it happens, rent collections are forecasted to fall dramatically as a result of welfare-reform cuts; St. Paul alone may lose $600,000 annually, and officials say they'll either have to find the money elsewhere or eliminate hundreds of units. The agency is scheduled to vote on the changes at its next meeting.

DOMA AND DUMBER

WITH CHANCES LOOKING iffy for the Minnesota Defense of Marriage Act--which would stop the state from recognizing gay marriages performed elsewhere--lawmakers have been coming up with crafty little ways of enshrining the sanctity of heterosexual unions in other bills. One of the more ingenious was an amendment by Sen. Tom Neuville (R-Northfield) to the omnibus tax bill: Under it, only people married to someone of the opposite sex can be considered married taxpayers. The measure, which passed the Senate 41-22, was being debated in conference committee at this writing.

NO RIGHTS FOR RESIDENTS

MINNESOTA HAS BECOME the fourth state where immigrants are challenging the federal welfare-reform law that cuts off their Supplemental Security Income (SSI) checks. More than 5,000 legal permanent residents, all diagnosed with mental or physical disabilities, are slated to lose benefits of up to $484 a month by August. In a lawsuit filed Tuesday, attorneys from two local law firms and Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights argue that the law is discriminatory because "though legal immigrants may not vote or participate in the political process, they do share many of the same responsibilities of citizens, such as the obligations to pay taxes and to register for service in the armed forces." The suit also notes that while welfare reform is supposed to put assistance recipients to work, people on SSI receive benefits precisely because they can't work.

Among the plaintiffs in the Minnesota case are a 21-year-old woman who was born in Thailand, came to the U.S. at age 3, and suffered permanent brain damage soon thereafter; a 75-year-old Russian refugee who is deaf and has a World War II bullet in his leg, along with his 71-year-old wife who has breast cancer and vision problems; a 72-year-old Cambodian torture victim who saw her husband, brother and several children executed and suffers from head injuries and stress disorders; and five others with similarly serious conditions. Lawsuits challenging the SSI cutoff and other changes affecting immigrants have also been filed in New York, California, and Florida.

HAZARDOUS WAIT

UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA art students fear that by next week, there'll be more than spring in the air. Plans are underway to begin construction on an archive building this summer, to be tucked under existing buildings. Construction workers will use dynamite to carve the space, probably loosening asbestos in the nearby Studio Arts building. Last week, the university decided to remove the hazardous insulation while classes are in session, angering students and staff who say officials have known about the problem for a long time and could have removed the asbestos last summer while fewer people used the building. University officials, however, say they didn't get needed reports back from seismologists until last week. CP


PUBLIC DOMAIN

Some awards we'd like to ghostwrite acceptance speeches for (from Awards, Honors and Prizes, 13th Edition, 1997):

Meeting Planner of the Year

Given by the Association for Convention Operations Management

"To recognize client meeting planners who have conducted themselves and their business in a professional, productive, pleasant, exemplary manner."

The Public Advocate Award

Given by the Waterbed Council

"To recognize a person or institution from outside the industry who has best promoted the concept of flotation sleep."

The Bea Decker Memorial Award

Given by the International THEOS Foundation

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