On Your Own

THE SCENE AT a recent meeting of Oak Grove Tower's tenants was the kind of photo op that housing officials hate and politicians love: More than 100 low-income, elderly, immigrant and disabled tenants packed the meeting, many toting signs with the words "Save Our Home" written in magic marker. One elderly woman taped her sign to her walker. Another propped it up against her oxygen tank.

Sentinel Management, which runs the building in the Loring area, had announced it was getting out of the U.S. Housing and Urban Development's Section 8 rent-subsidy program and raising rents by more than $200 a month at the end of September. The panicked tenants complained that they'll face eviction, homelessness and, in words of one Russian tenant, certain death. Local officials and bigwigs--such as the offices of Dee Long, Sharon Sayles Belton, and even Barbara Carlson herself--flocked to the meeting to promise support, but HUD's Mark Campbell was the only one to offer something tangible: "enhanced vouchers," which would cover the rent increase. Campbell said he "had no reason to believe" that HUD's Washington office wouldn't approve the additional expense; most of the tenants will be able to stay.

For a year, that is. Because of recent congressional budget cuts, HUD's Section 8 programs have gone from being renewable every five years to being renewed annually. Also, funds for the "enhanced vouchers" come out of HUD's Preservation Program, and so far, Congress hasn't allocated money for the program in the '98 budget. The residents can stay, however, if a nonprofit agency or local government buys the building and makes up the subsidy.

But if that doesn't happen, things could get a lot worse. Without the "enhanced vouchers," the tenants will likely get the standard Section 8 subsidy--which covers up to HUD's determined "fair market rent" for the region ($486 for one bedroom and $621 for two bedrooms)-- and they'll have to find a building that accepts them.

Which is more difficult than it sounds. The vacancy rate among buildings that accept Section 8 already hovers between zero to 2 percent, and according to an annual study by Community Action for Suburban Hennepin, landlords are "increasingly reluctant to accept Section 8 tenants." The 1996 survey showed that "some 8,000 rental units where tenants with Section 8 had previously been accepted no longer accepted Section 8. This year another 4,000 units have joined that category." In addition, in 10 percent of the buildings that supposedly accept the vouchers, landlords impose income requirements that prevent Section 8 tenants from renting there.

To date, Oak Grove tenant Pat Goldberg has called 92 buildings that accept Section 8, but found no vacancies. "I'm scared to death," she says. "I've got breathing problems and it would be hard to move. It's a lot of work, even for a healthy person. I don't know what I'll do."

Oak Grove Towers, like much of the subsidized housing built in the late '70s and early '80s, was part of a HUD program that granted construction subsidies to landlords willing to keep the rent below the region's market rate for 20 years. There are about 300 such buildings in Minnesota. But now that those contracts are expiring, many landlords are expected to leave the program rather than renew.

In addition, the department plans to tear down 30,000 dilapidated public-housing units nationally by 2002 and replace them with smaller, mixed-income communities, which will house fewer tenants. The displaced tenants will get--you guessed it--Section 8 vouchers. HUD spokesman Victor Lambert says the plan will give residents more choices, eliminate concentrations of low-income families, and ultimately be cheaper for HUD, which won't have to insure or underwrite the buildings. But when pressed on how additional displaced tenants are going find homes in an already flooded market, Lambert acknowledges "it's going to be tight." Through relocation counseling, education, and outreach programs, he says, "the department is fully committed to doing everything it can do to find housing for these people."

But for now, that's little consolation to the tight-knit group of tenants at 215 Oak Grove. "You hate to move and lose your friends, because when you get older you kinda depend on the people you live around. It's like a small town, it's security," says Goldberg. "It's a rough situation. We can't afford to stay here, but where are you going to put us? There's no place."

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