2021 Year in Review: Building a Stronger Housing System Together
Throughout 2021, FHFund’s work evolved and expanded significantly to meet changing community needs and utilize this unique moment to create systems change. As the year comes to a close, we’re reflecting on the lessons we learned and the progress we made towards building a strong housing system that supports access to safe and affordable homes for everyone.
Supporting housing stability and preventing displacement
With thousands of Twin Cities households behind on rent payments due to COVID-related income loss, FHFund expanded our efforts to stabilize renters and landlords in 2021. Building on what we learned from our emergency assistance research and our work with Hennepin and Dakota Counties in 2020, FHFund partnered with HousingLink and five local jurisdictions (Dakota, Hennepin, and Ramsey Counties and the Cities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis) to administer federal COVID-19 emergency rent assistance dollars through the Zero Balance Project. This program allowed landlords to initiate rent assistance applications on behalf of their tenants, thereby streamlining the application and approval process and relieving some of the burden from renters in crisis. We partnered with HousingLink to promote the program to landlords and answer initial inquiries, and with accounting firm CliftonLarsonAllen to conduct reviews of all applications and conduct any necessary follow-up outreach on incomplete applications. FHFund staff then made final approvals on each application. As of last week, we had administered $24 million through the Zero Balance Project, stabilizing housing and preventing displacement for more than 3,000 renter households. In four of the five jurisdictions served by the Zero Balance Project, the majority of renters supported have been BIPOC households. Now, as we evaluate the efficacy of the program, we plan to use our learnings to inform and influence systemic changes that ensure families in crisis have timely access to help in the future.
FHFund also worked with Dakota County to administer emergency rent assistance in a separate program with a tenant-initiated application process. We have administered $2.5 million through Dakota County’s program so far.
At the same time, FHFund continued working with district Courts and service partners across the Twin Cities to ramp up a regional eviction prevention strategy in anticipation of a COVID-related rise in evictions. Housing Court Clinics continued to provide legal, mediation, social, and financial services to renters during eviction proceedings at the Ramsey, Anoka, and Dakota County Courts. Focused on helping households apply for rent assistance funds and retain protection under the eviction moratorium, our partners helped hundreds of renters avoid eviction in 2021.
To further inform housing stability efforts, FHFund worked with Wilder Research to analyze housing and unemployment data and develop a new data tool that identifies the neighborhoods where families are most at-risk of losing their homes after a year of the pandemic. We found that the zip codes that were hit hardest by unemployment at the beginning of the pandemic continue to have the highest levels of unemployment claims, and these zip codes historically have a high percentage of households who are cost-burdened and BIPOC. Recognizing that the need is great and ongoing, we used this data to advocate for continued unemployment and housing supports.
Building Equity in Small Multifamily Ownership
2021 marked the first full year of our Building Equity in Small Multifamily Ownership initiative, which aims to reduce Minnesota’s stark racial disparities in homeownership and wealth by helping BIPOC households build wealth as owner-occupant landlords of 2-4 unit rental buildings. In 2020, FHFund and a collaborative of partners (including Hope Community, Land Bank – Twin Cities, the Minnesota Home Ownership Center, and the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund) received a three-year $4 million grant from the national JPMorgan Chase AdvancingCities Challenge to pilot Building Equity capital strategies in Minneapolis. To complement this investment, in 2021 the Bush Foundation granted $4 million to FHFund to expand the initiative to serve Saint Paul and the rest of the Twin Cities metro.
Throughout 2021, the Building Equity collaborative developed partnerships with additional organizations, engaged potential program participants, and launched several new programs to support BIPOC homebuyers of 2-4 unit homes:
- Community Ownership learning cohorts, developed and conducted by Hope Community, teach individuals about homeownership, business planning, unique considerations for small landlords, and options for purchasing a home through a community land trust.
- An owner-occupant landlord training module is now available online via the Home Ownership Center. This training module is intended to be paired with pre-existing homeownership education courses.
- Down payment assistance is now available for qualifying homebuyers who have completed one of the above options for owner-occupant education. Two families purchased homes through this down payment assistance program in 2021.
- A post-purchase matched-savings program is now available for homeowners who utilize Building Equity down payment assistance. This program will ensure that new homeowners have access to resources if an emergency arises, thereby improving the likelihood of their success as homeowners.
More components of the Building Equity initiative are in development and will be launched in 2022, including innovations in mortgage lending and 2-4 unit development with potential for creating systems change. We look forward to sharing a more in-depth progress report on the initiative early next year.
Opening doors to safe and healthy housing
FHFund continued to build upon our bodies of work to expand opportunities to quality, affordable homes in 2021. With the Housing Justice Center, we co-published a report that examined tenant screening and selection practices in the Twin Cities, informed by research and engagement conducted by several community-based nonprofits. The report found that tenant screening methods vary widely, significantly impact a renter’s ability to access decent rental housing that they can afford, and can cause renters to settle for poorly-managed, unsafe, and unaffordable housing. The report also presents opportunities for improving tenant selection systems. Later in 2021, FHFund supported the launch of Renters Reclaim the Record, a program developed by the Housing Justice Center that helps renters correct errors or inaccuracies in their background reports. We also facilitated coordination between HousingLink’s Beyond Backgrounds program, which incentivizes landlords to lease to renters with background barriers, and renter readiness training operated by Build Wealth MN. These programs advance the report’s recommendations to increase transparency and encourage risk mitigation strategies. We plan to develop evidence-based best practices for tenant screening in 2022 following an analysis of private market rental housing outcomes. With these best practices, we aim to shift the tenant screening system and open doors to quality rental housing for more renters.
FHFund also continued to support strategies that ensure homes in the region are safe and healthy in 2021. We supported legal assistance organizations to expand access to habitability litigation and develop referral systems between legal assistance, municipal, and community-based organizations. In 2021, our partners ensured that repairs were made to roughly 350 homes. We also launched a new pool of resources for renters using habitability defenses in eviction cases in Anoka County, building on our learnings from the habitability fund launched in Ramsey County in 2019.
Investing in community
FHFund seeks to deepen our relationships with community-based and BIPOC-led organizations who focus efforts to meet the specific needs of BIPOC families and have deep connections with the households we aim to serve. We aim to support the overall health and staff capacity of these organizations by providing flexible funding for housing stability efforts. These nonprofits play a critical role in building a strong housing system that works for everyone. We are excited to partner with Build Wealth MN, the New American Development Center, Communidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio (CLUES), and Model Cities. These organizations connect community members to many housing resources, including rent assistance; develop housing programs to meet the specific needs of BIPOC households; and inform FHFund’s work by sharing their valuable knowledge and experience with us.
FHFund went through a strategic planning process in 2021 to reflect on and articulate our innovation process, program goals and strategies, and commitment to advancing racial equity. With all that we have lived through and learned these past two years, we are emerging with a refreshed strategic framework that offers greater clarity about the solutions we bring. We are excited to share our refreshed strategic plan with you early in 2022 and dig deeper into our work in the coming year. While our region continues to face great housing challenges, we know that by working together, we can build a housing system that ensures everyone has a home. We are deeply thankful for all of the many partners and funders who make this work possible.