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THROUGH THE ROOF: Housing costs half of income for many Mower County renters

by Devin Bartolotta, Anchor/Producer

AUSTIN, Minn. (KTTC) — If you don’t own your own home, finding a place to rent in southeast Minnesota can have its challenges, especially if you’re struggling to make ends meet.

Turns out, several counties in our area actually have a rental crisis on their hands. If you need government-subsidized Section 8 housing in Mower County, you could be on a waiting list for the better part of a year.

Even if you don’t need government help, rent could run you half your income. That’s just the beginning of the numbers game that has renters in Mower County desperate for places to stay, and the housing authority left with limited ways to help.

“I like it here, very comfortable,” said Fred Paulson. He’s really settled into his apartment in Austin. “It’s a nice apartment, I think. It’s small. If it was any smaller you’d have to go outside to change your mind!” he laughed, kicking back in his computer chair.

He moved into government subsidized Pickett Place after a full year on the waiting list. “I wanted to get in here because it’s less expensive. And at our age, expense is a big item,” he said. Moving into Pickett Place cut his rent in half. A big deal for someone living on $1,600 a month. “Over 50 percent of my income was for my rent, and by the time I paid my utilities, it went higher than that. And that was as good as you could get in this town, ” he said of the place where he used to live. “I used to pay $800, $875.”

Mower County is considered what is called a ‘severe cost burden’ county. Thirty-five percent of renters pay at least half of their income just to put a roof over their heads.

Karen Mattson manages the rental properties owned by the city of Austin. “The demand is extremely high, the supply is very, very low,” said Mattson. ‘The rents are too high. And they’re not only high, it’s just that they don’t have enough income. So you come to town, you don’t have a job, it’s really tough to find a place to live.”

In Mower County, the Section 8 voucher waiting list is eight months long, and even if you get one of the 177 vouchers up for grabs, it’s tough to find a place to rent. There are only 34 available affordable units for every 100 that Mower County needs.

“There’s a real rental crunch right now, so the lower the vacancy rate, the harder with someone with Section 8 to lease up,” said Mattson.

Leigh Rosenberg of the Minnesota Housing Partnership analyzes data statewide. “There’s just very, very little affordable and available units. Just simply nothing there to rent,” said Rosenberg in her St. Paul office. “We do have across the state, a serious lack of affordable housing for renters.”

In 15 Minnesota counties, one-third of renters pay half their income just for shelter. Locally, it has a lot to do with the jobs that most renters have.

“So we’re talking about most renters in Mower county, and really in Olmsted County too, are not making a ton of money. So if we’re talking about half of that money going for rent, what else is going to take a cut?” said Rosenberg.

The mid-2000s foreclosure crisis could be partly to blame for this crisis. “Tens of thousands of families. And so all those that had bought homes then all these foreclosures happened,” said Rosenberg. Those families became renters, driving up demand and, in turn, the cost of rent.

Since the housing bubble burst, the gap between rising rents and the drop of renter incomes in Mower County has become the second worst in the state. Rents have risen 32 percent while average renter incomes have dropped 27 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of homelessness statewide rose the same amount, 32 percent.

But some Austin landlords said they’ve been able to keep their prices low. Peter Grover, CEO of Grover Properties, owns several homes in the Austin area. “I’ve been a landlord since 1978,” he said. Grover said several of his tenants are Section 8 recipients. “For years, Austin had a soft rental market, which meant low rents,” he said. “It’s just more recent where all of a sudden we see more of a tight market, but still in my opinion, the rents are affordable.”

They’re affordable if you can wait for a place that fits your budget.

“It’s meant a whole new life for me, a whole new life,” said Fred Paulson, clicking away on his computer in his Pickett Place apartment. But for hundreds still on the waiting list, there is a dire need for more affordable units, and no sign that Austin is in the home stretch of solving the problem.

“I don’t think you’d ever build enough subsidized housing to meet the need,” said Mattson. “I don’t know the answer to the question.”


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