A conversation with one of Minnesota’s leading affordable-housing advocates

Interview by Sheri Hansen

Senta Leff doesn’t believe chronic homelessness can be eradicated in Minnesota; she knows it can. As co-chair of the Homes for All coalition, she is leading more than 200 diverse organizations, including the American Institute of Architects Minnesota, toward policy solutions that will end homelessness and provide stable, safe housing for all Minnesotans. In a wide-ranging interview with Architecture MN, Leff reframes housing as infrastructure and highlights the critical role that architects can play in helping Homes for All continue its success at the state capitol.

Why should all Minnesotans care about the affordable-housing crisis in their communities?
The idea of where we live impacts everything. Home is where children learn, where workers earn, where seniors thrive, and how communities prosper. If you care about any of those things, you ought to care about housing affordability. We can invest in education, hope for a strong economy, and say we care about healthcare, but none of those things are possible without housing. In essence, we need to see housing as infrastructure to our state’s economy and community life and make it accessible to everyone on the housing continuum.

With the Homes for All campaign, we’re supporting all points on that continuum—from staying in an emergency shelter to couch hopping, to being doubled up [i.e., living with family members or friends], to having a subsidy that keeps you in a transitional or permanent living environment, to being able to afford market-rate renting, to owning a home.

When we talk about affordable housing, what are we really talking about?
Homes for All defines it as people spending no more than 30 percent of their income on their housing expenses, like rent or a mortgage. The closer to the edge you live, the less economic security you have. When you’ve got no extra room in your budget, and you’re spending up to 90 percent of your income to keep a roof over your head, something’s got to give. What are you choosing not to do? Is it purchasing healthy food? Is it buying medicine?

Something that is an inconvenience for me, as a person who spends about 30 percent of my income on housing expenses, becomes a crisis for someone else. If I need to stay home from work to care for a sick child, I can do that. If I were working a low-wage, hourly job and my child got sick and needed my care, the loss of the small amount of money that I would earn that day—and the possible threat to my job security—could result in the total loss of housing.

Homes for All has been successful in bringing a lot of different stakeholders together and in getting an ambitious legislative agenda accomplished each year. How have you done that?
Homes for All in its current iteration began in 2012. Prior to that, housing advocates were just showing up to the legislature and making individual or competing asks. That is confusing for lawmakers, who have the responsibility to care and know about a lot of different things. It also made it easy for them to say no to a big thing and yes to a little thing and appear to have done something about the issue.

We needed to build a really big tent and get everybody under it so that we could speak with one voice. That work began around then, and we’ve had an incredible amount of success. Our goal has been to have housing investments make up 10 percent of every State of Minnesota bonding bill. I don’t think we’ve ever gotten there, but I think we’ve averaged around 8 percent since 2012. And regardless of the percentage, affordable housing has become the fourth-largest item on the total bonding bill, [after] water, transportation, and the University of Minnesota. Since 2012, we’ve secured nearly $400 million in new investments for affordable housing in Minnesota across the full continuum.

As we started to move our agenda forward, people in organizations for whom housing is not the core issue became interested, because they knew that they or their clients or their communities couldn’t be successful if they didn’t have safe, affordable housing. Everybody already knew it was an issue, but there wasn’t the opportunity to speak with one voice.

We have more than 200 endorsing organizations now, from every legislative district in the state. So, when we organize our calls to action, there’s not a lawmaker inside the capitol who can go home to his district or check her voicemail that day and not hear about housing as a basic infrastructure investment for the State of Minnesota.

Another part of our success is that we no longer act as many advocates fighting for the same-sized pie. We got people to believe that you could grow the pie, and that we could all have more. I think we have the wind at our back now, after six years of those kinds of successes.

Why is the Homes for All coalition a good fit for architects?
There’s a business case for Minnesota architects to get involved in this issue. The bonding dollars we advocate for go to the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, which creates many opportunities for development to go forward. Bonding pays the bills for some architects and developers.

Architects are also systems thinkers who are already doing a lot of big-picture, comprehensive planning, designing creative solutions, and convening large groups of stakeholders to arrive at one finished product. That’s what we’re doing through the Homes for All campaign.

It can take a hundred grassroots advocates to have the same power as one private-sector company president. Bringing the architect’s professional perspective to the capitol can have a major impact on the policy discussion.

Do you believe we can end homelessness in Minnesota?
I don’t just believe that we can; I know that we can. It’s not a leap of faith. I know that we can because we’ve been there before. We only need to set the clock back about 35 years.

Homelessness is not a character flaw; it’s a math problem. We can trace its origins back to a very specific point in our country’s political and economic history—to the early 1980s, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) budget was slashed by almost 70 percent. At the same time, decisions at a very high policy level were made to deinstitutionalize state hospitals, and some of our basic economic-security safety nets began to stagnate. Then you mix in a few decades of wages remaining flat and market-rate housing costs skyrocketing, and it’s like government has disinvested in housing as a basic infrastructure.

The vast majority of people who are experiencing homelessness are very young children. Helping them is our best opportunity for a significant return on investment. We know that the leading predictor of whether or not someone will experience homelessness as an adult is whether or not they did as a child. Our greatest return lies in investing in families—in kids who are learning and in parents who want to work and be contributing members of society. For the children to learn and the parents to work, they need to be able to rely on a safe and stable home. That’s what Homes for All is working for every day.

When we say that we can end homelessness in Minnesota, we don’t mean that there will never be another housing crisis for any Minnesotan, ever; we mean that, when there is a crisis, it’s rare, brief, and nonrecurring. It means that we have a system with the resources and targeted interventions available to respond to a crisis. We can get there if we keep working together. It’s the best thing we can do for the future of Minnesota.