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Housing panel hears of issues facing Minnesota refugee communities

Members of the House Housing Finance and Policy Division view a video about the housing crisis to open a Jan. 22 hearing on housing issues facing refugee communities. Photo by Andrew VonBank

A recent report shows Minnesota has one of the largest disparities between whites and non-whites when it comes to home ownership.

According to the Minnesota Housing Partnership’s State of the State’s Housing 2019, “77 percent of all white households own their own home, 57 percent of Asian, 46 percent of Native American, 45 percent of Hispanic, and just 24 percent of black households own their homes.”

Although the legislative session does not begin until Feb. 11, the House Housing Finance and Policy Division heard Wednesday about housing issues facing refugee. No action was taken.

Gary Kwong, board president of the Metropolitan Interfaith Council on Affordable Housing, and Executive Director Sue Watlov Phillips testify before the House Housing Finance and Policy Division Jan. 22. Photo by Andrew VonBank

“Today’s hearing is sort of a beginning step. … We have a lot of work to do,” said Rep. Alice Hausman (DFL-St. Paul), the division chair.

“When it comes to housing disparity it’s a crisis, it’s alarming. … We need to do something about that,” said Farhio Khalif, founder of Voice of East African Women. “We come here before you today, all of us took our time to let you know this is serious.”

Other testifiers represented Hmong, Somali, Lao, Oromo, Karen and Vietnamese cultures.

WATCH Full video of the hearing on YouTube 

“Minnesota stands proud in its history of accepting and accommodating its diverse citizens in all facets, however that is not the reality experienced by its Somali constituents,” said Ahmed Hassan, executive director of Mothers Tutoring Academy.

Hassan said reasons include: discrimination, including not having the chance to qualify for a safe mortgage but use high-interest loans and predatory lending; lack of understanding about the home-buying process; and lack of sufficient income and inadequate credit to meet down-payment requirements and closing costs.

He also noted that in Somali culture, six is the average family size and religion dictates young boys and girls are to sleep separate from each other. “We find it challenging to find a place that is suitable for the family at a reasonable price to buy or a place to rent that is fitting.”

Susan Pha, director of economic and community development for the Hmong American Partnership, said homelessness can be masked by an overcrowded home. She said 64 percent of Hmong Minnesotans live in such a situation compared to 6 percent of the United States population.

Among potential solutions proffered by testifiers are to:

  • hold town halls within the communities to educate residents about owning a home, including the monetary benefit of paying less for a mortgage than monthly rent and ways to avoid scams;
  • make available housing counseling tools, including personnel, in languages other than English; and
  • provide subsidies to culturally specific housing assistance groups.

Hue Pham, executive director of Vietnamese Social Services of Minnesota, said many immigrants have no credit history, don’t understand the system and are unable to fill out forms due to a language barrier. “At the same time agencies whose mandate is to expand affordable housing for all often lack the cultural and community connections to effectively serve and empower immigrants.”

“We believe that if we listen to people impacted, and design and implement housing opportunities to meet their needs we’ll have a much higher success rate in models and programs and housing opportunities,” said Sue Watlov Phillips, executive director of the Metropolitan Interfaith Council on Affordable Housing.

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