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For those without housing, 'sacred settlements' could be lifeline

A state law barring people from permanently living in wheeled housing units could be amended so religious institutions can house people experiencing homelessness on site.

HF1484, sponsored by Rep. Heather Keeler (DFL-Moorhead), would create an exemption for wheeled units located on church, mosque or synagogue grounds that are primarily used to house people experiencing homelessness.

Units would need to be 400 gross square feet or smaller, and the clusters of units, to be called "sacred settlements," would need to provide residents with common facilities for bathing, laundry and cooking.

The bill on Wednesday was unanimously approved by the House Preventing Homelessness Division and referred to the House Human Services Finance and Policy Committee. Its companion, SF1145, is sponsored by Sen. Karin Housley (R-Stillwater) and awaits action by the Senate Labor and Industry Policy Committee.

Sacred settlements have been proposed at Faith Lutheran Church in Forest Lake and Mosaic Christian Community, a St. Paul church.

The units would be designed by professional architects and would cost $25,000 to $40,000 each, according to the nonprofit Settled, which is behind the concept. Communities would include both people who have experienced homelessness and those who haven't — who would be called "missionals." All residents would undergo background checks, agree to abide by community rules and pay rent.

At Mosaic, the sacred settlement would have six units, including four for people experiencing homelessness.

Scott McKown, an assistant director in the Department of Labor and Industry’s Construction Code and Licensing Division, said the agency has concerns with the bill as written. He noted units not built to code lack features found in units complying with plumbing, electrical, HVAC and insulation standards.

House members said they don't want perfect to be the enemy of good when it comes to the units.

"It's a different kind of housing than the way most of our codes have been written," said Tom Fisher, director of the Minnesota Design Center at the University of Minnesota, "but that does not mean it's unsafe or unsanitary."

Keeler said she's been working with the League of Minnesota Cities and the Department of Labor and Industry on the bill.

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