By Linda Soderstrom, NLIHC Tenant Leaders Cohort Member

In 2015, on a beautiful fall day, written notices were given under the kitchen doors of 698 units in a single afternoon. The notices said that no more county rehab programming or Section 8 housing choice vouchers would be accepted at Crossroads at Penn, located in a Twin Cities suburb in Minnesota. Essentially, all 2,350+ residents were to be moved out within 12 months’ time due to the property being acquired and upscaled for the market – a process known as flipping. Ultimately, Crossroads was converted into a property called The Concierge. When repositioned, the new rents were out of reach to 96% of the former residents, jumping from $700 to $1,100 a month.

I was part of a group of 37 tenants who stood up for the 2,500 of us and alleged “disparate impact upon protected classes.” Our power was in our voices. Our voices work in concert with each other. We kicked off an ongoing statewide campaign of community organizing. 

After a class action lawsuit, our case landed in the federal district court in Minneapolis. Two wins occurred during that process:  the new landlord’s motion to dismiss was denied and our out-of-court settlement amount was the greatest of its type in the nation to date.

A third of our displaced families qualified to receive $1,500 for our troubles.  

Even so, the minute that letter slides under your kitchen door – without even the benefit of a stamp and an envelope – it is the same sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach for each recipient. Your heart simply falls down to the center of the Earth. You KNOW you have nowhere to stay.

Until then, I only knew that my former landlord had accepted my Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher and allowed dogs. My small, 600-square foot one-bedroom apartment was suitable for myself and my labradoodle Kaki. We had a place to stay. We were poor but stable. And we were thriving. 

Section 8 vouchers are hard to place. It’s difficult to seek and find a landlord offering a 12-month lease when you have that federal subsidy. There is no reason landlords should be so fussed about receiving two-thirds of the rent money through the federal government and one-third from the tenant, but somehow Section 8 programs have gotten a poor reputation. People perpetuate the myth that renters who work with their housing authorities under Section 8 are sure to ‘trash the joint’. That myth needs busting. Tenants of Section 8 programs – whether site-based or with a voucher – are regular people.

Our poorer friends and families, our neighbors without subsidies who need them, languishing in greatest need for the longest time, is an issue that impacts this whole nation. School-aged children, senior citizens, persons with disabilities, our service veterans, and so many more special needs populations will always need a stable place to stay. Those on subsidies and our working poor with the lowest incomes are who we have failed. We have managed to house and sell homes to the middle and upper classes while also giving them tons of tax breaks. Nothing comparable has been designed and implemented for me and mine. Nothing commensurate exists for our extremely low-income Americans. Homeowners receive financial tax breaks routinely.

As the Minnesota Senator Wellstone said, “We all do better when we All do Better.” Until all homeowners are as concerned about the rental community as they are about themselves, we will have injustice. First-time homeowners having wrap-around services stabilizing them to become part of their community in a holistic way need not be a dream. The poor get poorer and ‘them’s that got shall get’ if we make no changes. It is time to remedy this situation. Americans at all levels of income should be able to live together in mixed use and mixed financial settings. In this global village and across the entire continuum of housing, neighbor-to-neighbor living is real. There’s no reason for classes to be so divided.

I am proud to have been a part of the Crossroads at Penn movement. At the age of 72, I do not have 72 more years to help solve this inequity and separation. My Tenant Voice is even more powerful when shared.