Teddy Price, who studies business at Minneapolis College, says he's "always stressed about rent." His financial aid covers his tuition, but not his housing. Twice, the college has helped him with emergency housing funding. But some of that funding is now expiring. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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On a Wednesday in early December, Teddy Price, a 38-year-old Minneapolis College student, stopped by the campus center, hungry. 

Price, who works as a public safety student ambassador and a personal care assistant, had hoped to pick up a free hot lunch. But the takeout containers had already run out.

That day, hunger was not his only problem. It was the first of the month, and rent was due.

A business student, Price hopes to start his own transportation company for senior citizens. Financial aid takes care of his tuition. But the $900 rent he pays for his apartment in the Whittier neighborhood of Minneapolis eats up more than half of his monthly income.

To help make ends meet, he stops by the campus center regularly for food shelf groceries and hot meals. 

“Anybody can give you something to eat,” Price said. “But not everybody’s going to give you somewhere to stay.”

Over the past five years, Minnesota’s community colleges have greatly expanded access to campus food pantries to help students struggling with food insecurity. Advocates hope that addressing basic needs will help more low-income students enroll in college and complete their degrees.

But for many students, help with housing remains elusive. During the pandemic, federal COVID-19 relief funds have helped students weather housing emergencies. Now that funding is coming to a close. 

Half of all Minnesota community college students experienced housing insecurity in 2018 and 2019, according to a survey from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. Nearly one in five had experienced homelessness in the past year. 

Students of color in every demographic group were more likely to report housing insecurity than white students. Indigenous students had the highest rates of homelessness, followed by Latino and Black students.

Students struggling with housing are less likely to stay in school. College administrators and counselors worry that the difficulty in meeting basic needs is fueling a decrease in community college enrollment in Minnesota and around the country.

During the pandemic, federal COVID-19 relief funds became available to help students pay for rent and utilities. As of January 20, the statewide RentHelpMN program had distributed more than $349 million in rental assistance to 46,000 households, helping Minnesotans pay past due rent and utility bills. Two-thirds of the applicants for aid have been people of color, according to state data.

In an email in early January, a spokesperson for the Minnesota State system, which consists of 30 community and technical colleges as well as seven universities, said the schools referred students to state programs like RentHelpMN. “The role of our colleges and universities is largely limited to connecting students to these programs,” the spokesperson wrote.

But that program is now winding down. At a news conference in late January, Minnesota Housing commissioner Jennifer Ho announced that the RentHelpMN program would be coming to a close. The last day to apply for assistance was January 28.

Ho said she was “painfully aware” that the program had filled a need. And the need hasn’t slowed. The agency was on pace to receive more aid applications in January than in any month since the program began last April, she said.

“The truth of the matter is we’re running out of federal dollars,” Ho said. Some counties, cities, and tribal governments may still have aid available.

“The truth of the matter is we’re running out of federal dollars,” says Minnesota Housing commissioner Jennifer Ho.

Community college leaders say the rental assistance program has proved a lifeline for students struggling with payments. Without that aid, they fear they will have even fewer options to help their students.

“We have a serious concern; we are very worried,” said Lindsay Fort, the dean of student development at North Hennepin Community College. “When the federal funding goes away, how are these programs going to be sustained?”

‘I wish I could take them home’

Students feel the affordable housing crunch acutely at Minneapolis College. According to survey data from Temple University’s Hope Center, Minneapolis College students experience higher rates of housing insecurity and homelessness than the average Minnesota community college student.

That statistic is perhaps unsurprising, given the high cost of housing in Minneapolis. A recent study from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs showed that for the city’s lowest-income renters, rents increased by 44 percent between 2006 and 2019, while incomes rose by only 3 percent.

Teddy Price arrived at the campus center a little too late to get the free hot meals the college offered that day. Programs like this have made Minneapolis College a statewide leader in helping students meet their basic needs. For Price, saving on food costs leaves him a little more cushion to pay his rent. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Minneapolis College’s basic-needs programs have become an example to other community colleges, particularly its food shelf, said Becky Nordin, dean of students. The college also assists with childcare and health resources, and recently hired a housing navigator to help students who are experiencing homelessness. A Hennepin County case manager also helps students find affordable housing.

Still, “we wish we had more housing resources,” Nordin said. “It’s difficult if you’re working minimum wage or a work-study job, or you’re relying on your financial aid to help.” Landlords are not always willing to work with students whose financial aid payments may not line up with the rent schedule, she said.

Federal COVID-19 relief funds have played an instrumental role in helping Minneapolis College students with housing. 

Funds from the American Rescue Plan, which Congress passed last spring, have proved a vital resource. At Minneapolis College, the portion of this money for students in need totaled $9 million. Last semester alone, the college assisted more than 1,000 students with emergency funding, including for housing needs. Minneapolis College is on track to spend all of the American Rescue Plan funds by the time they expire in June, according to vice president of finance and operations Christopher Rau.

Another crucial housing resource for students has been RentHelpMN, which is now closing down.

“It will have a devastating effect for students needing emergency housing funds,” Nordin said.

Elma Osmanovic, a Minneapolis College student who works as an outreach coordinator for the Student Support Center, where she helps students use the food shelf and apply for emergency grants, including some funded by federal COVID aid. “Grants are always nice for students,” she said. “Especially during COVID.” Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Julia Salinas, a 2012 alumna of North Hennepin Community College, now is a social worker at the school. She remembers struggling with basic needs as a student and working multiple jobs to make ends meet. Still, the volume of current need surprised her–especially the number of homeless students.

Salinas helps students apply for SNAP benefits, use the school’s Food Cupboard, and obtain free bus passes. But her options to help them with housing are limited.

“It’s just out of our hands,” she said. “There’s not affordable housing anywhere.”

Salinas recalled one student experiencing homelessness who was staying with her family in a hotel. At the height of the pandemic last year, when North Hennepin Community College received a grant to provide meals for students, Salinas slipped extra meals to the student’s family, moved by their extraordinary circumstances. 

Still, she wishes she could do more. “I wish I could take them home,” she said.

“I wish I could take them home,” says one social worker of students faced with homelessness.

Salinas has directly connected about 30 students to rent relief funds. Before RentHelpMN launched, she directed students to apply for COVID funding through the city of Brooklyn Park and local nonprofits. The college has also shared information about these programs by email and its mobile app.

“COVID is not over yet and our students continue to struggle with housing and financial insecurity,” she said. “Not having this resource available anymore will create more barriers for our students.”

‘Housing is one that keeps me up at night’

Student activism over the past five years has led to more support for basic-needs programs on campus, both through the Minnesota State system and legislation at the state level. All 30 community and technical colleges in Minnesota now have food shelves on campus or with a nearby partner. Last summer, Minnesota became the fourth state in the country to fund Hunger Free Campus legislation, which helps schools provide food pantries and connect students with SNAP benefits and emergency grants.

Now, after the success of Hunger Free Campuses, students are looking for solutions for housing. But it’s not as easy as adding a campus food shelf.

“Housing is one that keeps me up at night,” said Axel Kylander, president of LeadMN, the student advocacy organization representing Minnesota community college students.

The problem represents a knotty intersection of the unaffordability of college and the volatility of the housing market, he said. 

“We are trying to find some more substantive solutions around housing,” he said. “Developing recommendations around encouraging schools to develop partnerships with local hotels, or in the case of universities to set aside some dorm space for emergency housing. And trying to figure out options that work better than just emergency housing.”

Minnesota advocates may look to other states for examples. 

Tacoma Community College, in Washington, partners with the local housing authority to provide rental assistance to students experiencing homelessness. In Massachusetts, scholarships that provide dorm beds and meal plans are available for homeless teens enrolling in community college. Los Angeles Room & Board, a California nonprofit, offers transitional housing for community college students. Southeast of Los Angeles, Imperial Valley Community College used COVID relief funding to build a community of tiny homes for housing-insecure students. Illinois passed a law last year to allow community colleges’ boards of trustees to build affordable housing for students.

‘Always stressed about rent’

On two occasions, Minneapolis College’s emergency grant programs have bailed out Teddy Price. 

One of those programs, Random Acts of Kindness, predates the COVID-19 pandemic. It provides $500 for students in need. The other source of emergency funding came from the American Rescue Plan.

Price said he’s “always stressed about rent.” Any unexpected expense can make him fall behind.

He’s grateful for the ways Minneapolis College has helped keep him afloat.

“I’ve been blessed to be in this school at this time,” Price said. “They pulled me out of the situation.”

But when federal funding runs out, future students might not be so lucky.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.