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Landlords learn of new programs

Ghassan Madkour, owatonna, housing
Ghassan Madkour, housing manager for the Owatonna Housing and Redevelopment Authority, addresses landlords during a summit on affordable housing last week. Attendees learned about programs available to ensure tenants can pay their rent. Staff photo by Kay Fate
Kay Fate, Staff Writer

Between the discussions about successes and challenges faced by landlords in Steele County was an overarching message: “We know what you’re going through.”

Called a “landlord summit,” the event was hosted by the United Way of Steele County and facilitated by its affordable housing sub-committee.

The county has about 15,000 households; a quarter of them are renters, said Matt Durand, a United Way board member and owner of a home construction company in Owatonna.

“I’ve been where you are,” said Ghassan Madkour. “I know what it’s like to have renters, I know the ups and downs, the constant turnover … and that day-to-day grind that you have to deal with that costs you money. Because I know what you go through on a day-to-day basis, I’ll back you up. I know what it’s like not to have somebody pay their rent.”

It’s valuable experience for someone in his position: Madkour is the housing manager for the Owatonna Housing and Redevelopment Authority. He’s tasked with finding places for people to live – specifically, affordable places to live.

Madkour works with multiple property owners and landlords to provide housing opportunities for those who can’t afford what’s known as “fair market rate.” He uses multiple programs, including rental assistance, vouchers, first-time home buyer assistance, and more.

Funding comes from federal, state, regional and local sources; eligibility is determined by income and household size.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has allocated 113 vouchers for 2023; there are currently 55-60 open vouchers, Madkour said.

“They may look for a place, but not qualify for it based on their income,” he said.

Using the formula that 30% of a household’s income should go toward housing, fully one-third of Steele County’s households are cost-burdened – meaning they pay more than 30%, or severely cost-burdened – meaning more than 50% of their income goes to housing.

So if there’s help for the renters, who’s helping the landlords?

Madkour, for one, through his conversations with potential tenants and his strict adherence to HUD regulations.

His annual inspections, constant communication and thorough explanations to the renters are just the beginning.

“I let them know in orientation, take care of your landlord,” Madkour said, meaning on-time payments and following rules.

Karina Schmitz, a housing specialist with Minnesota Prairie County Alliance, also helps with housing assistance on both sides of the transaction.

Most tenants, she said, don’t want to risk losing vouchers, which provide renters with valuable financial assistance. Voucher revocations last three years.

In addition to the HUD, or Section 8 vouchers, Minnesota’s Bridges Rental Assistance Program provides housing assistance for people with very low incomes and a mental illness, while they wait for another rental subsidy.

Rent payments and security deposits are paid directly to the landlords.

Like Madkour, Schmitz, too, has been a landlord – and as a social worker, she qualifies for housing assistance. Working a second job puts her income over the limit for assistance, she said.

“There’s a lot of people that fall into that category,” she said, including the elderly, single parents, entry-level police officers and “so many of who you see on a daily basis.”

“We need to increase our affordable units,” Schmitz said, “because we’ve seen an increase in need of 300% of people coming to the county,” Schmitz said, from 30 people a month two years ago to more than 90 people a month now.

“The last couple years have sucked,” she said. “There’s no way around it. The eviction moratorium truly did nobody any favors. It made it difficult for the landlords, but ultimately also made it difficult for the clients.”

Schmitz came with some options, though, including three housing programs now available to landlords:

  • Beyond Backgrounds helps landlords participate with tenants who are able to pay rent but have difficult rental histories such as a criminal background or low credit score. Listings are free for the landlords; the potential tenant pays $300 when matched with a landlord. The landlord receives up to $2,000 of financial coverage if something goes wrong. There is no cost to the landlord.
  • Housing Stabilization is a new Minnesota Medical Assistance benefit to help seniors and adults with disabilities, including mental illness and substance use disorder, to find and keep housing. MN Prairie then provides ongoing support to the tenant for up to two years, to help them maintain housing. It’s paid for through MA.
  • CLI Direct Assistance Grant can help with a one-time back rent payment. Renters or landlords should contact MN Prairie for a referral, which is required. “We can help one time, then maybe enroll (the renter) in Housing Stabilization,” Schmitz said. The grant may also be used to pay a deposit and first month’s rent, or basic household furnishings. The state will likely refund the grant – which may also be used to pay a deposit and first month’s rent – through the budget surplus. The back rent does have a limit, Schmitz said, up to possibly $3,000.

Dan Nechville, who accepts vouchers at his several properties in Owatonna, said the benefit of the program is getting the guaranteed rent.

“If the tenants don’t pay their portion, all I have to say is ‘I’m going to call Ghassan,’ and they come up with the money,” Nechville said. “If I have issues, it’s really nice to have him back you up.”

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