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CLUES work improves access to safe, affordable housing for Minnesota’s Latinx community


In the best of circumstances, a renter is somewhat at the mercy of their landlord. But when the renter is an undocumented individual, the power imbalance can be disastrous, says Ruby Azurdia-Lee, president of Comunidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio (CLUES), a nonprofit organization that promotes economic equity and wellbeing for Latinxs living in Minnesota, and is a member of The Kresge Foundation’s Advancing Health Equity Through Housing cohort of grantees. “Our staff social workers reported bugs in clients’ apartments, and kids suffering from asthma because of poor housing conditions. The landlords weren’t doing anything when the families complained because some of the family members were undocumented and the landlords knew the families wouldn’t report them.”

The CLUES staff encouraged the renters to act. “We engaged them in conversations on how they could be more informed and empowered to create change for themselves, and how CLUES could be a resource for them,” says Azurdia-Lee.

Out of those conversations came the idea for a Housing Resource Center which would act as an intermediary between renters and landlords to ensure housing security. The Center would track the state’s inventory of safe, affordable housing, and develop a network of landlords committed to ensuring access to housing for all regardless of immigration status, maintain a repository of standard rental documents translated into Spanish for use by landlords, and educate tenants on their rights, including trainings tailored to address the unique realities of undocumented individuals. Additionally, keeping with CLUES longstanding practice of providing one-on-one coaching and support, staff counselors would be available to answer client calls and assist in addressing complex housing cases in need of immediate resolution.

CLUES’ Housing Resource Center launched just as the COVID-19 pandemic began, and it very quickly evolved into a rapid response and emergency relief center.

“In Minnesota, the Latinx community has been disproportionately impacted by COVID for several reasons,” says Aliana Letran, director of economic empowerment at CLUES.  “Many in our community are in the service industry and have mixed immigration statuses. When they lost their job because of COVID, they couldn’t apply for unemployment or the emergency relief. Plus, many Latinx households are multigenerational because it is very common for us to take care of our elders. Because many people live in the same household, many got infected. People were afraid to seek help because of their immigration status, or didn’t know how to find it. And even though the governor put in place rules to prohibit evictions, some landlords threatened to report our clients to immigration officials if they didn’t continue paying.”

After consulting with attorneys, “we realized we needed to think outside of the box, which is how we decided to approach the landlords to work together. We would ask them if they needed our help to secure a forbearance from their mortgage lender for the loan on their rental property, and if we got it for them, we then asked them to pass on some of that help to our clients, too,” explains Letran.

At the same time the center was assisting tenants, CLUES staff was also receiving calls from Latinx homeowners who had fallen behind on their mortgage payments but didn’t know how to ask their lender for help. In response, some of CLUES housing counselors trained in foreclosure prevention, and helped clients to secure forbearances, loan modifications, and other relief. The Center grew from a staff of five rapid response counselors at the start of the pandemic to 15 counselors to meet the enormous demand.

As Letran explains, “While we were addressing the extreme needs of people already suffering from health conditions, we also were dealing with the fact that many of our clients live in the neighborhood, in some cases even on the same street, where George Floyd was murdered, and a lot of those neighborhoods were destroyed after he was killed. So that has devastated our community, on top of COVID. After the turmoil experienced in the Twin Cities, most of our clients need a safe place to live in and housing that won’t make their health even worse.”

Again and again, CLUES staff heard stories from clients of a system that is simply not designed to meet the needs of the Latinx community, says Azurdia-Lee. As an example, she cites the process of applying for funding for client housing assistance. “I spoke with a county official who assured me that it would only take our staff fifteen minutes to complete the necessary paperwork to assist each client. But then I talked with staff and they said they had to track down the landlord, and get a copy of the W-9 from them, and that it was at least a two-day process. And that’s for our staff who know how to navigate the system. Imagine being someone who doesn’t speak the language, or who doesn’t understand the system. Some of these officials just don’t have any idea how unrealistic their expectations are.”

In response, Azurdia-Lee and her team are actively working to address the institutional obstacles limiting access to safe, affordable housing for Minnesota’s Latinx community. “Because we hear the real stories of our community, we, as a nonprofit, become the communicator to the city and the county and the translator to help them to understand the problems and to align with the nonprofit sector to make change.” This includes working with local and state officials to ensure that all necessary forms are available in Spanish, which is currently not the case, and fighting for equity in the state budget for the Latinx community.

“There is this traditional approach of hiring someone who speaks Spanish and assuming that that is all that is needed. But being bi-lingual is not the same as being bi-cultural,” explains Azurdia-Lee. “Some of our clients have suffered social and economic trauma, and we have trauma-informed counselors who can work with them, who understand how their mental health is impacted by their fear of eviction, and can support them through that. We know that the voices of our community aren’t being heard, and just being invited to meetings doesn’t cut it. That’s why we need to take seats on boards and we are training our clients on their rights, so we can help to influence the type of housing needed for our communities.”