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Affordable housing Monopoly
By Mary Losure
September 3, 2001

A State Fair game played on what was billed as "the world's largest monopoly board" has raised more than $105,000 to support four groups working for affordable housing in Minnesota. At the game, billed as "a play for affordable housing", advocates have collected nearly 10,000 signatures in favor of more low-cost housing. They've also also been working with unions to survey low-wage workers about the issue.

A State Fair game played on what was billed as "the world's largest monopoly board" has raised more than $105,000 to support four groups working for affordable housing in Minnesota.
(MPR Photo/Mary Losure)
FOR MOST FAIR GOERS, Labor Day marks the end of the State Fair. It's the last chance to eat porkchop on a stick or other traditional delicacies and visit favorite attractions.

But for six Minnesota union locals, Labor Day at the fair meant a platform for publicizing the dire shortage of affordable housing in the state.

The unions surveyed 6,000 of their members. Union leaders said hard figures from the survey will be released later this week, but it's already clear that low-wage union workers are having serious problems paying for shelter.

Shane Allers, executive director of the Service Employees International Union Local 284, says the unions did the survey in part to demonstrate what was already clear to the school bus drivers, school cooks, nursing home employees, and other low wage workers his union represents.

"What we were finding out as we were going to the bargaining table was a lot of times the employers were not acknowledging that their employees were having a difficult time in the housing market, so we wanted to do a study to show that there is in fact a problem even for their own workforce to find affordable housing," Allers said.

Allers says there's ample anecdotal evidence of families who have many of their members working in order to pay the rent. He says many of his union members who work as support staff in suburban schools can't afford to live near their jobs. And he says unions are coming to realize they can't solve housing problems solely through winning higher wages for workers.

"Even with some of the gains we can get at the bargaining table, the cost of housing has outpaced those gains. so even though we need and encourage employees to pay the workers more, I think we've got to understand that affordable housing is more than just a paycheck issue," according to Allers.

Affordable housing advocates have long urged cities and towns to build a variety of housing types and to reconsider zoning and building requirements that rule out low income housing.

Bernie Hesse, an organizer for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 789, says until only a few years ago, many unions were reluctant to weigh in on the issue. But he says that's changed dramatically. "Not only are labor unions talking about it, business owners are talking about it because they're feeling the pinch, because they can't get workers attracted to their jobs because there's no housing in that community. You even see the jargon changing from low-income housing or subsidized housing to workforce housing."

Hesse notes that on a national scale, labor organizations are becoming much more concerned about housing for their members. He says unions have begun to work with lenders on behalf of their members, and notes that the AFL-CIO now has a $400 million housing trust that's available to organizations willing to build housing that includes affordable units.

Hesse's union represents workers including grocery clerks, meat cutters, nursing home aids, and packing house workers. Other unions participating in the survey include restaurant and hotel workers and clerical workers at the University of Minnesota.