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Can public housing provide more than a roof?

December 2, 2018

Christina Vilai is looking forward to seeing updated playground equipment at her housing complex.

The 35-year-old metal slide and swings are five years older than the mother of five, who has lived in the public housing complex since 2011.

“We need something new,” she said as she walked by the equipment.

The Olmsted County Housing and Redevelopment Authority recently approved spending $130,000 to match a grant that will provide new playground equipment at the county’s three public housing complexes: Westwood, Homestead Terrace and Homestead Green.

New playground equipment is only one of several steps the county is taking to improve conditions for families living in the three public housing complexes it operates in Rochester.

When Michele Merxbauer became Olmsted County’s housing program manager three years ago, one of her goals was to improve the quality of lives of people in the program.

With a vacant position to fill in the department, she was able to hire Cari Kuehn to provide a hands-on resource as the county’s property manager and systems specialist

“I was hoping to find someone with property management experience, because that was our immediate need, but also with a social service education or background to bring that tenant engagement and client empowerment to the forefront of our interactions with our tenants,” she said. “I found a social worker by education and property manager by trade all in one person.

Matching tenants with resources

Since starting, Kuehn has dedicated herself to finding ways to improve the lives of families living in public housing.

“We are looking to work with the tenants to find what the needs are and help them connect with the resources to fulfill those needs,” she said, noting such efforts can provide a path to self sufficiency.

Improved playground equipment and basketball courts have become a symbol of sorts for the effort. Early in her visits to the housing complexes, Kuehn was made aware that the swings and basketball hoops were missing.

Now replaced, Merxbauer said the courts and playgrounds have become active again and put young tenants on a better path.

“There was literally nothing for the kids to do, and bored kids can turn into destructive kids,” she said. “That’s human nature.”

She noted the three townhouse complexes are home to dozens of children, ranging from 40 at Westwood, 60 at Homestead Terrace and 78 at Homestead Green.

Physical improvements

In addition to the playground upgrades, work is underway to provide new roofs, windows, siding and air-conditioning sleeves to the second floors of the two Homestead complexes in Southeast Rochester. That work is being funded by a $1 million federal grant,

However, physical improvements only go so far.

A large part of Kuehn’s role relies on finding ways to connect with the tenants.

Frequent trips to the complexes are a big part of that, but so is providing new opportunities to connect with each other, as well as resources that can be out of reach for families with limited transportation options.

So far, efforts have included creating a community garden (a pilot project at the Homestead Terrace complex), inviting the Rochester Energy Commission to install energy-saving lightbulbs and low-flow showerheads and the installation of mini libraries by the Rochester Public Library.

Making connections

On Thursday, Rochester Public Schools will host a community dinner in the Homestead Terrace community room to meet parents and strengthen relationships.

Other possibilities for community events include inviting ChannelOne, Community Health Services and other organizations to visit the sites.

Kuehn is also working to create resident advisory boards, a concept that has historically produced little interest when onsite resources were available.

With renovated community spaces, she’s hoping more tenants will actively connect with each other and the county, since they won’t have to travel to a county office to take part.

Already, Kuehn has held a family event at one of the complexes to connect nonprofit agencies with tenants. Vilai said it had the additional benefit of bringing tenants together.

While she’s lived in the complex for six years, Vilai said she is starting to build new relationships.

“That went good,” she said of the summer gathering. “There were a couple people I didn’t really know, but we started talking.”

While she’s recently married and has applied to move to a larger home under the public housing program, Vilai said the three-bedroom unit in her complex has provided her family with stability they might not have otherwise had.

“I’d probably be struggling,” she said, recalling a failed effort six years ago to find an affordable apartment that would allow her to move her children out of her parents’ home.

Unable to work due to a disability, she said she was fortunate to find an opening in public housing. She could be looking to move in the spring, and she said it’s good to know that the county has her neighbor’s best interests in mind.

Merxbauer said that’s the county’s goal.

“We’re really focused on providing more than a roof over their heads to provide an overall environment,” she said, noting the investment is also aimed at pointing residents in a positive direction.

“If we show pride in their units, they will show pride in their units,” she said.

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