Marian Ahmed’s new Savage home is sparsely furnished but immaculate, with a stone fireplace and back-yard views of a pond where her four kids can watch the Canada Geese land while they eat their cereal.
The amenities are nice, Ahmed said, but they aren’t the reason she took on a mortgage she can barely afford. What’s essential for Ahmed is the basement space that allows Anas Hassan, her 4-year-old autistic son, to rock in a specially built suspended swing that keeps him calm, along with the thick walls that allow her other children to rest undisturbed when Anas wakes up screaming in the night. Most important, Ahmed has peace of mind, knowing she no longer risks eviction from a frustrated landlord after one too many complaints from the neighbors.
“I didn’t want to buy a house, I didn’t want the headache,” the 34-year-old said from the couch that is one of the home’s few pieces of furniture, as Anas squirmed on her lap. “I could rent a townhouse or a three-bedroom apartment and life would be easier. But nobody’s going to rent to us. It’s not only me, it’s about other families.”
Across Minnesota, families with children who have autism or other disabilities struggle to stay in rental homes in the face of disruptions or damage caused by the kids. The situation is particularly acute in the Somali community, where one in 32 children between ages 7 and 9 is on the autism spectrum, according to a University of Minnesota study. That compares to 1 in 48 for children of that age in the overall population.
The Minnesota Legislature tried in 2013 to help alleviate the problem by creating a $500,000 fund aimed at providing housing for families like Ahmed’s. But bureaucratic glitches have kept the money in limbo, with the families unable to access it.
The money initially was allocated to the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, which finances housing for low- and middle-income families. MHFA then advertised for community-based organizations to apply for the money so it could be distributed to needy families. Although they initially showed interest, Habitat for Humanity and City of Lakes Community Land Trust never applied.
Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity spokesman Matt Haugen said that because the organization works both as a builder and a lender, it would risk violating fair lending laws if it took money tied to a specific goal, like housing for families of autistic children facing eviction. “It’s certainly not a matter of what we want to do; it’s a matter of how we do it,” Haugen said. City of Lakes did not respond to requests for an interview.
Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, who presided over the 2013 effort, says she’s frustrated by the glitches, but ready to try again.
“This was clearly a serious issue,” she said. “It’s just very difficult to solve because the landlords have a real concern about their properties, but the families are constantly under the stress of trying to deal with their children.” As an outgoing committee chairwoman, Clark presided over multiple hearings where state legislators heard from parents, including Ahmed, who were forced to bounce between homes. “It’s heartbreaking when you see what the families have to deal with when there’s some simple things that can be done to help them.”
Clark said that despite the bureaucratic mix-up that left the funds in limbo, “we can still make this happen.” She is considering a second effort to set aside money to help families, but acknowledges that could hinge on whether she can get enough lawmakers on board. The incoming House will be controlled by Republicans.
Ahmed had hoped for help from the state, but couldn’t wait as her situation grew more dire. She got a loan from her parents in Somalia to help put a down payment on the Savage home.
Abdirizak Jama will continue to wait and hope.
Jama’s family of six was evicted from their Hopkins apartment in 2008, when his autistic son, Ayub Abdi, caused some damage and was spotted crawling out of a lower-level window.
“We were surprised,” Jama said. “We were feeling at the time that this looked kind of like discrimination for a disability, because they mentioned our son directly.”
The family considered filing a complaint, but instead searched for a new home, which proved difficult. After prospective landlords made follow-up calls to references, Jama’s housing applications were rejected. The family was later evicted from two more apartments.
Jama’s family now rents a four-bedroom place in Minneapolis — he won’t say where because he wants no trouble with his landlord.
The situation remains less than ideal. Even with separate bedrooms, Jama’s other children frequently are exhausted because Ayub wakes up at night and the neighbors can hear the commotion. A more spacious home with amenities to help keep Ayub calm would benefit the entire family, Jama said.
Jama makes enough to make payments on his own home, but here he faces another complication. As a Muslim, he is forbidden by sharia law from taking out a conventional, interest-based mortgage. Jama said he applied to build a home through Habitat for Humanity earlier this month, but was turned down because no organizations had sought the funding that would have aided him.
He hopes the Legislature revisits the issue, because he is uncertain how long his family can hang on. Like Ahmed, Jama has testified before lawmakers, and was confused and frustrated when he learned the money was allocated but remained just out of his reach.
“I was one of the people who testified [about] the needs of a house, and when I attempt to get help, I hear that there’s no one [who] applied. Why?” Jama asked. “I was there, and I still am here.” Abby Simons • 651-925-5043