Housing for all

Seniors aren’t the only ones who need safety, security and affordability

Proud home owners
Hsa Dohsoe, 26, and her husband Doh Soe, 27, sit on their front steps in St. Paul with their boys, Banyan, 7 (left), and Wilson, 8.

This month’s issue of Minnesota Good Age is highlighting the topic of housing, which can be huge challenge for all ages, not just us seniors.

And that got me thinking about how important the idea of “home” has been in my life — and in my service on the board of a nonprofit affordable-housing provider.

I grumbled a bit when I first joined the board of CommonBond because I knew it was expected that board members of the nonprofit put the organization at the top of their charitable contributions lists — in addition to giving of their time and talent which, for me, meant producing videos about the outfit that’d been around for 40 years.

The Lord’s work

The mood lasted until the second board meeting when I was seated next to a feisty nun, Mary Heinen, one of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet of St. Paul. In fewer than five minutes, she let me know how lucky I was to be doing “the Lord’s work” for such a fine organization.

People can’t rise out of poverty, she said, unless they have a roof over their heads and we, who’ve always had that, should be paying it forward.

I got the idea she wasn’t asking for my opinion. 

Over the next three years of board service, I learned how right she was.

I interviewed senior citizens who found affordable apartments. I talked with single mothers who needed safe places to raise their kids. And I chatted with recent refugees who needed help learning English and finding doctors.

Currently, CommonBond owns or manages 5,500 rental apartments and townhomes in 50 cities in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa.

More than 9,000 people — families, seniors and people with disabilities — call CommonBond home. And 2,400 of them are children.

For those children, CommonBond offers a “study buddy” program, in which volunteers work with youngsters who need help with learning and language.

One family’s story

Hsa Dohsoe and her husband, Doh Soe, had two young sons when they moved into CommonBond’s Vista Village in St. Paul five years ago.

They came to the U.S. in 2008 from a refugee camp in Thailand.

The St. Paul apartment they’d been living in was costly and cramped.

Then they learned they qualified for Section 8 (subsidized) housing and moved into their Vista Village townhome — with two bedrooms.

Their boys — Banyan, 7, and Wilson, 8, — received their own room. And their parents received some peace of mind. 

“We felt safe there,” Hsa said. “We had a place to park the car. We had nice neighbors and I didn’t have to worry about being safe. It was easier for me to concentrate on education, my school work.”

She and her husband both got their high school diplomas and she’s now a medical assistant with Allina. He’s a technician with Premium Waters, Inc.

Doh Soe would like to get training to become an automobile mechanic and Hsa wants to go back to college and complete requirements for a registered nurse degree. 

Landing safely

Today, as of two months ago, they’re proud owners of a house on Barclay Street in St. Paul.

As I see them now, sitting on the front step, I’m impressed with their grit, gumption and grace. I see refugees who had to learn English, get an education, encounter a new culture and find decent jobs.

And, oh yes, raise two boys, who are now in 2nd and 3rd grades in neighborhood schools.

After hearing the family’s story, I’m aware that having a safe place to call home is incredibly important and I’ve known that since I was a kidwatching a summer thunderstorm roll in late at night from my bedroom windowand feeling safe from all harm.

Sister Heinen was right: If we’re not paying it forward — especially us senior citizens — we’re sliding backward.

Dave Nimmer has had a long career as a reporter, editor and professor. Now retired, he has no business card, but plenty to do. Send comments or questions to [email protected].