MOORHEAD — Minnesota's most severely cost-burdened renters are right here in the west-central region of the state.

Those spending more than 30% of their monthly income on housing are considered cost-burdened. But in this nine-county region that includes Clay, Becker, Wilkin, Otter Tail, Douglas, Grant, Pope, Stevens and Traverse counties, 24% of renters are putting more than half of their income toward housing, according to the State of the State's Housing 2019 study.

In Clay County, for example, 51% of renters are cost-burdened — a big difference compared to 27% of households falling in this category statewide.

The west-central region also has the highest proportion of extremely low-income renters in the state, with 7,405 renter households — or 34% — earning 30% of the area median income or less, the study found.

In Clay County, the region's most populous county, the demand for affordable housing far exceeds the resources available, said Dara Lee, executive director of the county's Housing and Redevelopment Authority.

Lee was one of a dozen advocates and residents who attended a housing discussion Monday, July 8, at Moorhead's Public Library. The event was part of a statewide listening tour hosted by Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn. Though Smith was not in attendance, her staff was there to hear from locals about housing issues.

Clay County is annually authorized 522 federal housing vouchers, but Lee said there is only enough funding to lease between 450 to 460 households. The waitlist for these vouchers is currently at 280 households, she said, and it's strictly for those ages 75 and older or those with a disabled household member.

The HRA must say no to many people who fall outside those two categories, Lee said, adding that the agency is not assisting able-bodied young people or others working low-wage jobs unable to make rent.

Dawn Bacon with the Moorhead Public Housing Agency said larger households are told there is a seven-year waitlist. "Saying that to somebody who is in an active housing crisis is not a good thing," she said.

Hukun Abdullahi, executive director and founder of the Afro American Development Association, said a housing issue facing new Americans in particular is a lack of credit history to rent. He said that's a reason why financial literacy is highly needed.

Heidi Uecker, with Legal Services of Northwest Minnesota, said expunging evictions from a renter's record is difficult and that eviction can lead to a "downward cycle of homelessness." Uecker said she would like to see reform in this area because a medical emergency or car issue could force someone to use rent money to pay for those unexpected costs, which could then lead to eviction.

Other people in attendance pointed to low wages and rising costs of child care as creating barriers to accessing affordable housing. Smith's priorities on housing include supporting small rural lenders and consulting with tribes to support homeownership in Indian Country and among low-income households by strengthening federal funding resources.

As part of the listening tour, Smith's staff plans to stop in Thief River Falls and Detroit Lakes on Tuesday, July 9.