HIBBING — Mikaela Willey knows what it’s like to feel defeated while living in public housing.

That was her situation a handful of years ago, when she and her family followed her father-in-law to Hibbing from Phoenix, resettling near his hometown, Buhl.

It was a welcome change.

But at the time, problems followed. Willey’s husband was over-drinking, and they had few resources, even slipping into a brief period of homelessness.

“It was embarrassing,” Willey, 35, said of being a stay-at-home mother living in public housing. “Now, I don’t see it that way. I look at where we’ve come from, what we’ve accomplished and what we still have to accomplish. But three years ago, I would have been depressed talking about it.”

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Mikaela Willey talks about how she and her husband are working to have their own home. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Mikaela Willey talks about how she and her husband are working to have their own home. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Her husband is now more than three years sober after treatment through Range Mental Health Center, and they’re working toward a goal of home ownership. The four kids, ranging from 2 to 19, are settled and content.

And Willey’s plight has become the epitome of what the Hibbing Housing and Redevelopment Authority plans for others as it implements work-related requirements for public housing tenants beginning this fall.

"Essentially, we are trying to empower our residents to improve their quality of life through certain requirements you can't do in regular public housing," Hibbing HRA Executive Director Jackie Prescott said.

Last year, the Hibbing HRA was selected among 31 other communities nationally to participate in the federal "Moving to Work" program, a “demonstration” model afforded to fewer than 100 communities nationally. It allows the public housing authority in those communities to relax rules in an experimental effort to move families toward self-sufficiency and shorten waiting lists for other people in need.

“Mikaela is the epitome of the saying we use around here to think about 'Moving to Work,' which is ‘from safety net to trampoline,’” said Andrew Jarocki, a Lead for Minnesota fellow serving in the Hibbing HRA. “We want to go a step further. We want to catch people and help bump them up to where they’re going.”

Hibbing’s four public housing complexes feature 252 units serving more than 400 people. But it features a waiting list that, for some people, can last up to 18 months. Graduating people from public housing would shorten that timeframe for those waiting, and mean upward mobility for those graduating.

“Sometimes, people don’t recognize their worth or that they have abilities,” Prescott said. “What we’re trying to do is break down barriers that are putting them in this place.”

Jackie Prescott
Jackie Prescott

Moving to Work is designed for tenants ages 18-62 who are non-disabled. Everyone between 18 and 62 living in an HRA home will be required to complete 15 hours weekly of work, school or some other betterment effort, such as parenting or budgeting classes. They’ll meet twice annually with a worker from the HRA, who will help connect them to the services they need and discuss progress toward self-sufficiency across a five-year term limit in public housing.

Along the way, tenants will benefit from new flexibility in the rules. Instead of having their rent — roughly a 30% portion of their income — go up immediately if they get a raise at work or a new income, rents will only be raised every two years regardless of changes, allowing people and families to begin to save pay increases or invest in other needs.

“We really want to help people realize their goals in a timeframe that’s realistic and humane, but also purposeful and intentional,” Jarocki said.

Jarocki admitted the program “can sound heavy-handed,” but said it isn’t designed to be paternalistic or punitive. Instead, after offering the hand-up of public housing, the program is the “supporting hand on their backs,” he said.

Andrew Jarocki
Andrew Jarocki

He used Willey’s situation as an example. There’s no box to check in public housing that would let the HRA know alcoholism is a barrier for a family. That’s because under normal circumstances, the HRA is merely a landlord.

But under "Moving to Work," an HRA worker would strive to understand the things holding back a person or a family, and seek to connect them to solutions for issues related not just to addiction, but things such as travel, child care, nutrition and mental health.

“Once you get out there and get motivated and you know you have resources and a support team, it’s a lot easier than you think,” Willey said.

But what about people who don’t want to participate?

“Something we talk about a lot is the worst-case scenario,” Jarocki said. “They make it to the end of five years and are completely unprepared for self-sufficiency. But we’re designing the program so it wouldn’t allow anyone to get to the five-year mark not having had that conversation much sooner.”

Mikaela Willey (right) listens as Andrew Jarocki, a fellow with Lead for Minnesota, talks about the "Moving to Work" program at the Hibbing HRA office recently. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Mikaela Willey (right) listens as Andrew Jarocki, a fellow with Lead for Minnesota, talks about the "Moving to Work" program at the Hibbing HRA office recently. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Eligible residents who sign their lease but later miss work, school or programming requirements would begin to receive written warnings, with lease termination by a fourth or fifth warning.

Prescott said reviews from existing tenants are mixed. Some are excited, she said, and others are “living in that fear.”

“We’re hoping to work with them on that and trying to look at this as an uplifting program,” she said.

For Willey, the rewards of having spent time in public housing are apparent. She and her husband are going to reapply for a Habitat for Humanity house now that their incomes have risen, with her doing cleaning work for the HRA and him working as a full-timer at a local grocery store.

She said public housing can feel like a backbone that can serve to prevent some people from taking the extra steps needed for self-sufficiency. She admits to feeling that way herself once. But not anymore.

“We work super hard to make sure we are stable,” Willey said. “Now, I just want the extra stuff — the house, the car, the dog, the garden.”

Mikaela Willey signs out at the end of her shift at the Hibbing HRA while lead maintenance worker Greg Anderson talks with a co-worker. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Mikaela Willey signs out at the end of her shift at the Hibbing HRA while lead maintenance worker Greg Anderson talks with a co-worker. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)