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Image: Beacon Hill 2. June 2016 arial

Greater MN Housing Fund tackles NE Minnesota housing crisis with 400+ housing units and Blandin Foundation support

$1 million grant to build regional capacity for more affordable housing signals the Foundation’s focus on housing as key infrastructure for local communities

Key points:

  • The $1 million grant will help Greater Minnesota Housing Fund launch a 3-year, 400-plus unit rural housing project in the Grand Rapids and Leech Lake areas
  • The project will focus GMHF expertise in affordable housing and lending in these areas.
  • The project will address the entire housing system: updated housing stock, more types of affordable housing, and building future technical and financial community capacity, and advocating for future projects
  • The grant aligns with the Foundation’s Community Wealth-Building priority area.

Grand Rapids, MN – Blandin Foundation has awarded a $1 million, three-year grant to the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund (GMHF) to launch a comprehensive rural housing project designed to address the Grand Rapids and Leech Lake areas’ acute housing challenges. The project will build or preserve more than 400 units and address the entire housing system, from updating all types of housing stock, to boosting community understanding of the need and benefits of a healthy housing sector that serves all residents.

The region’s housing crisis

Affordable housing, especially for low-income households, is a crisis-level issue across Minnesota, and is felt keenly in the Grand Rapids area and the Leech Lake community.

“Our region’s housing system faces multiple pinch points,” said Kyle Erickson, Blandin Foundation program officer for community wealth-building. “Developer and project management capacity, construction workforce availability, access to capital and spiraling construction costs, to name a few. These are complex, intertwined challenges that won’t be fixed by simple approaches or isolated projects.”

While the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank reports a healthy vacancy rate in Minnesota is typically five to seven percent, rental vacancy rates in north-central Minnesota have long been below 1 percent. Such extremely limited availability drives up prices, quickly putting rental housing out of reach for low- and moderate-income earners.

As a result, more than 20 percent of households experience housing cost burden – spending more than 30 percent of monthly wages on housing – according to a 2021 study by the Minnesota Housing Partnership. Households of color face cost-burdens at a rate nearly double that, at 36 percent.

Availability isn’t an issue only for rental housing. A 2022 Cass County housing study found that 600 housing units of all types – multi-family and single-family, rentals and owned — are needed now. An additional 2,000 units likely will be needed in the future across the region. At the time, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe’s Housing Authority reported a waiting list of 400-plus households, and estimates total need is double that figure.

Even when housing is available, much of it is old and in need of repair. Smaller communities like Nashwauk have some of the oldest housing stock in the state according to the most recent study by the Itasca County Housing and Redevelopment Authority.

These complex factors make it hard for nearly everyone – from young professionals and single parents to growing families and retirees – to know what’s the best move to secure affordable housing.

Building houses and capacity

Opening the door for more people to have safe, affordable and conveniently located housing in such a complex market will take a whole new approach. GMHF’s decades of expertise in raising awareness, financing and fostering community collaboration will form the backbone of the Itasca area work.

“People in our region face some of the toughest obstacles to finding housing in the state,” said Tuleah Palmer, Blandin Foundation president and CEO. “The real opportunity with this grant is to apply the many lessons GMHF has gained over decades of working in rural Minnesota. Their work will shift from focusing on housing dynamics in distinct communities to how the housing system is serving the region’s needs. That requires a new framework of regional coordination and leadership.”

Collaboration will be a cornerstone of the work. GMHF will bring together employers, elected officials, civic leaders and others to set shared goals and the community-centered action to meet them. These will anchor work on planning projects, seeking financing locally and beyond, and equipping people to share how affordable housing makes positive contributions to community life.

GMHF will leverage its own capital to invest in these projects. GMHF will also assist local leaders in exploring innovative ideas to better meet housing needs. Models like tenant ownership, land trust models and creative financing for developments in smaller rural communities create opportunities to put home ownership within reach for more households. More homeowners lead to more stable local economies.

This project aligns with Blandin Foundation’s Community Wealth-Building (CWB) priority. By boosting the analysis skills and range of financial tools local leaders use to close disparities in housing that largely fall along lines of place, race, and class, GMHF’s work is designed to make long-term impact. It addresses perennial challenges inherent in the Itasca area affordable housing sector so that stable housing, a necessity for households to start building other types of wealth, is within reach for more people and families.

“GMHF has always been committed to addressing rural equity,” said Andrea Brennan, GMHF CEO and president. “Each aspect of this project does that. We aim to improve regional coordination and planning approaches and promote collaboration so small communities can steer clear of competing for resources and focus on building homes that create a strong foundation for the region’s economy. We believe this layered, yet focused, approach can be replicated in other rural Minnesota places.”


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