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Housing as a foundation of rural hope

Housing Institute for Greater Minnesota
Keynote address
Wade Fauth – Vice President, Blandin Foundation


I want to start by assuring you that I am not a housing expert, I am a housing believer.  So, you won’t be getting powerful facts and data from me.  Instead, this will be more about impressions and observations of a committed dabbler in the topic of fair housing.

Shelter and housing is basic.  In Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs, it ranks second behind only food.  Because it is so basic, it is an inherently emotional topic.  Say the word ‘house’ and people will invariably think about ‘home’.  So clear your mind a moment and create an image of ‘home’ in your head.  What does the word ‘home’ conjure up for you?

For me, the word ‘home’ still creates images of the place I grew up, and that’s the image we have on the screen. The 21 years I spent associated with this structure is still the longest association I’ve had with any dwelling in my life.  And that makes me lucky.  It was a fairly modest place, and it wasn’t the necessarily the happiest abode, but it was ours, it was stable, and it served its basic purpose well enough.

Take a look at the image.  What stands out?

  • Definitely country.  We were farm and ranch people in north central SD
  • Prairie.  Most families planted plenty of trees around their houses, but that apparently required too much work and forethought for the Fauth clan, so there was nothing standing in the way to slow down the wind that beat down on that house day after day.

And there are things you can’t see.

  • This house would have been built by family and friends in about 1915. 
  • The language spoken during and after construction was German.  In fact, after the US entered WWI in 1917, the churches in my town were shut down because they were all conducted in German and there doubts about our loyalty.  So instead, illegal services were held in the living room.
  • And, in a grand paradox, the trees used to build it could very well have been cut off the land I live on today in Northern MN.  In the early 1900s, Minneapolis was the hub of a very lucrative trade where they used the St. Anthony falls to mill northern MN lumber that they sent to the prairies and back hauled wheat to be milled by the same St. Anthony falls that milled the lumber.  Minneapolis made money coming and going by adding value to a rural resources. 

Today the farmstead is barren.  All there is, is prairie once again.  After my parents died 30 years ago, I sold the house for $100 for scrap wood, but I got $1600 for a metal cattle barn, which tells you a bit about the demographics of the prairie states.  And even though the landscape is empty again, when I go back to visit, it’s never with empty or detached observance.  It’s full of emotions, memories, and visions – some good, some not so good, but again, I’m exceedingly glad to have had that home.

Which brings me to the question I invariably ask when talking with groups like this, which is, why are we here?  Why are we here?  We are here because we care.  We are here because we believe that all of our community members deserve to satisfy that very basic need for safe, dignified housing.  We are here because we have hope we can do something about it.

Access to fair housing is part of my personal value system, and fortunately, it’s a value that is shared by my employer.  The Blandin Foundation, an organization with nearly $400M in assets to draw on, was started by a person who himself came from very humble origins.    A story is even told that for a time, things were so low, he lived in a packing crate – meaning, he was essentially homeless.  But he didn’t stay homeless.  He eventually ended up owning the paper mill in Grand Rapids, accumulating wealth from the rural forest resource that today, fortunately, is being put to work to strengthen the health of rural communities all across this state.

In fact, the Foundation’s mission statement is, ‘strengthen rural Minnesota communities.”  So how do we do that?  Just very briefly, I want to mention the tools in the Foundation’s toolkit:

  • First, as is typically associated with a Foundation, we distribute  about $12M in grants a year, lion’s share to Itasca County, so the rest gets spread really thin around the rest of the state
  • Conduct leadership training for several hundred people a year in about 12 communities across the state,
  • use strategic communications to disseminate information that rural residents statewide can use for decision making, and
  • facilitation – we coordinate community engagement on specific topics in about a dozen communities across the state on critical issues like broadband and education.

These are the tools we use, but I want to go a bit more in depth into the philosophy of how we do our work because it is directly on point to this gathering today.    

In doing its work in rural over the decades, Blandin Foundation has come to believe in a number of basic principles.  One is that change follows relationships at the speed of trust.  Let me repeat that, “change follows relationships at the speed of trust.”

To illustrate the point, I’d like you to think about a time in your community that something big or good happened, where the community came together to accomplish something important like a new school, or a workforce initiative, or a new housing development.  What were a couple of the most important characteristics that drove the success of that effort?  I’ll bet one of them was that people were able to work effectively together.

That’s why for the past 30 years, the Blandin Foundation has invested heavily in relationship building and Leadership development.  Out of curiosity, How many here are alumni of one of Blandin’s leadership or other programs?  There are now nearly 8,000 alumni of our leadership programs scattered across rural MN, and we make the investment in people because we believe a number of things:

  • leadership skills can be learned and sharpened – There’s this question “are leaders born or created.”  It’s BOTH.
  • relationships matter – The probability of success increases dramatically if people know and trust each other, so we put them in close contact for a week to build relationships that can endure a lifetime.  This gives rise to another of the mantras Blandin tries to live by, “You have to do yourself, but you can’t do it alone.
  • we believe we can positively influence our futures –  You don’t have to sit back and passively take what the world hands you.  You can claim your community’s future.

We know concerned citizens are out in community doing good work all the time, but we also know that there are topics that are so complex, they are not readily mastered by the lay person.  So when we get into really difficult and thorny issues, the Foundation often chooses to make more in depth investments.

Housing is one of those thorny issues we invest in.  Our main investment is through the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund (GMHF).  20 years ago, Blandin and McKnight Foundations, combined with the vision of Warren Hanson and others, created the Greater  Minnesota Housing Fund because the Blandin Foundation concluded that communities needed quality affordable housing to thrive, both from a moral standpoint and for very practical economic reasons.  Furthermore, Rural community leaders needed help navigating this complex topic, and now, two decades later, GMHF has a fabulous history of creating thousands of housing units and leveraging hundreds of millions of dollars of investment for Greater MN investments, much of which would not have happened otherwise.

Along the way, Greater Mn Housing and the rest of the affordable housing community in Minnesota themselves took to heart the mantra that, “you have to do it yourself, but you can’t do it alone.”  They realized that no one organization has all the resources and know-how to do the job and have developed strong relationships that have fed success. 

The Minnesota Housing Partnership and the Housing Institute we are celebrating today are perfect examples of the outgrowth of those relationships.  So, I just want to pause and offer my whole-hearted endorsement of the Institute and the work you are here doing together.  Organizations and people that care about the topic of housing are doing the difficult but conscientious work of trying to knit together a housing development system that works better for all of us. 

My home community of Grand Rapids and Itasca County offers a good example of the power of working together.  When I first arrive in Grand Rapids 15 years ago, one of the first things I got involved in was the Itasca Housing Committee – it was a self-organized group that had a long and informal life span that played a helpful role in many productive initiatives like:

  • Redevelopment of the old middle school site
  • Redevelopment of the old hospital site.
  • Multi-family affordable developments (thank you developer DW Jones)
  • A permanent homeless shelter

These were all good and helpful things that were assisted by the relationships that existed among members of the Housing Committee, but things really leapt to a different level when the Housing Institute came to town.  It was the extra level of intensive, high quality technical assistance that gave a broad community coalition the power to pull off the Beacon Hill supportive housing project that you have likely heard about. 

And as you all know the task of pulling together a disparate community group, finding common purpose, and driving it forward is some of the hardest work we do.  Why?  Who is going to lead?  Who has the time to spare?  Do people trust each other enough?  The fact is, that under the right conditions, the effort will pay off and Blandin’s experience is that the deeper and more inclusive the relationships are behind an effort, the more powerful the outcomes can be.

There is another reality in housing work as well, which is that even if we can pull together as a housing community, the rest of the community has to come along too.  To illustrate, a couple of months ago, the Blandin Foundation was hosting a tour of staff that work for Foundations in the Twin Cities and elsewhere.  Part of our motivation was to draw some of those philanthropic dollars back to the rural places the wealth was derived from.  When the tour group got off the bus at the Beacon Hill complex, one woman was wearing a ‘hijab’, signifying she was of the Muslim faith.  Before long, we were interested to find out that this visit apparently triggered a rumor that Syrian refugees would be resettled in Grand Rapids.  Last week I was intrigued to learn that, 500 Muslims were now going to be relocated to Grand Rapids.

Are a lot of different threads to this story, but the one I want to focus on is that this is a classic example of how difficult the work of affordable housing development is.  Every one of you in the room can tell a similar story of uninformed opposition that makes a difficult job even harder.  And I just want to encourage you to keep up the fight.  Why? 

  • Because the gentle part of my heart believes that the availability of housing is right from a moral standpoint.
  • And, the clear eyed pragmatist in me is convinced that the availability of safe, dignified housing makes sense from a cost-benefit standpoint.
  • And, 20 years from now, I want someone who is a child today to stand up in front of a group like this and tell their story about what a stable home meant in their life.

It’s not a stretch to say that we are all in the hope business, and when we have hope, amazing things can happen.

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