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Nonprofit expands veterans housing to Northland, Hovland

Jul 31, 2017 01:05PM ● By Editor
Journey Home Minnesota has been constructing homes for veterans and domestic abuse survivors in the Twin Cities since 2008. The nonprofit is planning to expand to the Northland with a duplex in Duluth and a house in Hovland for veterans. Photo courtesy of Journey Home Minnesota

From The Duluth News Tribune - By Lisa Kaczke on Jul 30, 2017 at 7:00 p.m.

Veterans can face special challenges to find housing, and a Minnesota nonprofit that helps them is expanding its efforts into the Northland.

Journey Home Minnesota, based in North Oaks, Minn., has built 44 homes in the Twin Cities. Its next slate of homes includes locations in Duluth and Hovland, where Theo Rex of Buffalo, Minn., is planning to move.

Rex explained that he has physical mobility issues stemming from his 15 years in the U.S. Army. His current home isn't handicapped accessible, but he and his family will move this fall into a barrier-free home built specifically for Rex about 30 miles south of the Canadian border.

Executive director Blake Huffman said he sees support of veterans as part of the Duluth ethos, and Duluth was a logical place to expand with its large veteran population.

"So many of our veterans, they've sacrificed for our safety and security, and now we get to have the privilege of turning that around," said Huffman, a Ramsey County commissioner and 2018 Republican gubernatorial candidate.

The nonprofit's goal is to build about 60 more homes statewide in the next few years. To rent or buy a house from the group, veterans go through an application process and must have a maximum income of no more than 80 percent of the median income for the area.

"We take care of people in need. That's our mission, and our goal is that we put them in great houses, safe neighborhoods, good schools," Huffman said.

Rex has injuries to his foot and back from his time in Iraq, although they weren't combat injuries, he said. He uses a wheelchair or two canes to get around.

"Right now ... it's very difficult and very painful for me to live in the house I live in. I can't do steps very easily, and not having accessible toilets and showers is a burden to myself and my wife especially, who is my caretaker. Having the barrier-free home is literally changing our lives," he said.

When Rex learned about Journey Home Minnesota, he asked whether the nonprofit would branch out to northeastern Minnesota. He was told that they were expanding statewide last October, and this month, they closed on Rex's house. The rural landscape around the new home is expected to help ease his post-traumatic stress disorder.

Coming to Duluth

Journey Home Minnesota is planning to build a duplex in Duluth, the first of about 10 homes it hopes to build in the city, Huffman said.

Duluth has a housing need, and its rising profile is attracting people, said Randy Kelly, a consultant to the nonprofit and former St. Paul mayor.

"My sense is that Duluth is at the brink of really moving forward, advancing, and we want to be part of that," Kelly said.

The nonprofit will be working with the city to build houses that meet the city's zoning codes and look good, to fight the stigma about affordable housing.

They're close to a decision about a location in Duluth, said Adam Fulton, manager of Duluth's Community Planning Division. Although Duluth has multiple locations that could work, a property is being considered in the Cody neighborhood that was donated to the city in 2015, its structure deemed uninhabitable and unsafe. Fulton is hopeful the Duluth City Council will approve the transfer at an August meeting, though details are still in the works.

Fulton said Journey Home Minnesota would be a positive organization in the city.

"We're trying to build new housing, and we believe this is a small step, but a positive step in addressing a site that has been pretty blighted," Fulton said.

Huffman noted that they will be turning an unproductive piece of land, from the city's perspective, into a duplex that produces taxes.

"Then you're going to have two families move in, and you're going to have those families send their kids to the local schools, and they're going to shop at the local grocery stores. All of a sudden, you get a piece of land that's not doing anybody any good, and it's producing tax revenue for the city and the county," Huffman said.

The nonprofit hopes to break ground in Duluth in September, depending on the fundraising and permitting process. They expect to have a duplex built by early spring. Huffman said local companies will have their employees volunteer to help with construction. Kelly said they've been meeting with Twin Ports businesses to create those partnerships.

"If everybody just gives a bit, we can make a real difference in the lives of these folks," Kelly said.

A journey of values

Huffman is a former opponent of affordable housing — he was the sole opponent on the Shoreview (Minn.) City Council to an affordable housing proposal in 2005. However, he said he realized in 2008 that his political and faith values weren't aligned. He created Journey Home Minnesota and said it has been a way to fix his previous "error in judgment."

Kelly, who had 1,000 affordable housing units built during his tenure as St. Paul mayor, was brought on as a consultant. He said he is impressed with the three-part formula Huffman uses to fund construction. One-third of a home's construction cost is covered by in-kind donations of materials and labor, and one-third is covered by donations from foundations, businesses and individuals. The homes typically cost about $300,000 each, but the duplex in Duluth is expected to cost about $450,000, said Huffman, a retired Wells Fargo home mortgage executive.

The veterans pay rent, set at about 30 percent of their income, and that goes toward a bank loan that pays for the remaining third of the construction costs.

"It's the kind of collaboration and partnership that I'm proud to be part of and I think works well and makes a lot of common sense," Kelly said.

The veterans have the option to buy their house, and about seven tenants have done so. Journey Home Minnesota also has a person check in with the veteran each month to see how things are going. The goal is to help them reach goals, whether it's buying a house, earning a degree, learning job skills or becoming a better parent, Huffman said.

"We don't care what this is, but we're going to help you get there," he said.

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