TAPESTRY: How Housing Impacts My Community

Heidi Omerza, Mayor of Ely

I was on bedrest pregnant with my fourth and final child.  I was reading everything; so desperate that I even read the minutes to the City Council meetings.  I was taken aback by what was happening, but soon running a  busy household with three boys and a baby girl made that a distant memory.

About 18 months later, a few people mentioned that I should run for office —  some suggested school board, others recommended city council.  As an educator, I decided being on the school board would be difficult — too close to the heart — so I ran for city council and was the top voter getter.  I was the first female council member in a long time, the youngest, and was the only one with children in the school district. During my council terms, I was the League of Minnesota Cities President, the Coalition of Minnesota Cities President, and the Greater Minnesota Cities President.

Now I am in my first term as Ely’s mayor. I am the second female mayor of Ely — and the first married mayor. I am thrilled to say that there are now other women on the council, two are younger than me with children in the school district.

We are living with the trifecta of issues: workforce, housing, and childcare. It is expensive to live and therefore build in Ely. Ely is a small landlocked city that is at the beginning of the road, so there is no thru traffic for truck routes. That means it is expensive to transport items to Ely and adds to the cost of building supplies. There also is no source of piped heating into houses; we have propane or oil trucks with delivery routes. Another hurdle is the lack of housing developer interest in Ely. The city has done its due diligence and completed a housing study; the Housing Redevelopment Authority has a waiting list for 50-plus units at market rate.

Krista Hartman, Realtor in Ortonville

I fell into real estate a few years ago when someone in our small town of Ortonville, near the South Dakota border, asked my husband and I to help with the business. Then the pandemic hit. The housing market benefitted from record-low interest rates on mortgages; low supply led to record-high sales in terms of dollars. Now we are in a strange period of rebalance. Over the past year, interest rates have climbed from the mid-2s to the mid-7s, currently settling into the 6s.

We have a childcare crisis in the area. People in our town of 2,000 are brainstorming ways to develop a childcare center, or create a pod space where a few family daycares could operate. Some families are driving to neighboring towns to have a place for their kiddos to go. Many families will switch on and off with shift work, or make the tough call to have one parent stay home. As of now we don’t have the solution to the problem; the ripple effect is immense. The school district has taken on a daycare with slow-moving success, but the school has no space to expand it and little to no help from state funds in regards to helping finance a project. Our incredible rural healthcare facility is working with the community to try to help in whatever way they can.

I was recently speaking with a resident in his mid-20s who rents an apartment in town. He had reached out asking about steps he could take to start looking into the home-buying process as he was feeling a bit defeated and frustrated with his current living conditions. He told me his landlord lived out of state — not even in the midwest — and it was incredibly difficult to reach him for much-needed repairs on his apartment. There are some great landlords n the area, but with so few rental options some people get stuck in frustrating rental situations.

Unfortunately, we do not have much housing development in our area. Low-income housing is incredibly difficult to find in our area. We have folks calling into the office weekly asking whether we know of any rentals or contract-for-deed sellers.

The good news: Ortonville has Fairway View — a beautiful, new independent living facility, assisted living facility, and  nursing home all on the same campus. They recently had to close the small memory care unit, but everything else is running smoothly and with great success.

As the proud head coach of our area’s Special Olympics crew, I am pleased that we do have incredible options in housing and care for individuals with developmental disabilities. The manager of local Monarch Heights group home spoke to the state legislature last year to support a bill for better pay and wages for staff working in these settings. We are very happy that it passed.

Tonya Brownlow, Executive Director of Emma Norton Services on trauma-informed housing

I have been working to serve unhoused folks for over 25 years in the Twin Cities. In the last ten years, while leading Emma Norton Services, we have leaned into the unique needs of those with complex trauma backgrounds of homelessness, poverty, racism, and violence.  In addition to having a safe place to live, facilitating recovery means people need trusted relationships that embrace the humanity in everyone. We recognize the power that a culturally diverse staff adds to attaining our mission. We are excited about a new space, Restoring Waters, that will serve 60 individuals and small families in the Highland Bridge neighborhood of Saint Paul, which is set to open in April.

Restoring Waters was created with architectural lens that incorporates principles of trauma-informed and healing-based design that enhance autonomy and choice, trust and transparency, safety, collaboration and peer relationships. Above all else, the intention is to create spaces that feel homier and less institutional. For example, we created alcove apartment units, rather than studios. Having a partially walled-off bedroom space gives our residents the ability to have guests in their unit, without needing to expose their most private space. This is especially important for people in recovery from homelessness, who are more likely than the general population to have experienced sexual violence.

Each of the floors has program spaces with different purposes — exercise, meditation, art, cooking, connection, and gardening. With these unique spaces, residents will be able to attend activities and classes that celebrate their cultures.

Emma Norton Services was initially dedicated to serving women and children; it is now more gender expansive. The organization was founded in 1917 when Emma Norton gave a gift to United Methodist Women to fund a program to support young women and girls in Minnesota. That gift led to creation of the “Methodist Home for Girls” to house young women traveling to the Twin Cities from rural Minnesota for work and education.

LeAnn Littlewolf, Co-Executive Director of American Indian Community Housing Organization

I work at the American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO) in Duluth, a nonprofit created to apply cultural strategies to real life social issues, like community and domestic violence, systemic housing crisis, and deeply embedded economic disparities based on race. We approach our work with an Indigenous mindset and our best efforts to move forward, staying true to our core cultural teachings and practices. 

The Indigenous mindset matters when we encounter crisis or difficult situations because it guides us in how we take care of one another. 

At AICHO, we are not quick to evict residents. We work to help residents determine a path that works for them. Gimaajii provides safe housing with built-in recognition that families and individuals have experienced a high level of trauma, stress, and uncertainty for an extended time, which requires a high level of care, support, and room to recover and reclaim lives. 

In truth, Indigenous peoples are all working to recover and reclaim our lives. We do so most effectively when we rest within our cultural strengths. We have solutions for ourselves, and we believe these solutions hold value for the world. 

In Minnesota, we have a critical housing challenge. We believe we absolutely can make our homelands a home for everyone, with more immediate housing options and effective cultural strategies. One of our core traditional commitments is that every community member always has a home. 

Find a full story from LeAnn here

Becky Cole, Advocate for Home Owners Association regulation

Becky Cole

This year, I would love to see conversations across all audiences involved with HOAs come to an agreement on best practices and accountability. If a home has mold or a structural problem, there are remedies for the homeowner. But if an HOA structure is not solid, sound, or ethical, there is very little recourse for the homeowner.

I know of a homeowner who got a permit from the city to build a shed on her property. The bylaws don’t prohibit it, and it’s a beautiful structure, but the HOA board decided they wanted her to remove it, or they would remove it and bill her for the attorney’s and removal fees.

I asked the city council why an HOA can function as a government agency, with more authority than the city, a council member’s response was, “We don’t have the time to check addresses when we issue permits.” My county commissioners insisted that it is not their job to get involved in “disputes between neighbors.”

To a certain extent, they are right, but if a builder’s contract is awarded that sets homeowners up for potential exploitation, why aren’t they working to correct that instead of making excuses for it? I want to see conversations across sectors, recognizing that things need to change. This is a policy year with the Minnesota legislature.

Find a full commentary from Becky here