The Duluth Council voted last week to kill the final two years of a five year Housing Investment Fund. It whacked a total of $1.2 million from future housing projects. The fund is used as seed money to draw state and federal housing cash. So far, it's been used to build or renovate more than 334 homes and apartments.
Herb Bergson is just six weeks from ending his term as Duluth Mayor. Bergson proposed the housing fund, and he says the program could be his legacy.
“For jobs, for tax base, for the benefit of the city as a whole, this program is a good thing.”Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson
"Everybody deserves to have a decent home. And children don't make choices," Bergson says. "They're forced into situations that aren't fair sometimes. And most of our homeless creation today is children."
Bergson says he feels strongly about housing because there was a time he was close to being homeless himself.
"The fact is, it could have been any one of us," says Bergson. "And my family was on the edge at one point in our lives, when my mother, who had a job at the airbase, lost it overnight. Suddenly she was jobless with three children as a single mother. And, we could have been one of these statistics. We could have been out on the street."
But Bergson says there are sound financial reasons to keep the program. He says $1.25 million spent has returned more than $44 million in construction. He says it's created more than 200 construction jobs and generated new property taxes.
"Set aside the social justice and just talk about what's good for the community," Bergson says. "For jobs, for tax base, for the benefit of the city as a whole, this program is a good thing."
Among the fund's accomplishments is an American Indian housing project, recently approved by the city council. Ricky Defoe is a member of the Duluth American Indian Commission.
"This is a good thing for the people of Duluth," Defoe says. "Particularly for the American Indian Community. These initiatives that are coming forth are powerful. They bring hope to many of our people."
And it's not lost on Defoe or Bergson that the money in the housing fund has come from the city's share of the Fond-du-Luth gaming casino - owned by the Fond Du Lac band of Ojibway.
But council members who killed the program last week say they'll try again.
Russ Stewart says there are other priorities.
"It sounds nice to fund things like housing," Stewart says. "Everybody thinks housing's good, which it is. But our sewer systems are falling apart. Our streets are falling apart. It's very easy to neglect that and do things that are more popular, like housing."
Council member Jim Stauber says there's still a way to kill the program. Stauber says there aren't enough votes to over-ride Bergson's veto, but there might be enough to strike the housing money from the next city budget.
"We handle the budget, not the mayor," Stauber says. "As long as the majority decide we do not want to fund the housing investment program any longer, and we want that money to go back into street improvements, I think the council will have the final say for next year's budget."
Stauber says a final city budget vote comes up December 17th. That gives Mayor Herb Bergson about three weeks to sway at least one member of the council to his side of the housing flap.