Blandin grant aims to spur affordable housing in northern Minnesota

an aerial photo of a housing development
The Beacon Hill housing project opened in 2016 in Grand Rapids, Minn. A new initiative will help address a shortage of affordable housing in the area.
Courtesy Greater Minnesota Housing Fund

A $1 million grant from the Grand Rapids-based Blandin Foundation is intended to spur development of more than 400 affordable housing units in Itasca County and on the Leech Lake Reservation.

The grant will help the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund add capacity to work with local communities on affordable housing projects.

“There's capital in the system, the big state appropriation,” said Blandin grants officer Kyle Erickson. “And it was just a really good moment to capitalize on that and encourage and support local leadership and help to craft some local solutions to local challenges.”

Housing is a critical issue for rural communities, said Erickson, affecting workforce development and quality of life.  

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The state legislature passed a $1.065 billion housing omnibus bill this year, the largest single housing investment in state history.

Potential projects in Itasca County and Leech Lake range from multifamily apartments to single family homes and renovation of existing homes, said Greater Minnesota Housing Fund President and CEO Andrea Brennan.

“The needs are significant, and they continue to grow, and Greater Minnesota continues to face some headwinds that are even stronger than some of the headwinds that are faced in the metropolitan area,” said Brennan.

Construction costs are high, workforce shortages add to the cost of construction and rural communities have unique housing needs.

The cost of building and rehabilitating housing in Greater Minnesota is roughly the same as in the Twin Cities metro area, said Brennan, but property values and rents are lower, complicating the economics of housing development.

The Blandin grant will allow GMHF to hire a project manager and provide support to local communities.

“To be able to support their community identified and community led solutions by adding more capacity, more technical expertise, and hopefully helping to support more of that coalition building that is already happening,” said Brennan.

This project is a unique approach to funding affordable housing, said Erickson because it focuses on resources to build capacity rather than short term projects.

“What will communities, what will organizations have, once the grant period is over that can enable them to do more and better work,” he said. “We want to give a strong shot in the arm to the system in the short term, but this is positioning the work for greater success over the long term as well.”

Erickson hopes lessons learned from this project can help affordable housing initiatives in rural communities across the state.