The “Minnesota Nice”:  A Culture of Collaboration

In and around the Twin Cities, there is a tolerance for process and building relationships to handle the pressing challenges facing neighborhoods. 

Credit that Midwestern congeniality. Or maybe there’s something in the water in the land of 1000 lakes. But whatever’s going on in Minnesota’s Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, it’s producing a culture of collaboration that is fighting the foreclosure crisis, by banding together community-based organizations, philanthropies, nonprofits, and local government agencies in ways only seen on smaller scales around the country.

The results are wide-ranging. Foreclosures in the area that spans across two counties — Minneapolis in Hennepin County and St. Paul in Ramsey County — were spread over a large area. So rather than attack the whole problem, neighborhoods were segmented strategically into smaller pieces — a “cluster approach” — as a means of neighborhood recovery, infusing capital to produce visible, immediate change on the ground.

In North Minneapolis, where neighborhoods already had a large inventory of vacant and abandoned housing and crime, drugs, and prostitution took their toll, the Hawthorne EcoVillage, developed using sustainable green building and landscaping, helped to transform a four-block neighborhood there. “Sometimes, a problems is so big that you don’t know where to start,” says Thomas Streitz, Minneapolis’ housing policy and development director.

So you start small, but you get everyone involved.

  • For instance, EcoVillage, a demonstration project in north Minneapolis received about $500,000 from the Home Depot Foundation, the National Tree Trust has a nursery there, and is a product of discussions born out of the Northside Home Fund. A project of the Northside Partnership, NHF is composed of representatives from neighborhood organizations, nonprofit housing and homeownership organizations, governmental and enforcement agencies, community development organizations, private housing developers, and financial institutions.
  • In Cottage Park, a residential development in Minneapolis’ Northside, the city teamed up with the neighborhood and the Pohlad Family Foundation (the Pohlad family is the sole owner of the Minnesota Twins) to help support this area, which was in economic decline for years. With the help of $2.5 million from the foundation, the Jordan Area Community Council, and the Minnesota-based nonprofit Tree Trust, the Jordan Area Community Garden, which is at the heart of Cottage Park and in many ways defines the area, has enjoyed a nascent renaissance.
  • There is the city’s Minneapolis Advantage program, bringing people back on the blocks in areas challenged by foreclosure by offering $10,000 loans to help potential buyers purchase a home. The money can be used to pay for closing costs, down payment, or small repairs to the home. When the Federal Home Loan Bank of Des Moines got wind of the program, it wasn’t long before the city announced that the bank and Wells Fargo would make available $1.5 million in new funding to help homeowners in more than 20 neighborhoods.
  • You have the Home Prosperity Fund, a program of the Family Housing Fund that was established two years ago to revitalize neighborhoods and increase housing opportunities for families throughout the Twin Cities area. The McKnight Foundation, a major philanthropic presence in the Twin Cities, recently gave $10 million — $5 million to the Family Housing Fund and $5 million to the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund — to help communities hit hard by foreclosures. There’s the Strategic Acquisition Fund, which started as a $10 million loan from the Greater Metropolitan Housing Corporation to buy, develop, and resell foreclosed homes, directly competing with outside investors engaging in mortgage fraud and home “flipping.”
  • The Twin Cities Community Land Bank, seeking an alternative approach, devised a program to buy properties in mortgage foreclosure, not tax forfeiture, formed a nonprofit LLC, and, as of October 2009, raised or received commitments of $30 million (it was formed five months earlier). They are making roughly $2 million of loans to NSP 1 developers (who receive a $25,000-per-unit subsidy); they’ve rolled out an $8 million program for developers who want to do neighborhood recovery, replete with green standards.

The list goes on and on, but the robust collaborative system, even in the midst of this economic climate, is the result of an existing network of partnerships between CDCs, CBOs, local governments, and foundations, that functions even when times aren’t so great. In fact, Streitz says, it’s during the tough times that this web is at its most influential and essential. “We have targeted our funds in a very strategic way,” he said, outlining a “cluster approach” to neighborhood recovery.

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