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Rebuilding More than Houses

When a tornado ripped through the north side of Minneapolis in May 2011, one of the first groups to respond alongside police, firefighters, and city crews was Urban Homeworks--a nonprofit group based in the neighborhood that buys and rehabilitates low-income houses as part of its mission to reknit the social fabric of Twin Cities communities.

Urban Homeworks wound up coordinating all volunteers for the cleanup, deploying more than 3,000 people in the first week to get the neighborhood back on its feet.

Jon Lundberg, the group’s construction program manager, notes, “The tornado made a lot of people realize there was another disaster going on in North Minneapolis at the same time--foreclosures.”  

He points out that 50 percent of the foreclosures in the entire Twin Cities metropolitan area were concentrated in this corner of Minneapolis.  People living outside North Minneapolis owned most of the foreclosed properties, but the effects were devastating within the neighborhood, as families were forced out of their homes, often with only 24 hours' notice, when landlords defaulted on mortgages.

So as soon as the cleanup was over, Urban Homeworks was back at work renovating abandoned or rundown houses with crews made up of volunteers from churches and businesses as well as trainees from low-income neighborhoods who wanted to learn the construction trade. The organization takes possession of dilapidated properties, fixes them up, and sells the single-family homes and rents the apartments.  In the wake of the tornado, they now have 20 projects underway in North Minneapolis, along with others in South Minneapolis and St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood.

“We’re not just in the construction business, we’re in the community-building business,” Lundberg explains.

Building Confidence, Too

That’s why the faith-based group measures its success not just by the more than 200 people now living in “dignified housing,” but also by the new confidence that at-risk youth and unemployed adults discover by participating in Urban Homeworks’ crews.  “We want to give them whatever skills are necessary to  help them find jobs and make a better life,” Lundberg explains.  “That means construction skills but also workplace skills, communications skills, job interview skills.”

“Our idea is to empower people to meet their own needs,” Lundberg stresses. “And LISC Twin Cities empowers us to do that.”

LISC is the local branch of the Local Initiative Support Corporation, a national organization with more than 30 offices around the country that aids residents of distressed communities.  Twin Cities LISC (a sponsor of The Line) partnered with Urban Homeworks to hire additional staff in order to expand their training efforts.  

Lundberg notes that Urban Homeworks hired two young men, who joined thanks to a LISC/Americorps partnership, for full-time positions.  Brandon Dickson is now a site supervisor and Cody Menning is a construction program coordinator. “They’ve done amazing work for us already,” he says.

Chris Wiger, assistant program manager at LISC Twin Cities, notes that this project exemplifies his group’s philosophy of CO-ACTION (Connecting Opportunity And Community Transformation in Our Neighborhoods), which he describes as making necessary physical improvements in low-income communities at the same time as strengthening the morale and capacity of local residents.

East Side Pride

LISC also partners with Dayton’s Bluff Neighborhood Housing Services (DBNHS) on a similar project on St. Paul’s East Side, another community hard hit by foreclosures. Almost twenty percent of all units in the area have been foreclosed on, according to the organization’s director, Jim Erchul. This increases homelessness and the threat of properties falling into disrepair. The crisis has propelled his organization to redouble its efforts to buy and fix up abandoned homes.

DBNHS works with City Academy, the nation’s first charter school, to offer construction experience to at-risk youth. “Some of our students have gone on to jobs in construction, while many others learned how to fix up their own houses,” notes school director Milo Cutter.  “Just as importantly, it teaches work skills they will use in any job: promptness, responsibility, respect, time management, initiative taking, problem solving.”

In fact, Cutter notes, a licensed contractor who has supervised City Academy’s work crews, Chia Yang, was himself a student at the school in the 1990s.

Jay Walljasper specializes in writing about cities, travel, and social issues.  He is author of The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, and is editor of OnTheCommons.org.  .

Photo of an Urban Homeworks crew courtesy Urban Homeworks.
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