Casino funds should go to Indian housing

The city of Duluth has benefited from its revenue-sharing plan with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Beginning in 2005, the city earmarked approximately $3 million in Fond-du-Luth Casino gaming revenue for affordable rental and own...

The city of Duluth has benefited from its revenue-sharing plan with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Beginning in 2005, the city earmarked approximately $3 million in Fond-du-Luth Casino gaming revenue for affordable rental and owner-occupied housing. This money went into the city's Housing Investment Fund to support housing efforts where gaps exist in financing. By ordinance, up to $600,000 from the fund is designated for a housing project with an attached American Indian Center, as endorsed by the Duluth American Indian Commission.

On Sept. 24, the City Council was asked to decide whether to loan $600,000 to the American Indian Community Housing Organization -- or AICHO, a Duluth-based nonprofit organization -- for a permanent supportive housing project at the city's historic downtown YWCA building. The council's answer should have been a resounding "yes."

First, by law, the money couldn't be loaned or spent for any purpose other than Indian housing -- unless, of course, councilors change the law, something that's actually, and ironically, on their agenda for Tuesday.

Second, nearly 40 percent of the American Indians in Duluth are under-housed or homeless, and 75 percent of the proposed project's units would be designated for families with children.

Third, AICHO has secured millions in federal and state financing for its 29-unit housing project, money that's now in jeopardy because of the rejection of the loan from the city.


People in our community have worked hard to develop a plan for this project that made sense. But the City Council voted 5-4 against it. The Duluth Indian community was stunned, and the sense of betrayal was deep (especially since all other Housing Investment Fund applications had been approved). Housing advocates from across Minnesota were equally shocked.

Without this loan, AICHO's application for $3 million in financing from the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency (MHFA) is jeopardized. The nonprofit also stands to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in other federal and private financing that was dependent on the other commitments. In the end, the loss to the Duluth construction industry would total nearly $7 million.

Council members who voted against the project voiced nonpartisan objections that defied logic.

One objected to the location, suggesting that a nicer neighborhood with more green space would be more appropriate for children. But the proposed location has an accredited day care facility, a rooftop playground and a full gymnasium. In addition, the project includes educational and cultural opportunities in an adjoining American Indian Center. The Duluth American Indian community's response to the location concern: "Show us the nicer neighborhood that would welcome an Indian housing project."

Another council member objected to the "interior decorating," specifically the possible use of turtles. While Indian symbolism includes many animals, he said the turtle represents death in one culture and that he wouldn't discriminate against those who are offended by turtles.

At least two council members wanted Indian housing money to be reallocated to roads, although these same members voted to transfer more than $1 million in "road" money from the city's Community Investment Trust Fund to pay for a replacement of Peterson Arena.

Since most people who need support in housing lack transportation, the YWCA location is perfect for this project. It would be adjacent to the proposed American Indian Center and within walking distance of job-training services, social services, medical services and other supportive counseling.

The AICHO housing project is worthwhile, long overdue and would decrease homelessness in downtown Duluth, which would be good for downtown business. Studies have proven that when under-housed populations have access to affordable housing, other costs to cities associated with families in crisis dramatically decrease. Those other costs include the need for police, shelters and treatment centers.


There's still time for the City Council to approve this project. If nothing else, councilors should keep in mind that Housing Investment Fund money is generated from revenues from Fond-du-Luth Casino through an agreement between the Fond du Lac Band and the city of Duluth. Notably, this revenue-sharing plan expires this year, and Duluth must renegotiate its terms with the tribal council. Regardless of a person's position on gambling, this plan has worked well to serve all citizens of Duluth. It would be a travesty if the only population left out in the cold was Indian.

Tadd Johnson of Duluth is enrolled with the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, is special council on government affairs for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and co-hosts a nationally broadcast native news television series produced in Duluth.

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