Supporters of American Indian housing project persist on funding

Supporters of an American Indian housing project are hoping the City Council reconsiders its decision to deny a request for money from Duluth's housing investment fund.

Supporters of an American Indian housing project are hoping the City Council reconsiders its decision to deny a request for money from Duluth's housing investment fund.

But three of the five who voted against the request say they have no plans of changing their vote Tuesday, the deadline to do so.

The project, developed by the American Indian Community Housing Organization, or AICHO, has been in the works for more than two years, and is planned for the historic YWCA building on West Second Street. The $7 million in renovations will allow for an American Indian Center supported by the Duluth American Indian Commission, and 29 housing units. It has garnered support from several agencies. About 80 percent of the project total will be secured by the end of October, without the $600,000 requested of the city, said Sherry Sanchez Tibbetts, executive director of AICHO.

The YWCA has a purchase agreement with AICHO and is hopeful the project can move forward.

"We're thrilled to have a buyer who would use this building so much in accord with our mission ... of empowering women and girls and eliminating racism," said Ellen O'Neill, executive director of the YWCA, which has already begun making the transition. "I hope the councilors change their mind and make this possible."


But housing investment fund money comes from the community trust fund, where interest from the city's share of Fond-du-Luth Casino profits is primarily used for street improvements, said Councilor Russ Stewart, who voted against the proposal.

When the council two years ago voted to divert some of that money to create the housing investment fund, Stewart voted against it, he said. He plans to ask fellow councilors Tuesday night to return money that went into the housing investment fund back to the community investment fund for road repair.

"I think it should go back to streets," Stewart said. "My vote had nothing to do with the merits of the project."

Councilor Jim Stauber agreed, saying he has voted against every project that requests money from the housing fund, which he believes should be paying for street improvements.

"I would love the administration to go to a different pot of money of a less essential service [to give to the project]," he said.

Councilor Roger Reinert wants the project to go forward, but said supporters failed to educate councilors about their plans in a timely manner. He also wanted to hear why other locations weren't viable, and said having another low-income housing project in downtown Duluth segregates that population.

"When put into that same four-block area that includes virtually all the other major services targeted at low-income, minority and folks with chemical addictions, it makes me very uncomfortable," he said. "I want these things integrated better throughout the community."

A 2003 survey for the Duluth area by the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, a nonprofit health and human services organization in St Paul, found that 33 percent of all homeless in the area were American Indian, who make up only about 3 percent of the area's population, Sanchez Tibbetts said.


The YWCA was the most viable building, and was in an area surveyed people liked because of its accessibility to services, she said.

The YWCA houses administrative offices and 55 low-income residents, but provides no support services. To continue to be sustainable, it needs to sell the building, O'Neill said.

Under AICHO, services would include on-site job training and counseling, domestic violence counseling and education, recreational services and a mini-wellness clinic. The YWCA's child-care center would remain in place. Many who live there now would be eligible to stay, or offered relocation money. The new operation would allow residences to homeless families, people earning minimum wage and paying more than 30 percent of pay for rent, survivors of domestic violence and the elderly.

Aside from the American Indian Center that would be open to all, the building would have a gym, exercise facility, make use of the existing new roof-top playground and auditorium for feasts, and offer a 24-hour service desk and case managers for families.

"It's a well thought-out plan that truly lives up to its Ojibwe name: Gimaadjii Mino-Bimaadiziyaan, we are all of us together beginning a good life," Sanchez Tibbetts said. "It means the spiritual, mental and emotional needs of a person are met and kept in balance. That's what ... we've envisioned for this project."

If the City Council doesn't reverse its decision, Sanchez Tibbetts is uncertain of the project's future.

"It will be challenging, if possible," she said.

AICHO plans for renovations to be completed by spring of 2009. More than $3 million is coming from the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, and historic tax credits will be awarded by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. More fundraising is planned.


Not being awarded the requested $600,000 from city coffers was "like getting a hammer over the head out of the blue," said Steve O'Neil, a St. Louis County commissioner who is co-chairman of the mayor's commission to end homelessness.

"They took $1 million out of that fund for the new hockey center," he said. "I didn't hear this big hue and cry about, 'Oh gosh, this money has to go to streets.' Most all of us would agree we needed this hockey center ... and most would agree that an American Indian Center with supportive housing makes a lot of sense."

JANA HOLLINGSWORTH covers American Indian issues. She can be reached at (218) 279-5501 or by e-mail at .

What To Read Next
Get Local