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Rebuilding Together to aid in rehabbing local homes

$275,000 in grants were received to establish a southwest Minnesota affiliate of Rebuilding Together. A full-time employee will be hired to work in Cottonwood, Nobles and Jackson counties.

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Rebuilding Together-Twin Cities has a ramp-building team that goes out to construct ramps for low-income individuals who can't afford to hire it done. (Special to The Globe)

WINDOM — After nearly 24 years of work in the Twin Cities and other metro areas of the state, Rebuilding Together is branching into southwest Minnesota.

Earlier this month, the agency announced it will establish its first-ever Greater Minnesota office to serve residents of Cottonwood, Jackson and Nobles counties.

The decision came about after Drew Hage, economic development director for the city of Windom, reached out to Rebuilding Together as the city searched for ways to help fund housing rehabilitation.

With Pam Dobson, a former Habitat for Humanity coordinator who relocated from Luverne to Windom, serving on the Windom Housing and Redevelopment Authority board, an idea blossomed to rehab local homes for people who either couldn’t afford it or didn’t have the means to do so. It would be a little like Habitat for Humanity with the use of volunteers, but not quite as intensive — and no building of new homes.

“You could do something as simple as focusing on grab bars,” Hage said. “Some people aren’t able to do that and don’t have family around.”

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Helping residents with maintenance projects prolongs the life of the home.

“With Worthington and Windom, our housing is extremely tight and it’s been really tight for a while,” Hage said. In Windom, the two largest employers — HyLife at 980 employees and Toro with 950 employees — are still growing and looking for help. The problem is a lack of housing to bring people to town.

“Windom should have 50 homes on the market with a vacancy rate of 5%,” Hage shared. “There were 17 homes on the market two weeks ago. Market rate rentals are pretty much non-existent.”

Hage said the city needed to study how a potential housing rehab program would work. Could it be supported by one county, or would it take two or three?

He thought of the Highway 60 and Interstate 90 corridor initiative with Nobles and Jackson counties, and the joint work the three counties have done in economic development. A partnership made sense with the housing availability struggles in all three counties.

Hage reached out to the Southwest Initiative Foundation about a study, which ultimately led to a connection with Rebuilding Together.

“We’d been doing some projects in Rochester and St. Cloud through corporate partners, and we’d been having conversations about having a program office (in Greater Minnesota),” Rebuilding Together Executive Director Kathy Greiner said. “Drew called our national office and then called us about starting an affiliate in the Windom area. It came down to being invited.”

A market analysis was conducted and, realizing the needs in this part of the state, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for Rebuilding Together to branch out in this area.

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“There’s a high influx of immigrants and definitely a need for stable housing,” Greiner said. “There’s not an overabundance of the services we are offering, so we felt we could make an impact.”

Greiner said their Twin Cities office will provide all of the back office functions so that a local staff person can concentrate on delivering services.

Greiner is hopeful Rebuilding Together can hire someone for the southwest Minnesota affiliate office prior to the spring construction season. The agency was taking applications through the end of this month.

Rebuilding Together’s efforts will focus on making repairs to keep people in their homes, particularly for low-income individuals. To qualify for assistance, individuals must own their home or be current on their mortgage, be older than 55 or younger than 18, or be disabled, a veteran or a member of the armed services.

“We look at a duplex or triplex if the owner lives in one of the units,” Greiner said. “The family has to be at 50% of the area median income or lower, and they will receive services at no charge to them.

“We’re trying to take care of those deferred maintenance items — anything in the home that breaks down, like normal wear and tear,” she added. “We’re looking at fixing the home so it’s safe, warm and dry.”

The work can include everything from roof repairs to electrical and plumbing work, window and siding installation, HVAC, landscaping and other home upgrades.

Rebuilding Together’s accessibility program will also be offered locally, providing services such as construction of ramps and home modifications to prevent falls.

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Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Greiner said 90% of the maintenance and rehab work on homes was done by volunteers. She hopes the same model will work well here.

“Any volunteer projects we do — at least for the first part of the year — will be outdoor projects so volunteers can stay socially distanced,” she said. “We will focus on ramps and roofing for the first part of the year.”

With volunteers providing the work, Greiner said their agency relies on donations from individuals and corporations, and does a significant amount of grant writing, to pay for the materials needed.

“We are excited to get going down there,” Greiner said, noting that people can learn more about what the agency does by visiting rebuildingtogether-twincities.org.

Rebuilding Together secured $275,000 in grants to establish its affiliate office in southwest Minnesota. The full-time employee to be hired by the agency will be responsible for finding projects, volunteers, contractors and financial donors.

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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