DULUTH — Stakeholders in the area's housing shortage met Tuesday, Nov. 26, at American Indian Community Housing Organization in Duluth to discuss the effects current housing challenges have on Native American communities.
U.S. Sen. Tina Smith's staff hosted the conversation as part of a statewide housing listening tour. Osman Ahmed, Smith's housing policy director, moderated the event and said it's the third listening session centered around Native American communities. The others were in Bemidji and Minneapolis.
Smith is a member of both the Senate Housing and the Senate Indian Affairs committees.
"We're not asking if there is a problem, but we're asking how we can solve the problem," Ahmed said. "What are the challenges? What is working? What is not working for communities?"
LeAnn Littlewolf, the economic development director at AICHO, said one challenge is the lack of urgency surrounding Native American homelessness. In order to make real progress in combating the issue, Littlewolf said there needs to be a better public understanding of the government's role in creating the issue.
"There is a long history of federal policy that has stripped us of our land and our economy. We had vitality, we had economy and there's a reason we don't have those things and it's directly linked to federal policy," Littlewolf said. "I think that if we could get some acknowledgement and understanding on that, I think that would go a long way."
Because Duluth sits on traditional indigenous land, Littlewolf said putting resources toward solving homelessness among indigenous communities should be nothing less than a top priority.
Janelle Soderlind, a property manager for AICHO, said it pains her to know that the CityView Flats luxury apartments were built in the Central Hillside neighborhood of Duluth when there's such a strong need in the community for low-income housing.
The CityView Flats include 105 units, 10 of which have been set aside for rent restrictions.
Soderlind suggested a solution to the problem that others in the listening session later echoed.
"A developer put that there, I get that, but why not give those developers more grants and huge tax breaks for supplying housing to a community in need," Soderlind said. "Let's try to reach developers and people with money. They want tax breaks. They want to earn something, too, so I think you could give them a little more incentives or motivations."
Soderlind also expressed concern about recent steps toward mixed-income neighborhoods, including the location of the luxury apartments across from the Steve O'Neil Apartments, which include 44 units for families experiencing homelessness.
She's worried that the new luxury apartments won't fill up because those who can afford it won't be interested in moving into a neighborhood largely occupied by people with lower incomes.
Referring to personal experience, Soderlind, who's Anishinaabe and lives in the Lakeside neighborhood, which is predominately white, added that "mixing of incomes is all well in theory, but in practice it's horrible being the person who's trying to bring the change."
Daryl Olson, director of programming at AICHO, said that one of the biggest barriers AICHO faces when trying to place people in homes is the time it takes to get those people through the coordinated entry system, which assesses the need of people who are homeless and places them onto waiting lists for housing.
AICHO often has units open for six months to a year because of how long the process takes, Olson said.
"In theory it's meant to get people housed faster; that's not what it does," Olson said of the program that was implemented in the city in 2014.
Around 20 people from various organizations attended the public listening session.
The session took place the week following the passage of two bills in the U.S. House of Representatives that, if passed in the Senate, could expand housing assistance for vulnerable communities, including Native Americans and young people aging out of foster care.
Smith is the co-sponsor of the companion bill in the Senate called Tribal Access to Homeless Assistance Grants, which would allow tribes access to grants under the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Continuum of Care Program.