The Dakota County Community Development Agency has emerged as an affordable housing leader, building or renovating hundreds of homes for low-income seniors and families through public projects and partnerships with private developers.
Twenty-year resident Ken Hanson poured a cup of coffee as he joined friend John Listerud before lunch at Eagle Ridge Place in Burnsville. The Dakota County Community Development Agency has the county’s largest locally funded senior housing program, offering affordable housing for hundreds of people.
Kathleen Berg knew she would have to move when she retired.
But paying the rent with her Social Security check wouldn't be easy. She made too much to qualify for traditional affordable housing programs. Bargain apartments left her wondering about cleanliness and safety.
Then Berg found Carmen Court, an affordable apartment building for senior citizens in Inver Grove Heights, owned and managed by the Dakota County Community Development Agency (CDA). She moved in, paying a percentage of her income based on a sliding scale.
"It's not fancy, but I think it's kind of cute and cozy," Berg, 66, said of her one-bedroom apartment. "There's a big need for this."
The affordable senior housing program is one of the hallmarks of the Dakota County CDA, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this month.
But those two dozen apartment buildings sprinkled across the county -- and two more under construction -- are just a fraction of the work done by an agency that has grown from a fledgling housing authority to a community development powerhouse little known by the public but widely praised in development circles.
Their other programs have wide reach, from weatherization and traditional Section 8 public housing programs to affordable townhouse developments and financial assistance to first-time home buyers. The CDA also administers the federal community development block grants that pay for a variety of local improvements -- from playgrounds to historic building rehabilitation -- and shepherds broader economic development goals through research and financial contributions.
"They're in a league by themselves," said Jay Jensen, a former official with the Minneapolis housing authority now with Shelter Corp., a private housing development and management company that has partnered with the CDA for multiple projects. "If you want to do a blueprint for a [public] housing organization, I would say, 'I want to copy the Dakota County CDA. I want their powers. I want their mission. I'd steal the staff. Everything.'"
The CDA was formed in 1971 as the Dakota County Housing and Redevelopment Authority, with the blessing of the Dakota County Board and funding from a countywide property tax levy. From the start, it was unusual in its broad reach across an entire county; most housing agencies were specific to cities.
The agency started by managing federal housing programs, such as scattered-site public housing vouchers for low-income residents. As the county grew, so has demand for the CDA's burgeoning housing programs.
"The needs are large," said Mark Ulfers, executive director of the CDA since 1986. "We're not just here to support options for the very lowest income. We try to cover the continuum of options and services that are needed."
In 1983, they started offering loan financing and downpayment assistance to first-time home buyers. The first senior apartment building opened in 1987. To serve working-class families, the CDA started building rental townhouse complexes, financed through cash-for-tax-credit swaps with private investors. And they help private developers get financing to build or renovate other affordable multi-family housing developments.
"They've diversified themselves and they truly understand the importance of both the mission and the business," said Beth Stohr of U.S. Bank Community Development Corp., which has invested $55 million in the townhouse projects.
The agency's budget for 2010 was $53.6 million, with about $7.1 million of that coming from countywide property taxes. They also get revenue from federal and state programs, grant programs and, of course, rent.
That ability to find and leverage different pots of money has been an especially savvy strategy given the fluctuations in federal funding, said Nan McKay, a nationally known expert on affordable housing who was the founding executive director of the Dakota County agency.
"It's just so progressive in comparison to what other housing agencies have done throughout the country," McKay said.
Winning the PR battle
But in affordable housing development, funding is only one of the battles.
Tom Hedges, city administrator in Eagan, said the CDA has also proven adept at countering the sometimes negative public reaction of low-income housing developments by building architecturally attractive buildings and managing them well.
"You can't tell that they're affordable housing," Hedges said.
In Burnsville, the CDA leveraged its reputation and offered funding to enable nonprofit Community Housing Development Corp. to buy and renovate Chancellor Manor, a rundown private low-income apartment complex that was a hot spot for crime.
"It's a tough job," said Dick Brustad, vice president of Community Housing Development Corp. He credits Ulfers, who has built the trust of local officials, with convincing people that affordable housing can be an asset. "Chancellor Manor wouldn't have happened without CDA assistance."
Katie Humphrey • 952-746-3286