Lee Blons had been through the drill many times before, so she knew what to expect.
With more than 20 years of experience in nonprofit housing, currently with Beacon Interfaith Housing Cooperative, Blons is keenly aware what happens when you want to develop housing in a community for people some think might be undesirable neighbors.
The poor. The homeless. Former felons or addicts.
When you hold community meetings to discuss the project, those who support it or are not concerned don’t bother to attend. But the opponents always show up.
Few of them will say they don’t want that type of person as a neighbor. Instead, they’ll praise the mission of Beacon but add that “it’s not the right fit.”
If the home is proposed for a neighborhood, they suggest an industrial zone might be better. If it’s planned for an industrial zone, well, the resident might feel more comfortable in a neighborhood. They are worried about the kids, the property values, the aesthetics.
So what Blons and Beacon have learned to do is sell the plan to the community and get them to buy in so much they want to help, as well as attend important planning and City Council meetings.
That’s what happened last week, when the Edina City Council voted unanimously to approve 66 West, a housing development for teens who are homeless.
The inspiring vote came after months of work from churches and synagogues in the area, whose members wrote e-mails and made calls of support to public officials, raised money and spoke out at community meetings.
“People who are opposed are going to show up,” said Blons. But when you have more of a mix, with people who support the housing, it completely changes the tone. That doesn’t mean those questions don’t get answered.”
Suddenly it’s not just the community against an outside housing developer, even one motivated by faith and good intentions. It becomes a conversation between equals in the community.
Blons saw the phenomena happen again and again, from their Lydia Apartments near LaSalle and Franklin to Creekside Commons in south Minneapolis, where opponents put up lawn signs against the housing project.
Beacon started working the community almost three years ago, approaching religious communities, many of which were already active on homelessness and housing issues.
Members from Edina Community Lutheran Church, for example, toured another Beacon facility, Nicollet Square in Kingfield, to see what the Edina project might look like.
“They said, let’s build something like this,” said Blons.
As the idea took steam in Edina, it wasn’t out of the question to see 200 people at meetings to show support.
“It was so powerful to hear people testifying,” said Blons.
Still, Blons said she “walked into the [council] meeting Tuesday not knowing if we had the vote.”
Not only was it unanimous, council members shared their experiences with people they knew who had been homeless.
“That was just great,” Blons said.
Erik Strand, pastor of Mission and Vision for Edina Community Lutheran, said the congregation has a three-decade record of working on housing and homeless issues. During research, they came across Beacon and decided “it was an issue for our community geographically.”
As part of its capital appeal, the church decided to tithe part of that toward the effort and teamed with Beacon. Everyone got involved.
“High school kids put together a video to educate the community and one member wrote a song,” said Strand. Members spoke to other community groups about the importance of a safe place for homeless kids, attended meets and wrote to officials.
“At the end of our services we say ‘go in peace and serve the Lord,’ ” said Strand. “I thought it was a really wonderful sign and testimony to our commitment.”
Blons said that while the vote was significant, it’s only the first step to opening 66 West. They had to get city approval before raising funds for the project. In a way it’s Edina’s first step too in fulfilling its long term goals to create more diversified and affordable housing.
“This was our first suburban development,” said Blons. “It is kind of a landmark.”
Beacon’s next goal is a housing development in Wayzata.
Many of those who volunteered to make 66 West a possibility have vowed to remain committed, seeing it through the fundraising and building phases, and reaching out to the homeless teens who end up being their neighbors.
“We are committed to them going forward,” said Strand, “so that these teens can thrive as citizens.”
Many years ago there was a joke that said Edina stood for “Every Day I Need Attention,” a joke that remains on Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary.
Edina no longer needs attention, but sometimes it might just deserve it.
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin