City officials and banks in at least six east metro communities are dealing with properties abandoned by Journey Home Minnesota, the defunct veterans’ charity founded by former Ramsey County Commissioner Blake Huffman.
Journey Home — which at one point owned more than a dozen homes in Ramsey County that were to be rented to needy veterans — has stopped paying mortgages, maintaining the properties and returning phone calls, according to court filings and officials in Roseville, Vadnais Heights, Shoreview, Maplewood, Arden Hills and North Oaks.
Work begun by Journey Home on at least three residential construction sites has been stopped, leaving half-built homes, a dumpster, debris and, on one of the lots, a hazardous, gaping hole.
Journey Home also has defaulted on a $347,000 mortgage that Sunrise Banks issued for a home in North Oaks, according to court filings. The bank is asking a Ramsey County judge to appoint a receiver to liquidate the charity’s assets.
Huffman, 54 and a former Wells Fargo vice president, was elected to the Ramsey County Board in 2012 and resigned in June after an investigation revealed that his charity had received $60,000 from the county to buy two homes for needy families and then sold one of them to Huffman’s son Zach.
At the time, Huffman said the charity was in financial trouble. He did not return a call for comment Friday.
The investigation, which involves federal housing funds administered through Ramsey County, continues. Last month the county demanded that Journey Home fix or repay a total of $140,000 in housing assistance it had received to buy three homes that were to be used as affordable housing. The charity didn’t adhere to terms of the program, such as income restrictions, according to the documents.
The county also alleges that the charity sold two properties without permission and used a third one as loan collateral, which would be a violation of the agreement.
City officials say Huffman, who ran Journey Home while he was serving on the County Board, purchased properties and pursued partnerships with communities in and around his northern Ramsey County district. He preached the benefits of his charity but often failed to follow through, they said.
“Our initial take, like many people’s, was that he was just a guy that was too ‘big picture’ and needed a partner to take care of the details. Now we know it was little more than that,” said North Oaks City Administrator Michael Robertson.
Journey Home appears to have walked away from the North Oaks property on Hodgson Road, Robertson said. This week the home looked to be half-built, with debris and a dumpster in the overgrown yard.
North Oaks removed the dumpster at a cost of $400 and will mow the property and clean up debris. The property will be assessed for the work, Robertson said.
Roseville and Vadnais Heights have minor redevelopment deals with Journey Home that the charity defaulted on.
Roseville’s economic development authority sold Journey Home a residential property on McCarrons Boulevard through its Housing Replacement Program, a residential redevelopment program open to anyone, said City Manager Patrick Trudgeon.
The sale for $115,000 was structured as a second mortgage, with Journey Home making payments to the city. A bank holds the first mortgage.
“I know in Roseville he adhered to the program. We processed him as any other applicant would be processed,” Trudgeon said.
Journey Home relied on students learning the building trades to start construction on a new home, but the work in Roseville wasn’t up to code and had to be torn down, Trudgeon said. “It was in danger of collapsing at one point,” he said.
Huffman eventually halted work at the Roseville site and stopped paying the mortgages, Trudgeon said. City officials now are waiting for the primary mortgage lender to act.
Vadnais Heights agreed to sell Journey Home two residential sites for $75,000. Journey Home took possession of the property and built a single-family house and a twin home, but was not required to pay the city for five years under the terms of the deal, which were approved by the City Council.
“Blake had a commendable project idea, and he appeared to have a track record of success,” said Vadnais Heights City Administrator Kevin Watson.
The homes were built and rented out to veterans as planned. But Journey Home stopped paying on the first and second mortgages. The charity failed to landscape the properties or complete finishing touches, prompting neighbors to complain.
“Blake promised he would build a nice product. He didn’t fulfill that promise,” Watson said.
Watson said the Greater Metropolitan Housing Corporation (GMHC), the nonprofit that held the second mortgage, struck a deal to acquire the properties, make some fixes and do some landscaping. GMHC paid Vadnais Heights $37,500 for the property — half what Journey Home had agreed to pay the city.
“We are relieved GMHC stepped up and is willing to finish off this project. We do feel fortunate,” Watson said.
Last month, the Shoreview City Council authorized the abatement of an abandoned Journey Home demolition site on Victoria Street that had become a public nuisance and safety hazard, according to city documents. The charity had demolished a home there, excavated the site for a new foundation and then stopped work. The city is now working with a contractor who will remove debris, fill the hole and restore the property. The cost for the work will be assessed to the property after the city holds a public hearing.
Maplewood is trying to clean up an abandoned Journey Home site on Radatz Avenue that includes a house not currently habitable. The bank now owns the property, said Mike Martin, the city’s assistant community development director.
“The windows were not finished. There are open holes in the house,” he said. “We are working with the bank that now owns it to secure the site and make sure it’s safe and has no negative effects on the neighbors.”
Arden Hills has started to mow the grass outside the former Lake Johanna Fire Station, which Journey Home purchased from the fire department in 2017 for $300,000. According to property records, the vacant fire station on New Brighton Road has been assessed nearly $2,700 in nuisance fees and delinquent utilities.
The check from Journey Home cleared and the city received full payment, said Fire Chief Tim Boehlke. But there’s a lot of confusion about who owns the deteriorating property because it still bears the Lake Johanna Fire sign, and Boehlke expressed frustration.
“One of the of conditions of the sale was [Huffman] was supposed to remove the fire department signage from the building,” Boehlke said. “He assured us he would take care of that. He hasn’t.”