Ramsey County Commissioner Blake Huffman’s housing nonprofit is behind again on property taxes and also owes three contractors more than $160,000 for construction and design work dating back to 2017, according to six liens filed against the nonprofit over the past five months.
Huffman said Thursday that he is shutting down the nonprofit and working to sell off its assets and pay its debt.
“We’re not accepting donations anymore and haven’t been for a while now,” he said. “We’re trying to exit gracefully. Most of our properties are under contract, or soon will be, to sell in the next month or two.”
But records show that the nonprofit, Journey Home Minnesota, has been dogged by past-due payments for more than a year. Contractors last summer were threatening to walk off the nonprofit’s construction sites in Arden Hills, Vadnais Heights and the North Shore.
Journey Home has sold at least six properties over the past year but still owns about a dozen in Anoka, Ramsey, Dakota and Cook counties, according to property records. Huffman said it is trying to sell as many as possible to current tenants or veterans and families in need.
In July, the charity sold a three-bedroom house in Arden Hills to Huffman’s son, Zach, for $126,000. It had been listed for sale for over a year in the $130,000 range and had drawn no interested buyers, real estate records show.
Huffman said Journey Home had offered to sell it to a former tenant for $120,000, but the tenant declined. The county appraiser estimated its value at $123,900.
As recently as June, Journey Home purchased a lot on Victoria Street in Shoreview for $149,900. It bought the property from a for-profit limited liability company, Castle Insight LLC, that lists Huffman as its registered agent.
Huffman said he has a 10 percent ownership stake in Castle Insight and that the Victoria Street project was going to be one of Journey Home’s last. “We were approached by a veteran this spring who needed a place,” he said.
Castle Insight had paid $145,000 for the property in 2017, according to county property records. It also spent $18,000 demolishing a dilapidated house and removing trees at the site, Huffman said.
“Journey Home bought it for less than what Castle Insight had put into it,” he said.
Ramsey County appraised the property’s market value in 2018 at $162,000, $12,000 more than what Journey Home paid for it. The veteran who had approached Journey Home ultimately decided against building a house there and now the charity is trying to sell it, Huffman said.
Making it come true
Huffman, a retired vice president with Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, served on the Shoreview City Council for 16 years before he was elected to the Ramsey County Board in 2012, representing suburbs in the northern third of the county. He was reelected with no opposition in 2016.
Huffman, a Republican, announced he was running for governor in April 2017, touting his management of Journey Home Minnesota and his time on the County Board. He said at the time that Journey Home was growing statewide and announced plans to build homes in northern Minnesota. He bowed out of the race five months later.
As of Thursday, Journey Home owed about $13,000 in past-due taxes and fees to Ramsey, Anoka and Cook counties on nine properties. It paid off nearly $40,000 in overdue taxes just six months ago.
Minneapolis-based SALA Architects was hired by Journey Home to help redevelop an old fire station in Arden Hills into affordable housing. SALA worked on the plans for several months, exploring remodeling options and adding new units, said Eric Odor, SALA’s chief financial officer.
But it halted work on the project in April because it wasn’t getting paid. The firm filed a $7,075 lien against the property, the first lien the firm has filed in 35 years in business, Odor said.
“It’s too bad because it sounds like an honorable endeavor,” he said. “We were hoping to make it all come true.”
Issues with liens
Rose Enterprises LLC, a general contracting firm in Circle Pines, filed a $70,000 lien against Journey Home for unpaid construction work on a property in Vadnais Heights from January 2017 to May 2018. It also filed a $73,000 lien for work done from June 2017 to July 2018 on a property in North Oaks.
Rose filed two more liens totaling $14,000 in September, which were paid off when the properties were sold, records show.
Oakdale lumber supplier Glenbrook Building Supply filed a lien for nearly $11,000 in December on a distressed single-family property that the city of Roseville had sold to Journey Home in hopes that it would be redeveloped. Construction started last year, but the city ordered the work demolished because it didn’t meet building code standards, City Manager Patrick Trudgeon said.
Doug Seim, owner of Arktikos Custom Builders of Hovland, Minn., said he believes Huffman got in over his head.
Seim was hired by Journey Home to build a house for a wounded veteran and his wife in Hovland, near Lake Superior. He took his crew off the job for about three months when he wasn’t paid, and said at one point he was owed more than $90,000.
Ultimately he was paid and the job was finished. The veteran and his wife are in the home.
“It was not a very pleasant job,” Seim said. Huffman, he said, is “not a crook. His heart is in the right place. He is a big picture man. But he is a terrible detail man.”