Housing Institute model proves collaboration creates progress

This month, MHP celebrated the six year anniversary of the Housing Institute with our partners at Greater Minnesota Housing Fund — and rural housing leaders from across the state. To mark the milestone, we examined the evolution, successes and impact of this transformative program in a new white paper: “Building Community Through Collaboration.” Click here to download the full paper; keep reading for an excerpt on the impetus and structure of the Institute. 

In many regions of rural Minnesota, there’s a significant gap between the supply of affordable housing and the number of people who need it. In 2010, the Minnesota Housing Partnership, with key support from the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund (GMHF), created a new program to close that gap through collaboration and capacity building.

In just six years, the Housing Institute has proven a team-driven model can make all the difference in turning aspiration into action, and visions for community development into reality.

When the Housing Institute was launched in 2010, Minnesota was in the throes of the economic crisis. Like so many other states, it was hit with a wave of foreclosures and bankruptcies among developers. But that blow compounded challenges rural communities had faced for many years.

Rural areas already struggled with limited funding for rehabilitation of existing housing or the construction of new housing. Applying for state and federal funding, which includes complicated processes and regulations, was difficult for the small number of public servants who juggled many responsibilities. And, adding urgency to equation, many units of affordable housing built in the 1980s using federal funds were quickly reaching the end of their mortgage terms, opening the door to convert affordable units to market rate.

In response to these pressing factors, the Housing Institute was created to bring together housing leaders and stakeholders to share their experiences, learn best practices, and develop creative solutions to bring quality affordable housing to their communities.

Like the model itself, the Institute is a collaboration. MHP has taken on the lead role in convening, guiding and providing technical assistance to the Institute participants, while GMHF provides critical funding and planning support that is central to the Institute’s success. With additional funding support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Capacity Development Initiative, the Housing Institute has evolved as an in-depth 18-month program including training, peer-to-peer learning, and a focus on local housing-related needs. As of March 2016, the Institute had convened four rounds, with a total of 13 teams comprising 82 total team members representing 68 entities.

A team-based approach

Moving beyond individual leadership, the Institute relies on a group model that capitalizes on local expertise and resources. Participants form teams comprised of several entities in a region, often including city, county, Housing and Redevelopment Authority and Economic Development Authority staff. As the convener, MHP doesn’t prescribe the make-up of the team. Each Institute supports three or four teams with five to seven individual members each.

Enhancing local and regional collaboration has been a clear need articulated by the vast majority of Housing Institute participants. “Never before has there been a collaborative effort by multiple agencies to address housing in Cloquet,” the Cloquet/Carlton team explained in their 2014 application. “Potential or strengthened collaboration and partnerships [are necessary to] increase affordable housing options for Cloquet and Carlton County residents.”

Ultimately, the team included representatives from the HRA, Carlton County Public Health and Human Services, the City of Cloquet, the Cloquet Police Department, One Roof Housing and the Salvation Army.

Working together toward a specific goal

During the Institute application process, MHP prompted teams to start thinking about possible projects or programs to pursue. The application asks for three ideas, including a proposed goal or objective, the target population to be served, funding availability and how the program or project fulfills a community need.

In the most recent Institutes, teams have worked together during the first in-person gathering to prioritize ideas and, by the second meeting, reach consensus on what project to pursue. Team goals have varied from the creation of a regional services website to the building of a permanent supportive housing development — and the Institute embraces that variety with customized curriculum. Based on the teams’ goals, MHP staff tailor the Institute content to the needs of participants, with common topics including:

  • Project financing
  • Preservation of rural rental housing
  • Community engagement
  • Updates on state and federal policy
  • Navigating HUD’s Section 3 and Fair Housing and Equity Assessment
  • Communications and messaging

Sharing knowledge and building relationships

Because of the focus on collaboration, the Institute includes in-person workshops that provide an opportunity for teams to learn from expert presenters on key topics, and meet with each other and other teams in the region. To facilitate that collaboration, initial homework emphasizes team building and roles, including exercises that build understanding of the members’ backgrounds and organizations’ priorities. 

Since 2010, the Institute has hosted more than 65 individual speakers with expertise in various aspects of housing and community development. Common themes across rounds have included data acquisition and application, communication strategies, and an array of conversations about funding. And it’s not just the Institute participants that benefit: The knowledge and relationships built positively impact other players in the housing field.

“As a housing developer, Sand Companies has been able to connect with communities and regions in need of housing,” said Jamie Thelen, President and CEO of Sand Companies. “It gives us an opportunity to learn about challenges in many areas of our state and, at the same time, share some of our successes in housing. The Institute is a great collaboration that gives all attendees new ideas.”

According to Minnesota Housing Commissioner, Mary Tingerthal, the Institute benefits funders, as well. “The Institute can bring people together in a community to solve their toughest housing issues — and then connect them to the resources they need to get the job done,” she said. “We see better, more competitive applications to Minnesota Housing for scarce resources from communities that participate.”

Overcoming obstacles

Creating housing and community development is complex work. Even with the Institute’s targeted skill building, the teams still face significant obstacles. A 2016 survey of Housing Institute participants found that the most cited challenges were finding funding, maintaining momentum and working together across sectors and agencies. But survey respondents also noted that the Institute was crucial in helping them address those difficulties.


“While applying for senior housing development funding has been an incredible amount of work, the resources and support network from the Institute have helped us to work through the process,” said Rose Dunn, the Executive Director of the Mora Housing and Redevelopment Authority.  “We’ve partnered with an excellent developer, have an incredible amount of community support, as well as support from the HRA board, city and county EDAs, city council and other Institute team members.”

Team members often knew of other individuals in their region working in housing, but prior to the Institute, didn’t work together directly. The Institute changed that, uniting staff from different organizations to work on a shared project. Sometimes team members didn’t get along because of opposing agendas, were unwilling to work with someone else on a team, or didn’t put in the required time for a project. But, even when the partnerships faltered, the Institute compelled regional stakeholders to explore how they could work together.

The Institute also provided teams with an opportunity to tackle a project that they may not have had the staff capacity or knowledge to achieve on their own — and dedicated time and space away from work to focus on that particular goal.

A housing development project takes time, funding, planning and commitment from many groups. After their completion of the Institute, many teams continued to meet to see their project through. Even teams that disbanded still expressed the benefits of working with others in their region —and many members reported that the Institute resulted in additional housing development activities based on the knowledge and relationships gained through the Institute.

Stay tuned for a summary of team successes — and click here to download the full paper!