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A helping hand at home

By Staff | Mar 19, 2017

Social cohesion.

It is the building up of community for the benefit of all. And, through at least one initiative in Blue Earth, it is fostered through a literal building up of the town.

Home improvement.

That is essentially the calling card of the city’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA), which director and Blue Earth city administrator Tim Ibisch says is “tasked with reducing blight and promoting home ownership.”

And it is not limited to or catered to, for that matter those with excess money looking to revitalize their property with a splashy addition.

In fact, the HRA is actually seeking to better the housing community from the bottom up, offering up to $25,000 in home repairs, as well as non-repayable grants covering as much as 50 percent of demolition project costs, for those in need. It is a service long associated with the HRA but actively advertised since the organization saw an influx of funds for forgivable loans in 2013.

And, as Ibisch notes, its benefits are twofold.

Not only are recipients of the service, who can apply for and get assistance depending on their family size and income, aided with upgraded homes, but the city is also able to up the quality of its properties and help people in the process.

“We look for realistic project ideas and also ones that’ll add value to the home or the neighborhood,” Ibisch says. “And it’s just a positive thing our community can do for itself.”

Eligible projects include repairs or improvements of everything from roofing and siding to electrical wiring and foundation work. Handicap accessibility is another big target of in-home work.

And assistance is broken down into four different loan possibilities one with 50-50 splits of repayable and forgivable funds, another with a 70-30 split, one made up entirely of repayable funds, and a separate 100-percent repayable option to be financed through a loan guarantee program.

Also on the table are residential demolitions, which the HRA can partially back. In 2017, grants covering up to half of a project’s cost can be issued, as can up to $1,500 in funds for the demolition of accessory structures, like garages.

Once the funds are in place, the borrowers are asked to select their own certified contractors for the work, and the HRA handles the finalization of project plans.

“We facilitate the loan process and ensure it is feasible,” Ibisch says. “We’re there to provide support.”

All told, the HRA has a multitude of ways to help. And if it cannot, Ibisch says the city has no problem redirecting even lower-income families to the Minnesota Valley Action Council, which offers its own rehabilitation loan program that takes into consideration a borrower’s assets.

“It’s beneficial for people to stay in their home longer,” Ibisch says. “This all helps make that possible.”

Already with more than 10 applicants for assistance in 2017, Blue Earth’s HRA had a similar number of interested homeowners inquire in 2016, when Ibisch said between five and six projects were actually completed. And at any rate, the repairs and improvements being made throughout the community represent something of an anomaly for small-town areas.

“This is very proactive,” Ibisch says. “In towns of 3,000 (people), you don’t see a lot of this.”

The backstory of HRA’s funding perhaps plays a part in why Blue Earth boasts such an active program centered on low- and moderate-income home-improvement help.

“The HRA actually has its own funding,” Ibisch says. “In the late 1980s, the federal government gave out block grants, and Blue Earth got some money.”

Those block grants, or large funding packages distributed to regional government with typically loose restrictions regarding the use of those funds, made its way into loans for small businesses around the Blue Earth community.

Leftover repayment funds from those loans, collected by the local Economic Development Authority and mostly untouched over time, were ultimately transferred to the HRA, which currently also receives operations funding from the city.

As its financial status has changed over the years, so, too, has the HRA’s role.

In also managing Blue Earth’s federally subsidized Crescent Apartments, the group is rarely lacking an opportunity to extend a helping hand.

But the ultimate goal, of course, is to assist the community to the point it no longer requires wave after wave of upgrades or improvements.

“It’s always my hope with any governmental assistance,” Ibisch says, “that the program will eventually not be needed anymore.”

For now?

With Ibisch overseeing the program alongside HRA clerk Bonnie Ankeny, HRA chairman Lars Bierly and the rest of the group, help is there for the taking.

Help with improving a home.

A family.

A neighborhood.

A city.

And maybe even social cohesion.