Many of us drive by encampments and other signs of pervasive homelessness every day. Regardless of our politics, it is evident that housing costs are too expensive for many Americans. With cries for rent control, more affordable housing and “we want housing units, but not here,” it is hard to be optimistic about solving the intractable problems we associate with affordable housing.
With little fanfare, Aeon, a metro-area nonprofit housing provider, quietly addresses these problems while steadily building capacity to grow and help more families and individuals. With more than 5,700 housing units in Minneapolis, St. Paul and the suburbs, Aeon provides a wide range of housing opportunities for people experiencing homelessness and those with low incomes — the people who struggle most in a dysfunctional housing market.
For well over three decades, Aeon has changed the life stories of people struggling with the high cost of housing. A mother of two says, “I needed space to breathe. But finding an affordable home for your family here is hard, especially if you are a single parent. There are so many waiting lists.” So Aeon provided an apartment, allowing each of her two children to have a bedroom — a luxury they likely never considered.
Aeon was created in 1986 to replace housing lost to the construction of the Minneapolis Convention Center. It soon became one of the most aggressive nonprofit housing developers in Minnesota. Its various properties now house over 16,000 people throughout the year.
Nonprofit housing organizations like Aeon distinguish themselves in the marketplace by the level of services to tenants. And those services are scaled according to need — some families need more intensive services than others, and some require little more than a quality, affordable place to live.
Alan Arthur, Aeon’s president and CEO, points to his board of directors and staff when asked about the success of their organization. He also cites the use of policy governance — an organizational model of differentiating between governance and management roles within clearly stated policies.
But adopting and implementing board policies are two very different things. Arthur may defer Aeon’s success to board and staff, but they come and go. Arthur spent 33 years leading the organization. Now he is transitioning from Aeon to do other things. That is a long time to balance the potential conflicts of interest, the challenges of nonprofit housing development and the temptation of a board of directors to micromanage staff. And these issues are particularly tough in the realm of nonprofit housing.
During those years of service, Arthur and Aeon collected more than a few awards and much recognition: developer of the year, a Minnesota nonprofit award for mission and excellence, a community hero award, and the Jack Kemp Excellence in Affordable and Workforce Housing Award.
Beyond that, Aeon is widely admired in all sectors: the world of business, nonprofit organizations and philanthropists, and government officials laud their accomplishments. The latter group, the staff of state and federal housing agencies, are not easily impressed. Their role is to interpret and implement legislation, and the role of advocates for affordable housing is to push the bureaucracy. Nevertheless, there are few in government housing agencies who would not say that Arthur has balanced his role with professionalism and passion.
If developing and sustaining housing for low-income people struggling and working in an era of gross inequality was easy, there would be more of it. Instead, Aeon is a rare success story in a world of policy failures and federal government neglect. And Arthur is an outspoken critic of imbalanced housing subsidies. Since the 1980s, the federal government has provided more subsidies to wealthy homeowners than renters. Substantially more.
This imbalance of resources, the stagnation of working-class wages, and the challenges of developing housing that working people can afford begs the question: Why did you do it for over 30 years? If pressed, Arthur cites the inspiration his mother and grandfather provided while he was growing up: “Please do your best and make the world a better place.”
Fortunately, Arthur found the appropriate staff and board members with similar motivations, and together they built an impressive organization confronting one of the most intractable issues our communities face. How do we create and sustain quality affordable homes that strengthen lives and communities? That became Aeon’s mission statement. They created policies to ensure success and partnered with whoever shared their concerns.
Now more than ever, federal policies are out of alignment with the needs of citizens. For 40 years, many have waited for policy solutions. Not Arthur. He has been at the center of a housing movement that will not wait. Instead, they push, pull, persuade and test the conscience of those around them. They roll up their sleeves and respond to community needs with what they have — they do their best.
Imagine what could happen if we gave organizations like Aeon the resources they need? If we had done that decades ago, fewer of our fellow citizens would be in encampments and on the street.
If federal policies ever do change, the work of Alan Arthur, Aeon, and like-minded people and organizations offers dynamic models to build upon and scale-up. And maybe our government will eventually bring equity to federal housing expenditures. But in the metro-area, there are more than 16,000 people grateful to those at Aeon for their work — thankful they have a decent, affordable place to call home each year.
These are challenging times, making it all the more necessary to celebrate success stories like those of Aeon, its many residents, the Aeon staff members and board of directors, and, of course, Alan Arthur.
Keith Luebke recently retired from teaching nonprofit leadership courses and has several decades of experience directing nonprofit organizations.