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Frogtown Rondo Home Fund promotes housing stability in a fast-changing neighborhood

“The central idea is to make strategic innovations that are catalytic for the community where it will matter most,” says Gretchen Nicholls.

The Frogtown and Rondo district of St. Paul are poised for big changes.

Light-rail trains will stop there on the way from downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul when the Green Line opens next spring. Thanks to a strenuous community organizing campaign, there will be four stops in the community rather than two, as originally planned. Better public transit opens up more opportunities for people living in the area (which straddles I-94 between Lexington Avenue and Marion Street, Selby Avenue and Pierce Butler Route), and a spate of new housing and business development is expected to rise along the route.

This district is one of the most diverse pockets in the metropolitan region, home to the Hmongtown Marketplace and a growing cluster of Asian restaurants that draw diners from all over. No single demographic group dominates Frogtown Rondo. There are large concentrations of Asians, African and Latin-American immigrants as well as longstanding communities of African-Americans and European-Americans.

St. Paul Public Schools has also made substantial improvement to schools in the area.

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“We have an obligation to see that the folks living here are still around to enjoy the benefits of all these public investments,” says Andy Barnett, city of St. Paul coordinator for the Frogtown Rondo Home Fund.

Too often low-income residents are forced out when neighborhoods start to revive economically. The Rondo neighborhood at the south end of the district has its own heartbreaking history of displacement, which occurred when I-94 ripped through the heart of St. Paul’s African-American business district, dividing and dispersing the community.

More than 30 partners involved

The Frogtown Rondo Home Fund (FRHF) was formed last spring to increase housing stability for low-income residents of the area through a wide-ranging public-private collaboration between more than 30 partners.

“FRHF brings together resident organizations, community development corporations, local government, community institutions, service providers and foundations to significantly improve housing conditions in the neighborhoods, with a special focus on preserving and producing affordable housing,” explains Barnett.

It’s modeled on the North Side Housing Fund in Minneapolis, notes Gretchen Nicholls, program officer at the Twin Cities office of the Local Initiative Support Corporation, which has provided financial and staff assistance to the project as part of its mission to support communities who are working collaboratively on transformative solutions to the their problems. LISC focuses its work on five low-income communities in the region, including the Central Corridor.

“The central idea is to make strategic innovations that are catalytic for the community where it will matter most,” Nicholls says. This includes stabilizing older single-family homes that are predominant in the area as well as the multifamily units that are usually the focus of affordable housing initiatives.

Seeking visible impact

“At first we want to guide development in small areas so the impact will be visible and unmistakable,” says Barnett. They are now focusing on 6- to 8-block areas near Maxfield Magnet School, Jackson Preparatory Magnet School and the Church of St. Agnes campus with a series of services provided directly to both tenants and homeowners:

  • foreclosure prevention counseling;
  • home buyer education;
  • home improvement loans;
  • redevelopment of vacant properties;
  • education and organizing that addresses systemic threats to residents’ housing stability; and
  • assistance for people plagued by poor rental histories, low credit scores or legal records.

 “We are not primarily a housing funder,” Barnett stresses. “This is a roll-up-your-sleeves and figure-out-new-ways-to-make-things-work effort.”

A version of this article appeared on the LISC website.