EP Housing and Community Services provide bountiful resources for residents.
You’ve probably strolled many times above the offices of Eden Prairie’s Housing and Community Services Division and didn’t even know it.
That’s because the office is in the basement of Eden Prairie Center, tucked underneath center court. It’s reachable by stairs or elevator from the mall’s first level near Von Maur.
This modest city outpost off the beaten track since 2004 from the bustle of the mall belies its supportive reach. From here, the four-person staff works on affordable housing initiatives and providing assistance, information, and referrals to the community, notably immigrants and seniors.
“For a small outfit, we have a pretty long reach,” said Jonathan Stanley, housing and community services manager. “It’s gratifying knowing that you’re helping new folks and (current) residents as well.”
The majority of people in Eden Prairie are white, according to the latest census figures. But, dig deeper into the demographics, and the numbers show the city is a melting pot of many cultures.
“It’s surprising that when we plan for an event like PeopleFest! (the annual community celebration of culture), for example, how many different cultures have an interest in being represented,” he said. “It is a diverse community both in terms of those characteristics and in terms of income. It doesn’t always feel that way.”
Stanley and his staff—Mohamed Duale, Jeanne Karschnia, and Megan Yerks—each play a role in carrying out the division’s expansive mission. According to the city’s website, “Housing and Community Services help people access programs and find the information they need to lead healthy and full lives in the community.”
Services run the gamut from first-time homebuyer and housing rehabilitation programs to immigrant services and senior resources, including a senior emergency repair program. The division is one of four divisions that make up the city’s Community Development Department.
“Everybody in our office has a passion for helping people,” Stanley said. “The development stuff thrills me. That’s my wheelhouse, where I’ve spent most of my career.”
His focus indeed is on housing issues, specifically finding ways to “get more affordability in our community.”
Before coming to Eden Prairie nearly three years ago, Stanley worked for the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, describing it as the state’s affordable housing bank.
“We’re looking at an affordable housing trust fund, which would store funds for various types of housing activities,” he said of his Eden Prairie duties. “We’re also looking at some strategies to preserve naturally occurring affordable housing. That’s housing that doesn’t have any government subsidy, but it’s just naturally affordable because of its age and its condition.”
Stanley also works directly on development negotiations with companies considering locating in Eden Prairie.
“When new development comes to the town, we have all of our (city department) specialties working on their various components,” he said. “I try to compel developers to include affordability in the development. We’ve been instituting an inclusionary policy. And we’re making sure that we get some affordability in every property built in Eden Prairie.”
Stanley has grown into the social service part of his job. “At first, that felt like a secondary part,” he said. “I’m over here on the development side, and you guys do that social service stuff. But it doesn’t feel like that anymore. We collaborate on strategies for families together; we review applications together.”
As the division’s housing programs administrator, Karschnia handles local requests for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds called Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds.
“With that money, we do first-time homebuyer loans,” Stanley said. “We do emergency grants for seniors, and then we do home rehab for low-income residents of Eden Prairie.”
Yerks, the community services coordinator, oversees the distribution of human services grants, funded from money earmarked from the city’s general fund.
“We award both with the CDBG dollars and with the human services grants,” Stanley said. “We get inquiries from nonprofit organizations about accessing funding for a variety of different things.”
Funding has helped local organizations such as PROP Food Shelf, PROP Shop, Southdale YMCA, TreeHouse, and Meals on Wheels.
Money through PROP helps with auto repairs for low-income residents so they can get to and from jobs, Stanley said. It also has helped with foreclosure prevention. “Rental assistance has been crucial during the (Covid-19) period,” he said. “Mortgage assistance as well.”
As part of his duties as a community services technician, Duale offers guidance to those in the Somali community living in Eden Prairie.
“That’s one of the things (offering assistance to the Somali community) that we’re known for, and we see a lot of activity around the mall with,” he said. “What (Duale) does primarily is employment and unemployment services. We’ve got an amazing record of helping folks find employment both in Eden Prairie and surrounding communities.”
The division also provides general immigrant services. “If somebody comes to us and doesn’t understand the naturalization process or something of that nature, if we can do those things, we do,” he said. “We don’t have any hired social workers in our office, but we sometimes play a close role for social work.”
Stanley calls Yerks the glue between the nonprofit world and other city departments.
“Many people are afraid to speak out to the police or call the fire department,” he said. “(Yerks will) go out on calls with the fire department for inspections. Suppose there’s some issue between a landlord and a tenant. In that case, we’ll try to be a mediating force on the residents’ behalf primarily.”
Yerks is also the city liaison to the Human Rights and Diversity Commission. The commission, made up of residents and students, serves in an advisory capacity to the City Council on diversity, civil and human rights. Each year it presents the city’s Human Rights Awards.
“They take on anything that has a human rights or diversity component,” Stanley said. “It’s a significant commission for the city.”
During the pandemic, it hasn’t been business as usual at the division’s mall office.
Staffing is at a minimum, and, like the mall, the office doesn’t open until 11 a.m. on weekdays. It will eventually go back to opening at 8 a.m. when the mall does. (The office closes at 4:30 p.m. on weekdays).
Yerks encourages residents to conduct business with the office over the phone, email, or virtual meetings if possible. Still, they can visit the office in person. She recommends residents make an appointment.
“We rotate staffing, and all have very different expertise,” Yerks said. “So, if they have a specific question, it’s best to make sure that the staff that’s here is the one that knows the answer. But it’s not required.”
In regular times, the location in the mall offers residents accessibility and convenience. “(It) has always had a focus on social services, so there’s a need for easy access, longer appointments, more privacy, and individual workspaces,” Yerks said. The office accommodates one-on one-appointments more easily than City Center, she added. For more information on the Housing and Community Services Division, visit its website.