Across the country, National Night Out provides a wonderful opportunity for neighbors to connect with each other and build community. This year, CommonBond senior residents at Garden Terrace Commons and Apartments in Little Canada wanted to make their event extra special.
With a resident-chosen theme of “Night to Unite,” three residents co-chaired the event and helped raise more than $400 in donations. Many residents and staff members volunteered their time. About 60 people attended, including paramedics, Little Canada city officials, and a Ramsey County sheriff. Gifts were provided for children who attended the event.
“This evening was a great example of CommonBond’s focus on community building and engagement among its residents. We support residents in taking on leadership roles in their housing communities and within the broader community,” said Wanda Anstett, the onsite Advantage Services Coordinator
Perhaps most notably, the community building focus of the evening extended beyond the event itself. Residents collected donations of school supplies, which the Ramsey County Sheriff’s office distributed to children in the surrounding area. “Night to Unite” in Little Canada is a wonderful example of CommonBond residents coming together to build new connections and vibrant communities.
CommonBond Communities is thrilled to welcome Jamal Adam and Lakeisha Lee as its inaugural Board Associates. CommonBond created the Board Associates initiative out of a belief that having a diversity of perspectives on our Board of Directors is vital to understanding and working with the people and communities we serve. This belief is a key component of CommonBond’s Inclusion Council charter. CommonBond also wants to expand the opportunity for influence, network building, and leadership experience to people who may not traditionally be considered for Board membership.
“We believe this program will benefit both our organization and the Associates, and will ultimately increase the nonprofit leadership talent pool in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest,” said CommonBond CEO Deidre Schmidt. “These two individuals stood out from a pool of excellent candidates because of their life experiences, their commitment to serve, and their eagerness to work with a Board mentor.”
Jamal Adam (left) is a public ally and a Dr. Josie R. Johnson Leadership Academy Fellow. He works at the University of Minnesota on CORE2025, an early outreach and cohort program focused on building a larger pipeline of academically prepared, college-ready students from multicultural backgrounds. Previously, Jamal was an associate teacher at Sankofa Underground North Academy in Minneapolis. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota.
Lakeisha Lee (right) has worked at Hiway Federal Credit Union since 2008. She is also a mentor at Brittany’s Place, a shelter that provides a supportive environment for girls and young women, empowering them to achieve their goals and lead healthy lives. Lakeisha is also a criminal justice major at Metropolitan State University and will graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree in May 2018.
CommonBond Communities recently purchased two existing apartment buildings in the Twin Cities and is preserving them as affordable housing options for residents.
Pine Point, a 68-unit apartment building in Coon Rapids, Minn., and Rainbow Plaza, a 108-unit building in Anoka, Minn., were part of CommonBond’s initiative to preserve affordability without government subsidy. CommonBond will buy properties sometimes referred to as naturally occurring affordable housing (NOAH) with a goal of minimizing rent increases and resident displacement. CommonBond is able to accomplish this by achieving a price below the appraised value, and/or with financing with low-cost sources who are interested in the mission of affordable workforce housing. An article about these two acquisitions recently appeared in the Star Tribune.
“The sale and the ability to retain these units as affordable offerings wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for the forward-thinking and generosity of the previous owners,” said Deidre Schmidt, CEO of CommonBond. “Marilyn and Jack Washburn, and their daughter, Rhonda Charboneau, the original owners and managers of the buildings since the 1980s, approached us directly to consider the purchase and agreed to a below-market price allowing us to retain affordable rents.”
The previous owners took note of CommonBond’s first NOAH acquisition of the Boulder Ridge property in Apple Valley, Minn. in August 2016, when the Maryland-based Enterprise Community Loan Fund and an anonymous local foundation provided financing that allowed CommonBond to keep rents stable. The Pine Point and Rainbow Plaza sellers were motivated to pursue a similar approach when selling – even at a time when for-profit owners are aggressively purchasing properties like this, making updates, then significantly raising rents – adding to the affordable housing crisis.
“We just feel it’s the right thing to do,” said Jack Washburn, a Champlin, Minn. resident in his 90s. “The Twin Cities is in short supply of affordable places to live, so as we passed ownership on, it was a priority for us to work with an organization like CommonBond – making sure they didn’t suddenly become high-end properties and displace current residents. This is our way to give back to the community and do the right thing for many years to come.”
CommonBond plans to update the buildings over the next two years by making improvements to the common areas, management offices, laundry rooms, and to the units themselves. We are grateful for financing support from Freddie Mac, Mercy Housing, NHT-Enterprise, and NorthMarq Capital.
Ma’ad came to the United States in 2015 as a refugee from Somalia. After many challenges during the transition, he’s now making great strides thanks to the support he received from CommonBond’s Advantage Services team.
Ma’ad struggled to adapt to his new life in Minnesota. He didn’t speak a lot of English, which he found challenging in many ways – he faced difficulties in school and in finding a job, which led to feelings of hopelessness.
After moving into CommonBond’s Yorkdale housing community in Edina, Ma’ad started working with Salah, an Advantage Services Coordinator. Salah supported Ma’ad in a number of ways, including assistance with completing school applications, creating emails, and updating his resume.
“Ma’ad persevered and overcame many obstacles in the past years,” says Salah.
Today, Ma’ad has graduated from high school, has a great job, plans to attend college in the fall, and is getting married this summer. Ma’ad says, “Moving into a CommonBond home and working with the Advantage Services staff has helped me tackle many things I was experiencing.” He adds that the CommonBond staff provided him with “hope and support in working toward success,” and made him feel like he was part of a family. He’s proud that he has achieved stable housing and is able to rent his own apartment and support his family.
Ikram Koliso, who lives at CommonBond’s Torre de San Miguel housing community in St. Paul, recently received two top honors from St. Catherine University in St. Paul. As valedictorian, Ikram graduated summa cum laude with a 4.0 cumulative GPA , and was selected as the student commencement speaker for the Baccalaureate ceremony.
A double major in social work and public health, Ikram has held several key student leadership positions. She is also the 2017 award winner of the Mary E. McCahill Award, which is presented to a senior who has consistently demonstrated outstanding leadership, academic excellence, loyalty and service to the university throughout her years at St. Kate’s.
“Ikram is a scholar and deeply engaged member of the St. Catherine community. Amazingly, she received 12 nominations for this award,” said President ReBecca Koenig Roloff, president of St. Catherine.
Supporting academic success and leadership skills among residents like Ikram is a goal of CommonBond’s supportive housing model. Brenda Petry, an Advantage Services Regional Manager for CommonBond, said, “CommonBond’s stable, safe housing, where community members have access to critical support and resources along the way, can provide such an important foundation from which individuals can launch and reach their own goals and successes. We are so thrilled for Ikram and her family, and for all of their successes and accomplishments.”
Ikram’s other achievements and awards include Abigail Quigley McCarthy Center for Women Student Leadership Awards (2015 and 2017); an Antonian Scholars Senior Honors Project Award; and induction in the Phi Alpha (social work) and Kappa Gamma Pi (Catholic leadership) honor societies.
Meet Hawa Abbajebel, a CommonBond resident and recipient of the top CommonBond Leadership Scholarship. Hawa was one of five CommonBond youth who recently received a scholarship to use for post-secondary education.
Hawa has lived in a CommonBond housing community her entire life – first at Skyline Tower in St. Paul, and then at Torre de San Miguel on St. Paul’s Westside. She just finished her junior year of high school and is excited to continue looking at colleges over the summer.
We sat down with Hawa recently to ask her more about the scholarship and her volunteer service. Her thoughtful answers quickly showed us why she’s such a deserving scholarship recipient and bright light in the community.
CommonBond: Which CommonBond youth programs have you participated in?
Hawa: I did Study Buddies when I was younger, and then Learning Circles. Next year I’m hoping to work with the younger kids at Torre de San Miguel.
CommonBond: How have these programs impacted your school work and what you want to do in life?
Hawa: It was really cool because the Study Buddies mentors were always really interesting people from a variety of different fields. They helped you not only do well with your homework, but also with accessing different learning opportunities in the community. The youth programs helped you to make new friends – it’s really nice to become friends with your neighbors. My younger siblings come to the Advantage Center for homework help – that’s where they’ve met most of their neighborhood friends.
CommonBond: What kind of volunteer work do you do in the community?
Hawa: In my scholarship essay, instead of listing my specific volunteer roles and hours, I wrote about how volunteering in general has played a significant role in my life. To me, it doesn’t mean just going to a certain place without getting paid and then counting the hours you were there – in every aspect of your life, wherever you are, when you have an opportunity to help someone, that’s volunteering. I admire that my parents are very giving people, so that’s what I wrote about.
I also wrote about wanting to be able to give back to this community. St. Paul is a beautiful city – all of it, including the places with a lot of poverty. There’s even beauty in the brokenness of a neighborhood, including the parts that are forgotten. I often hear other kids say they want to get rich and move out of the neighborhood they grew up in – but if you stay, and try to do better and make it a better place, that’s the kind of America that we should aspire to. As the neighborhood residents, we know what’s going to work best – the people who grew up in affordable housing communities need to become mayors and CEOs and other kinds of leaders. We have the knowledge, experience, and ideas to make communities a place where everyone can do well.
CommonBond: What do you hope to do after you graduate from high school a year from now?
Hawa: I think about colleges a lot. I’ve looked at a number of them, and will look at more this summer. Wherever I end up, I hope to stay in Minnesota because it’s home. There are so many subjects and areas I’m interested in – it’s hard to choose. I know whatever I study and whichever field I go into in the future, it will be tied to helping communities.
CommonBond: What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not studying or volunteering?
Hawa: My favorite activity is writing – especially short stories based on my own life experiences or my family’s experiences. I’d love to write a book about my family’s stories. I also like art, mostly painting and drawing. And I love skateboarding – I mostly just stay around my neighborhood because I like it here!
With alarming frequency, individuals, households, and entire communities are being displaced as a result of a growing wave of real estate investments – purchases that turn formerly affordable apartments across the Twin Cities region into upscale properties.
Led by the Minnesota Housing Partnership (MHP), a coalition of affordable housing nonprofits and affected renters worked with Twin Cities Public Television to create a 60-minute documentary entitled “Sold Out: Affordable Housing at Risk” on the topic of the loss of affordable housing.
CommonBond’s CEO Deidre Schmidt is featured in the film, as well as many other nonprofit leaders, renters, and other community representatives. Together, their voices lift up the stories of affected residents, showcase the community impacts of displacement, and highlight the urgent need to preserve private-market affordable housing.
“The hope for the future lies in a change in mindset. We have to start looking at affordable housing as critical infrastructure… We cannot assume that housing, particularly affordable housing, will be a natural byproduct of a healthy economy and a healthy society. We have to understand that housing is actually a key ingredient for a healthy economy and a healthy society, so we need to invest in it,” said Deidre Schmidt in the documentary.
Over the course of the last school year, youth at a CommonBond housing community learned a lot about the importance of higher learning. Every week, youth have answered “College Knowledge” questions, and conducted research — on a famous person, a local college, or the importance of nutrition — in order to hone their research skills. The kids loved this new programming and celebrated their hard work with a visit from the University of Minnesota’s very own Goldy Gopher!
In preparation for Goldy’s visit, the youth designed their own “college-bound” t-shirts. When Goldy arrived, they played team trivia and had their shirts autographed by the mascot. The kids then drew their own “college self.”
Alecia Adney-Hernandez, Advantage Services Coordinator, said “At CommonBond, we believe it’s never too early to start supporting youth in developing higher learning goals!” Her colleague, Tony Khambounmy, a Youth Specialist, added, “It was inspiring and fun to hear about these kids’ hopes and dreams after today’s event!”
Meet Mangala Sharma, a services coordinator at CommonBond’s Skyline Tower housing community in St. Paul. She recently received a Conservation and Leadership Award from The Trust for Public Land. The award honors and celebrates the work she has done in engaging with Skyline Tower residents and others in the planning of a park near their homes.
CommonBond Communities is excited for more green space near Skyline – located off of I-94 and Hamline Avenue in St. Paul – and proud to see how residents and staff help shape their communities. Mangala recently shared some insight into what led her to work with CommonBond residents, and what keeps her passionate about affordable housing with supportive services.
CommonBond: Tell us more about the park space for which you won the award
Mangala: CommonBond residents deserve a lot of the credit! Students from nearby Gordon Parks High School had the idea for the park, and Skyline residents quickly joined in. I’ve had the privilege of working with the residents and the community to help turn the idea into a reality. In addition to the services we offer within Skyline Tower, the park will help further break down a sense of isolation that sometimes comes from living in a large place. It will be a space for residents and local communities to come together – a place for friendship, meeting new people, getting fresh air, and telling stories. It’s also a great place for civic engagement and community building.
CommonBond: What experiences from your life help shape your approach to working with CommonBond residents?
Mangala: I am a former refugee myself. My husband and I lived in a refugee camp in eastern Nepal for almost eight years with our two daughters — they were just 2-1/2 years and two months old when we went to the camp. I think it’s helpful that I’ve been through a journey similar to many of the Skyline residents – one that includes immigration, refugee status, and living through poverty or homelessness. I have deep compassion for residents with similar experiences.
When I needed a roof over my head and different kinds of support, a United Nations agency supported my family. By helping provide housing and services through CommonBond, I can pass along the support I received. We all need help at some point in our lives. This is a shared human need. Through my own experiences I picked up skills that make me effective at my job today. I feel incredible satisfaction in my job.
CommonBond: What are you most passionate about in your job?
Mangala: I love being a coach. I’m not a case manager and I’m not there to manage anyone’s life. I simply work with residents to come up with solutions to their struggles. This includes anything from challenges with their neighbors or advising on household budgeting to introducing them to resources and providing support for community activism and advocacy. I want to walk side-by-side with residents.
CommonBond: What do you wish everyone knew about affordable housing?
Mangala: Sometimes there are negative connotations about people who live in affordable housing. I see affordable housing as a stepping stone – as a place to start a new life. For example, five years ago, there was a family from the Bhutanese community looking for a place to live. The wife was sick, and the husband didn’t have a lot of education or job skills. They had four children, plus one set of grandparents. They secured a 4-bedroom apartment at CommonBond’s Torre de San Miguel housing community on St. Paul’s West Side.
With a stable place to live, the wife’s health improved significantly, the husband was able to find a better job, and they were very prudent and intentional with their finances. They obtained first-time homebuyers education and other support through CommonBond, and after just two years, they had saved enough to purchase a house. One of their sons got a full scholarship to Stanford, where he’ll start school this fall! The other kids are doing really well, too. Stable housing was the critical step for them. This family is simply amazing – incredibly hard-working and resilient. They make me think about what so many other families and individuals can do in our communities when they have a safe, stable home as a foundation.
Study Buddies and Homework Center programming continues to thrive at 15 CommonBond housing communities. These programs provide opportunities for elementary age children to develop meaningful relationships with supportive adults while improving academic skills. In addition to these flagship youth programs, CommonBond increased its emphasis on programs for teenagers in 2016 – resulting in comprehensive programs offered to teens at four Twin Cities-based CommonBond properties.
Through these programs, 120 youth in grades 7 – 12 developed relationships with peers, engaged in leadership activities, received one-on-one support with academics, and engaged in post-secondary planning. The value of these programs to teens and their families is evidenced by the fact that many teens choose to attend Teen Programs at their housing community rather than participating in other extracurricular activities.
At CommonBond’s Skyline Tower in St. Paul, staff started a Young Men’s Group for residents ages 12-20 years old. The staff and residents are cultivating a space that – through purposeful play and teambuilding – allows the young men to “explore what it means to keep it real, tell the truth, support each other, and respect themselves and others,” says Teen Program Coordinator Analuna Brambila. The young men are excited about the club and eagerly talk about upcoming meetings. A parallel young women’s group will start in March.
Across all CommonBond housing communities that offer youth and teen programming, attendance numbers are growing rapidly, and parents are seeing positive effects with their children and teens. In fact, a parent recently commented that the reason she lives in the building is because the programs provide her family with so much support!