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Community developers’ group is part of coalition for affordable homes

Darielle Dannen

Darielle Dannen joined the nonprofit Minnesota Consortium of Community Developers as public policy director in 2011. MCCD currently is working with the Homes for All campaign to secure state bonding money for an apartment building for homeless youth. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Why help one person at a time when you can help so many more? That was Darielle Dannen’s reasoning when she decided to apply her legal skills to assisting low-income people with housing problems and business goals.

Dannen joined the nonprofit Minnesota Consortium of Community Developers (MCCD) as public policy director in 2011. The 30-year-old Minneapolis-based association of nonprofits works on housing and economic development, and collaborates on public policy issues, loan fund development, public education and long-term strategic planning.

In the housing arena, MCCD is working with the Homes for All campaign to secure state bonding money for Prior Place, a proposed apartment building for homeless youth. Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative, the House of Hope Presbyterian Church and the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation plan to build the 44-unit structure at 1949 University Ave. in St. Paul, along the light rail line. A first-floor business would give the tenants a place to work.

Dannen co-chairs Homes for All with Liz Kuoppala, executive director of the Minnesota Homeless Coalition. Her group and MCCD weren’t always on the same page when it came to their requests to legislators, Kuoppala says. MCCD was working to help develop more housing while the homeless coalition asked for rental assistance and other types of support for its clients.

Kuoppala said Dannen approached her a couple of years ago and asked how they could present a united front at the Legislature.

“Together, we’ve built a strong coalition, over 80 providers,” Kuoppala says. “When the housing and homeless communities are engaged together, that gives legislators a clear answer. As we’re able to engage the broader community, I think that tells legislators that this isn’t just a special niche issue.”

It worked. The coalition helped persuade legislators to appropriate $21 million to the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency and $7 million to the Department of Human Services for housing last year. The latter included $4 million to fund the new Homeless Youth Act.

“Darielle’s leadership has played a big, big role in keeping this group of folks together,” Kuoppala said. “She’s just got this mix of super-excellent energy, political savvy and policy savvy.”

Understanding inequality

Dannen also worked to keep the federal Housing and Urban Development office open in Minneapolis. HUD announced last May year it would close the office and 13 others nationwide, but relented on the Minneapolis office in November. Kuoppala calls that “a huge win.”

“She truly understands the many layers of social inequality,” Kuoppala says. “She’s deeply committed to working collaboratively and creatively to grow and create better communities.”

On the economic development side, MCCD provides loans ranging from $300 to $50,000 to people who need to establish credit, or who want to start or expand businesses.

“We’re banking with folks who are unbankable. We want them to get lines of credit and things like that,” Dannen says. “We’ve worked with clients who are very, very low-income, and I don’t think that’s a barrier.”

MCCD refers to its smallest loans as “credit builders.”

“We don’t care what people do with them. The entire intent is to establish credit for them,” Dannen explains. “They’re referred to us from Lutheran Social Service. We need to get them ready so we can lend to them or a bank can lend to them.”

MCCD gets most of the money it lends from interest accrued on the loans it makes with banks working to earn federal Community Reinvestment Act credits. The rest of its funding comes from the state Department of Employment and Economic Development, counties and cities. MCCD takes the greater risk if the borrower should default, according to Dannen.

“We’re continually trying to make sure we’re building that [interest] up a little more,” she said. “It gives us the ability to make some [slightly] riskier loans.”

In its Open to Business initiative, MCCD offers free technical assistance to small-business owners in 41 Twin Cities municipalities in Hennepin, Carver and Dakota counties and the cities of Coon Rapids, Minneapolis and North St. Paul.

Beginning in 2012, Hennepin County began offering matching grants to participating municipalities, which pay MCCD an annual fee of $5,000 to $10,000 for the service, according to Patricia Fitzgerald, manager of economic and community development division in the county’s Housing, Community Works and Transit department.

In 2012 and 2013, Open to Business helped nearly 500 entrepreneurs or small businesses in the county with more than 3,000 hours of technical assistance. MCCD staff helped these business owners obtain $2 million in direct and facilitated financing; $5.6 million in leveraged capital; and the ability to hire or retain 161 employees, Fitzgerald notes.

“MCCD is such a great partner,” she says. “I thought that was just a great strategy for fulfilling needs that entrepreneurs and small businesses have in Hennepin County in a way that’s cost effective.”

Looking at foreclosure law

The thought of doing good in the community inspired Dannen to enter the legal field. The daughter of a paper mill safety supervisor and a construction company employee, Dannen attended Hamline University School of Law. There, she volunteered for the tenant advocacy nonprofit HOME Line, working to help tenants displaced by condominium conversions. She later went to work for that group.

From 2003 to 2006, she worked for the Volunteer Lawyers Network, training other lawyers in foreclosure issues and working with other organizations to overhaul Minnesota’s foreclosure statutes. She ended up working on a task force with 12 state legislators providing legislative updates to other lawyers and the mortgage industry.

“As an attorney, I had to help one client at a time and they would continue to have the same problem,” Dannen says. “It was really fun to go the Legislature and say, ‘OK, we need to make a systematic change that will affect thousands of lives.’”

Dannen will have her hands full again promoting MCCD’s 2014 policy agenda at the Capitol. The organization’s goals include maintaining and increasing funding for affordable housing; supporting legislation that would allow all Minnesotans to obtain driver’s licenses; and improving and streamlining local business regulations.

It shouldn’t be a problem for Dannen, whom Kuoppala described as having more energy at 5 a.m. than anyone she knows.

“She is just always full of joyful optimism,” she says. “She is so excited about life and always willing to take it on.”

The Dannen File

Name: Darielle Dannen

Job:  Public policy director

Age: 36

Grew up: Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.

Lives in: Minneapolis

Education:  B.S., sociology and English, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, 2000; J.D., Hamline University School of Law, 2003

Family:  Husband, Michael Broton

Hobbies: Owns four chickens, two cats and a dog; enjoys skating, skiing, running and sailing.

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