McKnight Foundation president Kate Wolford and program officer Eric Muschler talk about the organization’s big-picture view of housing needs in Minnesota

Interview by Christopher Hudson

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear or read about the McKnight Foundation? Most Minnesotans probably think of arts and artist grants. But the family foundation also supports a wide range of endeavors in the areas of education, climate and energy, the Mississippi River, neuroscience, and regional and community development, among others. Within the latter category, McKnight has approved affordable-housing-related grants totaling nearly $300 million over the past 35 years.

One of its latest housing efforts is a partnership with AIA Minnesota on an annual award that highlights innovative, high-quality design for affordable housing. We wanted to know more about McKnight’s aspirations for the Affordable Housing Design Award, so we sat down with president Kate Wolford and program officer Eric Muschler at Clare Midtown, the most recent winner. The 45-unit, mixed-use project in Minneapolis’ Corcoran neighborhood provides permanent supportive housing for people living with HIV/AIDs.

Let’s start at the beginning. When did McKnight first get involved in supporting affordable-housing efforts, and how?

Kate Wolford: My understanding is that the first investments date back to 1975, and then we co-created the Family Housing Fund with the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul in 1980. It’s been a persisting concern of the family and the board of directors that people need quality housing to deal with the other needs they have for quality of life and for vibrancy in their community. If you have safe, stable, affordable housing, it’s easier to think about your access to employment, to education, to parks and recreation. So for us, affordable housing is really important, both for family stability and for community vitality.

And then we launched a formal program in 1995, particularly with an investment to establish the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund. I think that was really McKnight’s stake in the ground—that we would help build a whole ecosystem of housing organizations.

Eric Muschler: Housing, as Kate said, is a foundational aspect of the community. Eighty percent of the built environment is housing, and the way that it’s done, and the people that it serves, is critical to building stronger and more livable communities. The current iteration [of our housing focus]—our Region & Communities program—is really about integrating regional, sustainable development and economically vibrant neighborhoods. It’s about creating platforms where people can become self-sufficient and thrive.

The word integrating jumps out at me. Does your support of affordable housing connect or overlap with any of your other areas of focus?

KW: Well, we’re sitting right next to the Hiawatha light rail—the Blue Line. In recent years, we’ve increasingly focused on the combined costs of transportation and housing. If you locate affordable housing along transit corridors, you can begin to reduce those combined costs and, again, give people more access to jobs or to educational facilities that may be across town. That combination of housing and transportation, and that connectivity to the broader community, has shaped the way we think about affordability.

EM: The other thing I’d say is that our Midwest Climate and Energy program also has a strong overlap with green housing and communities. What’s the link between climate change, energy use, and the built environment? That’s an interesting area we’re exploring right now. And that’s another reason why transportation is such an important piece of the puzzle. Building a robust metro transit system is critical to ensuring we’re ahead of the curve in developing sustainable, energy-efficient housing.

You partner with AIA Minnesota on the Affordable Housing Design Award. What do you look for in your strategic partnerships?

KW: We know we have a certain set of resources we can bring to the table. Grant funding, clearly. Also, our connections. We have connections with national philanthropy, we can see what’s happening in other parts of the country, and we can bring that knowledge back here. But we can’t do anything without really solid partners who are able to implement the work, to take things to scale, to reach new audiences.

AIA Minnesota allows us to talk to the whole field of architecture in Minnesota in an efficient way because they have high credibility with their stakeholders. That credibility is really important for us. It helps us mainstream some of these ideas that are emerging in affordable housing—to showcase best-in-class innovation and then spread that through knowledge to scale. We do this in various ways with all of our partners, but AIA gives us access to a pretty unique set of actors that we would not have connections to otherwise.

EM: Several years ago, when we were talking with local architecture firms that do affordable housing and the idea of a design award first came up, I did a scan of other awards programs, because we had no clue how to put our toe in that. But in talking to those architects it became increasingly clear how strong AIA Minnesota is with its membership. The decision to move forward [with AIA Minnesota organizing the program] was an easy one.

What are your observations about the Affordable Housing Design Award and the winning projects so far? Has the program met your expectations? Has anything about it surprised you?

KW: Eric can go into much greater depth on this question, but I think one of the things that has been exciting about the program is that it’s not just about the single winner. The culminating event showcases all of the applicants, so there is that knowledge sharing, that sort of healthy cooperation. People are learning and seeing what others are doing, being stimulated by that. We think this is a much better way to mainstream the ideas and keep more people engaged.

EM: Actually, one of the biggest returns for us [on the award program] is just getting to interact with architects more closely and learn their design process. We’ve taken some of that methodology and applied it in our housing work and even in some of the experimental grants we do. It’s been a really interesting learning experience for me.

I have some arts in my background—I used to act. With my McKnight work I get so involved in the analytics of policy, so it’s refreshing to collaborate with architects and see how the creative and analytical sides of their brain work together. It’s pretty incredible. Most people aren’t able to balance those two ways of thinking.

There’s broad utility in that balanced thinking, with application to a whole range of community problem-solving needs. How can we redesign our built environment and the products and systems that shape it?

Last thoughts on the need for more quality affordable housing in our communities?

EM: We need to take a 30-year view when it comes to creating affordable places to live where people can access opportunity over time. Not the two years it takes to build a project, or even the 15 years of the tax credit. Well-designed affordable housing is a community asset with a long-term benefit. If we start thinking about it that way, we’re going to be smart about the investments we make.

KW: You know, it’s the same with green design. It can be more expensive up front, but the savings over time is substantial—it’s penny wise and pound foolish not to invest in it from the beginning. There’s a real pragmatic case for planning and building projects like those highlighted in the Affordable Housing Design Award program. I also believe that beauty in our lives is actually a necessity.

EM: Like the beautiful garden here at Clare Midtown.