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Brushing up on 'A Brush With Kindness' : State, local leaders emphasize program to help renovate homes for people in need

(From left) Habitat 500 race director Jan Plimpton discusses the construction schedule with Minnesota Housing Commissioner Mary Tingerthal, along with Mayor Rita Albrecht and homeowner Mara Kemmer. Cyclists and local Habitat of Humanity members will help renovate Kemmer’s home on the 2500 block of Bemidji Avenue North as part of the “A Brush with Kindness” program. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI -- State and local officials visited a home on Bemidji's north side Tuesday to highlight a program that helps renovate low-income homes across the state.

Mary Tingerthal, Minnesota Housing Finance Agency commissioner, and Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht visited a house on Bemidji Avenue that will see renovations by "A Brush With Kindness," a Habitat For Humanity program that provides home renovations for those in need.

Mara Kemmer told reporters the house she and her husband and their 5-year-old daughter call home was built in the 1960s and has little insulation to keep out the wind, as well as high heating bills.

Tingerthal said the Kemmers' place shares its situation with many similar houses in the Northland. "The housing stock in northern Minnesota tends to be quite old, and have a lot of the issues that (Kemmer) just talked about, with needing better windows, needing better insulation so that you can survive those minus 40 days," she said.

Poverty in northern Minnesota also leads to some people spending a large percentage of their income on repairs, Tingerthal said.

"Incomes tend to be very low in this part of the state, and so keeping housing at a level where people can actually afford without spending an extraordinary amount of their income: that's why we're here, that's why the state Legislature provides us with dollars," she said.

However, programs that don't receive tax dollars help fill in the gaps that aren't covered by public housing buildings. Albrecht said the city's Housing Redevelopment Authority doesn't actively build homes, so it relies on other organizations that do, such as Habitat for Humanity.

Renovations on the Kemmers' home were planned to start today with the local Habitat chapter's "A Brush With Kindness" program. Roy Blackwood, project manager, said his volunteers have helped build a handicapped access ramp for an amputee and saved a mentally ill person's home from being condemned.

"That's the first line of defense right there, so people can get into their homes," he said.

Local workers will be joined today by some out-of-towners: Tingerthal was in town as part of about 120 other bicyclists riding the "Habitat 500," an annual journey across Minnesota that ventured into Bemidji's neck of the woods this year. Jan Plimpton, executive director of Minnesota's Habitat chapter, said the ride had already raised $275,000. The donations are routed to three Habitat initiatives chosen by donors, she said. In many cases, the riders donate to the homes they're due to work on during the ride, she said.

"Last year for our bike home, I think we raised about $40,000," she said. "That's a lot of money for people who aren't from Bemidji, don't know Bemidji, have never been to the state of Minnesota before... and they're investing their resources in something that's going on here in Bemidji, and I just find that really inspirational."

Zach Kayser
Zach Kayser covers local government and city issues for the Pioneer. He previously worked for the Wadena Pioneer Journal, and is an alumni of the University of Minnesota, Morris. 
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