Sep 17, 2021

Board Member Spotlight: Elena Gaarder

Tell us about your background and why you care about expanding housing opportunities.

I grew up in a household that was committed to housing and economic justice, so it was not surprising that I started my community development career as a tenant organizer in the Phillips neighborhood of South Minneapolis. At that time (late 90’s) over 85% of the housing stock was considered substandard. Behind that number were mothers and babies living in unhealthy and unsafe conditions.  As an organizer, I worked with community members to fight absentee landlords and to push against city policies that allowed these conditions to exist.

During that same period, a string of events led to my son and I becoming homeless. Combined, these two experiences continue to drive my work around expanding housing opportunities for all families and communities. 

Why were you interested in serving on the Family Housing Fund board?

The Family Housing Fund is a well-established voice in the sector. As the Chief Executive Officer of the Metropolitan Consortium of Community Developers (MCCD), I am fortunate to play a role in ensuring that our consortium members are part of the chorus of voices that inform FHF’s direction.

The resources that the organization have are so critical to the region, and as someone who loves to find ways to leverage resources, I was excited by the possibility of bringing this to the board. On a lighter note, my predecessor at MCCD was the Board Chair, so when Ellen asked, I pretty much had to say yes.

What housing aspirations do you have for the region?

It would be a beautiful thing to have investments that allowed for affordable housing developers to go deep rather than use an inch deep and mile wide approach. The ripple effects would be abundance rather than scarcity, collaboration rather than competition, and ultimately a robust continuum of affordable housing options for the region.

What is one area where you think people generally fail to think big enough – and what is your vision for change?

With the myriad of housing initiatives happening in the field, it is clear we have a wealth of big thinkers. As people in positions of influence, it is our job to listen more closely to what big ideas are circulating in the community. For example, there is momentum building around community wealth building strategies like land trusts and housing cooperatives, both of which are proven models for affordable housing. At times, those developing and funding more traditional housing models do not see how these fit into the continuum of options.

What do you do for fun?

I try to find space every day for fun, which may be watching laughing baby videos or driving the West River Parkway with the windows rolled down and the music turned up. Fortunately, I live in South Minneapolis where there is an abundance of opportunities to frolic and practice joy.

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