Guest Column: HRA director helped strengthen community

Published 7:25 pm Friday, July 6, 2018

Live United by Ann Austin

Ann Austin


There has been some news lately about housing, especially regarding the transition of our local Housing and Redevelopment Authority Director Jon Ford. I’ve known Jon for many years — starting when I worked at the Albert Lea Tribune, when I first moved to this community nearly 15 years ago.

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Jon was one of my favorite sources to interview — he was a passionate advocate for sustainable housing. He helped ensure local people were taken care of. He, along with another passionate community advocate, Linda Lares from Semcac, are the reason I decided to enter the nonprofit field and try to help address local needs in some small way.

I will continue to be friends with Jon (thank you, Facebook), but will miss his presence here. He is one of the rare people who will have a great idea, but who also stick around to make sure it happens — and actually show up to do the hard work.

I’ve told people this story about Jon before, but I’m not sure I’ve shared it with all of you.

When our United Way used to office out of US Bank, I would often get into conversations with people as I crossed the street to my car. One day, Jon stopped his car in the middle of the road to share a story with me about a single mother and her children who were living in a home that had holes in the floor. It brought me to tears, and I could tell he felt the same heart-wrenching feeling inside. Our conversation that day drove us to take action. This is how Rocking the Block, the local volunteer effort to rehabilitate and repair local homes began — and the model that continues with the work of Shinefest to this day.

Throughout the years, we partnered with Habitat for Humanity and Shinefest to complete Rocking the Block house projects. I was able to meet so many others who had that passion and enthusiasm to fix homes and help others who couldn’t do it for themselves. And, though we worked on many local homes, there are many more that have issues to address.

There are people in this world who believe so much in what we are capable of as human beings; they inspire you to do things you don’t think you are capable of. Jon is that kind of person.

I have sincere hope the person they find to fill the HRA director role will be similar to Jon, in those ways and with his passion to improve housing conditions for people who are living and working in our community.

The core of what the HRA does is to ensure people have healthy, sustainable housing. Housing is healthcare — and it impacts the long-term success of our community. If we have a community with homes that are in disrepair, with holes in the floor, mold growth or roofs that are ready to collapse, we do not have a truly healthy community — and we are not showing enough care and concern for our neighbors, or the children who live in these homes.

Thank you Jon, for your vision, your determination and your ability to recognize the humanity in everyone you encountered. You have been a gift, and we are stronger as a community because of your efforts.

Ann Austin is the executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County.