New Albert Lea HRA director is passionate about helping all residents have access to affordable housing

Published 2:00 pm Sunday, February 25, 2024

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Growing up in Oklahoma, Deborah Mitchell was one of four children born to teenage parents.

She said they were poor and lived in what they affectionately called a “shack by the railroad track” in a house her grandmother and father built.

Then one day, her mother had the opportunity to get a job working for an oil company as part of the first group of Black women hired at the company, and their income increased.

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Her mother met a woman who asked her if she wanted to buy her house.

“This was my parents’ first opportunity to buy housing,” Mitchell said.

So they left the west side where they had been living and moved to the other side of town and settled into the woman’s house in a predominantly white area.

She said her family was not able to buy the home straight out, so the woman gave it to them on a contract for deed.

“That’s why housing is very important to me, and then the opportunity to be able to have — if you want to own or buy or rent — that there’s an opportunity for you to do that,” Mitchell said, noting the importance of access to housing and particularly affordable housing.

Mitchell in 2023 became the executive director of Albert Lea’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority, bringing in years of life lessons as well as experience in housing in various organizations in St. Paul.

She previously worked as the executive director of Aurora St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation in St. Paul, an organization that owned and operated various housing, as well as retail space. She said it is one of the oldest Black nonprofits in the Twin Cities, focused on the Rondo community and making sure people of color have access to resources for new businesses and housing.

She was also a planning commissioner for the St. Paul area, appointed by St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, and served as the vice chair on a committee with a goal of setting up a state office for murdered or missing African American women. At the time she had a family member who went missing in Oklahoma and said she recognized the hopelessness of not knowing what to do.

In addition to these organizations, she worked at the Wilder Foundation for 17 years first as a case manager and then moving into a management position over transitional housing and permanent supportive housing, working with families who were homeless and also women and families experiencing domestic violence.

Mitchell has her doctorate in housing studies but she said social service work has been a part of her life and her family’s life for a while.

Her father’s mother opened the first shelter in her hometown for single men, and her father was an executive director for a community center.

“For us, we learned that you care about people, that you care what happens to people,” she said.

She said one day she decided to look at available job opportunities and found the position in Albert Lea.

“I didn’t even think twice about it. I said, ‘I’m going to apply for this position and see what happens,’” she said.

Though it was not an easy decision to move away from her two adult children and grandson, she said she was attracted to the less chaotic lifestyle compared to that in the Twin Cities.

She came into an organization that was transitioning from prior troubles, and has had her plate full ever since.

This spring work will begin on the facade of Shady Oaks Apartments, and they are also installing new security cameras.

She said they are always looking at ways to be more efficient in their work, and she has tried to change the environment there to make it feel more positive.

“This organization was plagued with negativity,” Mitchell said. “I knew about what had happened of course — when I came in, I knew I had to change this environment.”

She recognized she needed to help move the organization forward.

She started organizing monthly events for tenants of Shady Oaks and the scattered sites because she said she looks at the residents as her team.

She said she has an open door policy and wants people to know she is approachable.

“I may not be able to change anything — there may be a rule or regulation I have to follow — but I can listen and I can tell you maybe I can do something, maybe I can’t because there are rules I must follow,” Mitchell said. “It’s a balancing act. You have to be the rule person, but also in the rules you can be compassionate in those rules.”

She also oversees four full-time maintenance staff, an administrative staff and a housing specialist and is looking to hire another housing specialist and an office position.

She hopes to grow into a place that can offer on-site resources for residents to learn about that they may not have known about or had access to before.

“This is their home, and we need to make this place a good place for them to live,” she said.