Deserted Journey Home properties linger in Shoreview, Arden Hills


Journey Home, the now defunct housing nonprofit founded by former Ramsey County commissioner Blake Huffman, left behind a vacant lot in the 3400 block of Victoria Street in Shoreview after it tore down a home there. The City of Shoreview has ordered an abatement of public nuisance, and is beginning to clean up the site. (Bridget Kranz)

The Lake Johanna Fire Department sold one of its stations to Journey Home in 2017 for the nonprofit to rehab and turn into housing. Since the sale, the site has sat virtually untouched. (Bridget Kranz)

Founded in 2008, former Ramsey County District 1 commissioner Blake Huffman’s housing nonprofit dissolved this spring, leaving a series of unmaintained properties across the north metro, including one each in Shoreview and Arden Hills. 

The nonprofit, Journey Home, also left in its wake a series of unpaid mortgages, as well as upwards of $150,000 in construction and materials debt. 

After local media reported on the organization’s financial missteps in January, Ramsey County launched an investigation into Journey Home, whose mission was to provide safe, stable housing for veterans and other vulnerable community members.

The county investigation focused on the sale of one of the nonprofit’s New Brighton properties to Huffman’s son, Zach.

The New Brighton home had initially been purchased in 2013, in part with $30,000 worth of federal grant money, which was administered by the county. Journey Home then sold the property to Zach in 2018 for slightly below what the nonprofit had initially put it on the market for, with Huffman’s son Alex acting as realtor.

In a May 7 letter to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the county said the transaction might constitute a conflict of interest. 

A day later, Huffman tendered his resignation from the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners, where he represented the cities of Arden Hills, Shoreview, North Oaks and the surrounding area, including a portion of Mounds View.

His resignation became effective on June 1. However, the county’s investigation continued, as do efforts by the cities of Shoreview and Arden Hills to clean up two lots still owned by Journey Home. 

In Shoreview, the home on the lot in question was demolished in 2018 and then the site was left virtually untouched. In Arden Hills, a former Lake Johanna Fire Station was purchased by the nonprofit in 2017 and has remained empty, with the city having gone in to mow the lawn. 

Journey Home owned additional properties in Shoreview beyond the vacant lot in the 3400 block of Victoria; according to property records it has since sold them off, one to a person with the same last name as Alex Huffman’s wife.

Alex Huffman did not respond to a request for comment on the matter. The home, located in the 200 block of Owasso Boulevard, was not included in the county’s investigation, a county spokesperson said.

“The scope of the review was limited to properties owned by Journey Home Minnesota that received funding from the Ramsey County Housing and Redevelopment Authority,” said Allison Winters, deputy director of communications at Ramsey County, in an email.

 

Demolished Shoreview home yet to be rebuilt

Both abandoned sites in Shoreview and Arden Hills are located in the middle of residential neighborhoods. 

The Shoreview property was purchased by Journey Home in June 2018, but Huffman first became involved with the site over a year prior. Castle Insight, LLC, bought the home in 2017, with Huffman listed as the company’s president on a subsequent mortgage taken out on the property.

Huffman told the Star Tribune in January that he had a 10% ownership stake in the company. He also told the paper that Journey Home bought the property for less than Castle Insight put into it.

At the time of the sale from Castle Insight to Journey Home, Alex Huffman was listed as Castle Insight’s president. Ramsey County property records show no other mention of Castle Insight outside of the sale of the Victoria Street home; neither Huffman nor Alex Huffman returned requests for comment. 

Since the home was demolished in 2018, little work has happened at the site.

“At one time last year, there were promises made about grading and filling in [the excavation hole] and I do believe they did some of the work last fall,” said Shoreview Mayor Sandy Martin. “It wasn’t satisfactory, but they filled in a part of the hole.”

On June 17 the city ordered an abatement of public nuisance for the site and began cleanup efforts on the property in late July. 

According to Martin, the hole has been filled and erosion control measures are in place. Maintenance costs will be assessed to the property and the total is not yet certain. 

Throughout the abatement process, Martin said the city has not heard from Huffman. The former commissioner sat on the Shoreview City Council from 1996 to 2012, overlapping with Martin for a majority of those years. 

On a more personal note, Martin said he has unfriended or unfollowed her and most other city officials on social media. In addition to his positions on the city council and county commission, Huffman is a retired vice president with Wells Fargo.

 

Unkempt fire station in Arden Hills

In Arden Hills, a former fire station in the 3200 block of New Brighton Road sits unkempt. While the original structure is still on the lot, the City of Arden Hills ordered an abatement in 2018 and has gone in and mowed the grass a couple of times, according to City Administrator Dave Perrault. 

“We followed all the necessary notification procedures, but I don’t believe we received any contact back from [Huffman],” said Perrault of the steps leading to the city’s intervention. He said the city hasn’t done any other work there besides mowing the lawn.

Journey Home still owns the site, although Land Bank Twin Cities, Inc., is attempting to foreclose on the $300,000 mortgage that Journey Home took out on the property. If the bank succeeds, the property may soon have a new owner. 

A representative from the bank did not respond to a request for comment on how much of the mortgage was still owed. 

The Lake Johanna Fire Department sold the station to Journey Home in 2017 for around $300,000.

“We had other interest in the property, but we thought [selling it to the nonprofit] was really a good fit for the neighborhood,” said Lake Johanna Fire Chief Tim Boehlke. “We just felt like it was the right thing to do.”

He said that Journey Home’s initial plan was to convert the station building into apartments and possibly add two single-family homes on the lot. 

 

–Bridget Kranz can be reached at bkranz@lillienews.com or 651-748-7825.

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