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Habitat's stars align: right job, right man

Dave Engstrom is the new head of the St. Croix Valley Habitat for Humanity chapter that serves Pierce and St. Croix counties.

Dave Engstrom would seem to have the ideal background to head the St. Croix Valley Habitat for Humanity chapter that serves Pierce and St. Croix counties.

He's led Minnesota housing authority agencies in Washington County and Minneapolis, and helped run a private firm out of St. Paul called Affordable Properties.

"I've long been an admirer of Habitat for Humanity and the good work it does," Engstrom said. "It provides safe, decent, affordable home ownership, and, with its record, has an international reputation that's second to none.

"I believe affordable housing, along with jobs, is what provides families with stability.

"I've seen so many people living in substandard housing and paying too much to do so. That puts a crimp on families and causes many problems...It can cause marriages to break up."

Since Sept. 1 Engstrom, 59, has been executive director for SCVHH, with its office in River Falls. Jim Farr, past executive director, retired in August.

With his "passion for affordable housing," Engstrom was delighted to find the advertised SCVHH position and then to apply for it.

But soon after -- with distractions brought on by the birth of a grandchild, a son's getting married and his own birthday -- he nearly blew his chance.

"I got an email from Habitat asking for an interview that wound up in my spam box," he said. "I had my finger raised to delete, but then I looked more closely and saw what it was for, so I opened it."

The rest is history, at least it was after the interview and ensuing job offer by the SCVHH board of directors.

Engstrom, who's volunteered for the Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity chapter, says the new job is special.

"I think this is the capstone of my career," he said.

Engstrom has lived in Afton, Minn., with his wife Betsy for 27 years. She's a receptionist for FamilyMeans, a nonprofit social service agency in Stillwater, Minn.

The Engstroms have three adult children -- two daughters and a son -- and four grandchildren.

Engstrom's lengthy resume in housing also includes forays into politics -- Afton mayor; Afton interim city administrator (three times); Afton Plan Commission member; Washington County commissioner for eight years; and executive director of Minnesota Association of Small Cities for five years, which required lobbying at the state capitol.

"I think that's given me people skills that will certainly help me here," he said. "I understand the workings of municipal government and have a good grasp of the processes that go with it, especially as it relates to developments and how to assemble and give a funding presentation in a palatable way."

Engstrom said a big draw for his new job will be seeing the completion of the first-of-its-kind Eco Village, a cluster of 18 "net-zero" homes under construction on the west side of River Falls. Some houses are already occupied by families who met income guidelines.

All are built beyond typical building code standards, with super-insulated designs, rooftop-mounted solar panels and integrated solar hot-water systems -- the intent is to either eliminate or greatly slash utility bills.

Engstrom said his goal is to see other Eco Villages built in the area. He said discussions for another one are already underway.

"I would like to see this model replicated in other communities -- New Richmond, Hudson, Prescott, maybe another one in River Falls," he said. "Even as the first Eco Village is being built, we are seeing increasing efficiencies and refined construction techniques that have lowered costs and are geared toward houses that achieve 'net zero' energy usage and beyond to actual energy production."

Engstrom said the Eco Village's "sustainability concept" is becoming a role model in the building industry. Inquiries come in from around the country about how it works.

He expects Habitat for Humanity to soon use sustainability measures in all the houses that it builds and also to see Habitat-sponsored Eco Villages built in other regions.

In his spare time Engstrom enjoys beekeeping to harvest honey, raising chickens for the eggs, woodworking (he makes wood-finish ballpoint pens) and grows vegetables and flowers in a garden (he built his own gardening shed out of recycled materials).

Engstrom also loves to travel -- "go on road trips" -- and does genealogical research into his and his wife's side of the family. He also describes himself as a "pretty avid fisherman."

For now, his new SCVHH job has his complete attention.

"I have no idea of retiring yet," he said. "I feel rejuvenated. I hope to be here for a long time and do a lot of good by creating plenty of housing options.

"I am a very fortunate person to have this job. I really, really am."

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

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