With nearly three decades of advocating and organizing for affordable housing in the Duluth area under his belt, Jeff Corey has built a well-earned reputation as a tireless leader working to expand housing opportunities and advance a better future for everyone in the region—no matter their background, race, or income.
Jeff first moved to Duluth to be part of the Loaves and Fishes community, providing hospitality to unhoused individuals and families in the region. In 2011, Jeff helped lead the merger process between Northern Communities Land Trust and Neighborhood Housing Services of Duluth to create One Roof Community Housing, a nonprofit committed to providing housing services and building and sustaining affordable homes and healthy neighborhoods. In total, these organizations have developed over 330 Community Land Trust homes and 260 affordable apartments in the region. Today, Jeff leads One Roof as its executive director. He also serves on several boards of directors, including the Minnesota Community Land Trust Coalition and the Duluth-Superior Area Community Foundation. Jeff was nominated for our Courageous Characters series by McKnight senior program officer Chad Schwitters, who leads our Fair and Just Housing strategy.
“It takes courage and tenacity to stand at the foot of a mountain every day, fix a line of sight on the summit, and move one foot in front of the next. Jeff Corey has been waking up and conjuring up that kind of commitment for 29 years. Our communities and our state are better because of passionate and persistent people like Jeff, and we need to take the chances we get to recognize their contributions, encourage them in their ascent up that daunting mountain every day—and hopefully inspire others to follow the way,” Chad shared. We were thrilled to get to interview Jeff for this profile while working on our recent story about Minnesota’s Community Land Trust movement, “A Powerful Tool for Housing Accessibility Thrives in Minnesota.”
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
McKnight: What future are you working to build?
Jeff Corey: I am working to build a future where all people in the communities we serve have good places to call home regardless of their incomes. I believe that home is essential for people to be healthy—just like food, water, sleep, fresh air, and loving support of other people—and that healthy people are better students, workers, friends, parents, and leaders. Unfortunately, the housing market has evolved in our country to leave more and more people in need of good homes. I feel a strong responsibility to both do something in my community to provide better homes for people in need and to shine a light on the housing market that increasingly keeps too many people from being the best versions of themselves.
“I am working to build a future where all people in the communities we serve have good places to call home regardless of their incomes.”– JEFF COREY
McKnight: What or who inspires you to act?
Jeff Corey: I always say I am blessed to get paid for doing mission work—it’s a great life.
My parents were on the lower end of the income spectrum. My family qualified for free lunch at school and government food commodities that were handed out in our hometown. While I never went hungry and had a great childhood, I was very aware that others had lots more than we did, and that my parents worried about money. My dad was a farmer and carpenter, and my mom worked in a local grocery store and butcher/locker plant when I was young. And they both did tons of good work as leaders in our community. Dad served on the township board, school board, church council, and community club. Mom was super active at church, teaching Sunday school and participating in tons of committees. She was also in our local community club. They began taking in foster children when they had four kids under eight years old. They were foster parents for 12 years and adopted three of their foster children.
I am also inspired by my coworkers—the passion, dedication, and talent they bring to work every day is fantastic and keeps me learning and growing.
I am blessed to be in relationship with many inspiring people, but I would be remiss in not mentioning two other people. The first is my wife, Michele. She is a social worker and therapist, and honestly one of the kindest people I have ever met. We started dating in high school and just kept growing together.
The second is my friend and mentor Steve O’Neil who died too young 10 years ago. Steve had a fantastic way of connecting with people at all levels in Duluth. He helped people with means help those without means, and he was in direct relationship with many people in the margins—even when he was a county commissioner. Walking down the street with him, you would soon realize he knew so many people—from bank presidents to folks on the street—they all adored him. Steve was also a fantastic prankster who brought a buoyancy to life that I found infectious. Steve introduced me to the Northern Communities Land Trust and inspired me to be a part of building homes that are designed to last and help people for generations to come. I was so inspired by Steve’s passion and leadership on affordable housing that I took his spot on the Land Trust’s Board of Directors when his term ended.
“I love that in our better moments, we take care of each other. It doesn’t always happen, but it often does. And our state is better for it.”– JEFF COREY
McKnight: What do you love about Minnesota, your community, and your people?
Jeff Corey: I love that in our better moments, we take care of each other. It doesn’t always happen, but it often does. And our state is better for it. I love the art and music that are in my region and community. With my kids now raised, I aspire to spend more time in those spaces. I also love the proximity to wild places that I get to have living in Duluth, and the wonderful friends and neighbors with whom I get to share those places. I find the forests and streams and big lake very rejuvenating.