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Despite tight money, local developers are rallying to house, and help, the homeless

There are lots of different ways to look at the problem of homelessness, says Laura Kadwell, who leads Heading Home Minnesota, a collaboration of public- and private-sector groups from across the state that are trying to end chronic homelessness. There's the criminal-justice-system lens and the health-care lens, for example.

But if you want to talk about the solution, she says, it's affordable housing that's paired with support services like case management, job training, and health care.

In 2004, the state's Heading Home Minnesota plan called for the creation of 4,000 new supportive housing units, by 2010. It didn't meet its goal--it fell short with about 3,300 units, according to Kadwell.

Nonetheless, a number of local developers are committed to filling that void, and some notable affordable housing projects have just opened or gotten underway. This is good news because when the recession hit, "There was a period when nothing new was coming in," she says. "Developments weren't being able to be put together."

Smarter Money

More recently the situation has eased up because of certain changes in the law that have made more tax credits available to develop supportive housing, she says. However, over the past few years there's been an increase in homelessness that includes more families and youth and more "episodic homelessness."

Another problem related to the economic downturn is that "it's impacting the amount of money available for services and rental assistance," according to Kadwell.

But many people continue to stay focused on their mission. Through various recent affordable housing initiatives, Kadwell says, "we're showing government and private-sector [entities] how to spend money more wisely and spend less money to get a better result," emphasizing that it's an effort that extends well beyond the metro area.

"It's a dreadful time to be working on this issue because money is tight," but "there's a lot of momentum for doing this all across the state," Kadwell says.

Here are four notable Twin Cities projects:

The Commerce Building: Supporting Residents
Since 2007, a local nonprofit organization, CommonBond Communities, has developed 75 units of affordable housing with supportive services throughout scattered sites from St. Paul to Maplewood to Red Wing, according to Ann Ruff, who is its vice president of resource development.  

Right now, CommonBond is in the middle of "phase two" of a $10 million rehab of the century-old Commerce Building in downtown St. Paul. Forty-five one- and two-bedroom apartments are under construction, five of which will go to those who've struggled with chronic homelessness, she says.

"Phase one" of the project, which opened in 2008, included 55 units of workforce housing. It also had a handful of units that were designated for the homeless.

Other CommonBond properties, such as Lexington Commons in St. Paul (which opened last fall), Trail's Edge in Maplewood, and Vicksburg Commons in Plymouth, reserve units for those who've been on the streets the longest.  

Ruff explains, "Beyond the bricks and mortar, these residents are supported in reaching stability and independence through intensive on-site services" that include individual case management, jobs and skills training, and chemical-health support.  

So far within those developments that serve families, 90 percent of the families have maintained their housing for at least a year, according to Ruff. "It's remarkable, given the data that suggests once a family experiences homelessness they are at high risk for multiple episodes," she says.

Nicollet Towers: Focus on Families

At the Nicollet Towers in downtown Minneapolis, where a $16 million renovation is underway (as we reported here), 19 of the 306-unit complex will be reserved for homeless families, according to Jim Bettendorf, the housing director for the nonprofit Volunteers of America (VOA), which is in charge of development.

Bettendorf says its focus on homeless families stands out. "No one is really addressing that well," he says, adding, "That's what we hope to do."  

But it took several years to fully fund the project after the economy tanked in 2008, according to Bettendorf. The VOA was able to pull it off thanks to a unique coalition of local and national nonprofit funders, he explains. Stressing the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency's role along with HUD, he says, "Without them we couldn't fix anything."

The Minnesota Building: Many Partners 

Similarly, the $28 million rehab of the Minnesota Building in downtown St. Paul had a lot of people working on it behind the scenes. The building, which has 137 affordable studio and one- and two-bedroom apartments, opened on Feb. 24. (See our article here.)

MNB Development, LLC, Minnesota Vistas, LLC and Minnesota Place, LLC, jointly own the Minnesota Building as a result of its financing, according to St. Paul spokesperson Janelle Tummel. Sand Companies, Inc., a developer of the project, is involved in all three partnerships and it's the property manager, she says.

To make the ten long-term homeless units a go, it pulled together $1.25 million from Minnesota Housing's Ending Long Term Homelessness Initiative Fund and $400,000 from the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation—through a HUD Supportive Housing Program (SHP) grant it received, according to Jamie Thelen, the chief executive officer for Sand Companies, Inc.
Also, the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency is providing rental assistance for these units for up to $115,000 over a two-year period while the Wilder Foundation is contributing $106,410 for its supportive services, according to Thelen.

Thelen says via email that the state's goal to end long-term homelessness is a good one: "We are supportive of this effort and recognize the need for providing this housing opportunity in Saint Paul which is why we implemented the units."

The Alliance Addition: Good and Green

The $10.2 million Alliance Addition in Elliot Park, which serves formerly homeless people with 51 affordable apartments in a new five-story building and ten units in a rehabbed 1897 house, had its grand opening on Oct. 18.

The Addition expands on the adjoining 124-unit Alliance Apartments, which were built in 1997. The affordable-housing development had a waiting list of over 300 people, according to Gina Ciganik, vice-president of housing development at AEON, which developed the buildings.

"It had shown to be a good model," she says. "We built on that success." 

The buildings share front desk services and existing programs, so it's cost-efficient, "which is very important when all of these projects are so tight," she says.

The group teamed up with the University of Minnesota's Center for Sustainable Building Research and the Center for Energy and Environment (CEE). It's the first development of this type in the state to achieve LEED, the  "platinum" status for green design and construction, she says.

Working with the university was instrumental, she adds. "It helped our team think about the right choices to make."

Its use of structural insulated panels, which don't have the typical thermal breaks that wood-framed buildings do, drew a pair of developers from Abu Dhabi. "The gentlemen, representing the PAL Group of Companies and the Royal Group, are interested in bringing elements of a sustainable construction method utilized at Alliance Addition to developments in the United Arab Emirates and Africa," a prepared statement reads.

"We worked closely with the community like we always do," she says, adding, "We're very proud of this and we're excited to be able to continue to build upon our services for those with the greatest need."

Anna Pratt is Development Editor of The Line.

Photos, top to bottom:

Nicollet Towers is being refurbished by Volunteers of America to the tune of $16 million.

The Minnesota Building, whose rehab included apartments for the long-term homeless.

The century-old Commerce Building is now in the second phase of a $10 million rehab.

The LEED-certified Alliance Addition helps the homeless and the planet.

First three photos by Bill Kelley; Alliance Addition photo courtesy of AEON.

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