Project looks at homelessness, lack of affordable housing

In early 2013, a concerned group of local stakeholders came together to address Itasca County’s lack of affordable housing. This group included professionals from housing agencies and others interested in the affordable housing issue and they convened to discuss an application to the Minnesota Housing Partnership to be accepted as a Greater Minnesota Housing Institute Team. And the local team was selected by the state to participate in the year-long process of trainings, technical assistance and local meetings for the purpose of addressing the community’s housing needs.

After dozens upon dozens of meetings, several mandated trainings held throughout northern Minnesota and careful planning, the team has accomplished an amazing goal which will result in the construction of Beacon Hill, a 48-unit affordable rental housing development poised to be completed in September of 2016.

The local team members involved in this project include Sherry Shadley with GRACE House homeless shelter, Becky Lauer with Itasca County Health and Human Services, Diane Larson and Amanda MacDonell with Itasca County Housing and Redevelopment Authority, Isaac Meyer and Dana Herschbach with Kootasca Community Action, Victor Moen with the Minnesota Department of Corrections and Lorna Mix and Audrey Moen of Northland Counseling Center. A unique collaborative, all team members are dedicated to improving the availability of affordable housing in the area. They believe this collaboration is a significant reason Beacon Hill was recently approved by Minnesota Housing to receive state housing infrastructure bonds to make the $8.6 million project a reality.

“We couldn’t do this if not together,” explained Meyer.

“The collaboration was a big reason we were one of 42 projects to be selected from 120 proposals,” added Shadley.

“The stars aligned because from the housing infrastructure bonds that are available, not many projects in rural areas are approved,” said Larson.

“It was nice because, with the collaborative, if we needed letters of support we could get 8-10 right away,” explained Moen.

The group was also pleased to have support and partnership with the city of Grand Rapids and Itasca County. These partnerships were especially helpful in acquiring the land for Beacon Hill which will be located on an 8-acre parcel on 21st Street SE, just east of Target, Walmart and Cub Foods.

As Meyer explained, other significant advantages to receiving the state funding approval include the local community’s awareness of the need for affordable housing as well as support from area legislators.

Because all of the members of the local housing team had been working on affordable housing for years, collaboration and support between the agencies was “a piece of cake,” said Moen who, as all other members agreed, believes the united focus was very helpful in the very competitive application process.

According to Larson, generally one in three applications is funded and applicants often have to reapply several times before they are approved.

“On June 10 we applied and got it on our first try because the state found it to be unique,” said Larson who explained that the Minnesota Housing Finance Board informed them that Beacon Hill was selected on Oct. 23. “A lot of people and groups on the state level knew about Beacon Hill and it fits in with Minnesota’s plan and the national plan to end homelessness.”

Another important part of the local plan to address housing is the release of a housing study. The last such study on Itasca County housing was in 2003 so the team believed that needed to be done before they could proceed and they were able to secure grants and funding support from the city of Grand Rapids and all of the members in the group.

“With the study, we will see that affordable housing will continue to be an issue and there is still a lot of work to be done,” Meyer explained. “There will still be low vacancy in the area.”

“What we’re seeing at the shelter, people get a job but when you’re paying 90 percent of your income to housing that’s a huge barrier,” said Shadley.

“When there is a shortage, the prices go up,” added Larson.

According to Meyer, the rental availability in Grand Rapids is 1.4 percent. In a community with healthy affordable housing availability is 5-7 percent.

“So there is definitely a need and this is one step toward meeting that need,” Larson said of Beacon Hill.

“It’s not the final answer but a step,” agreed Meyer. “With the Housing Institute Team, it shows the community is taking a proactive approach.”

The main goal of Beacon Hill is to provide safe, affordable housing going into the future. The location was chosen for its proximity. It will be within walking distance to many city amenities. It will feature 48 units, 20 of which will be supportive housing and 28 two and three bedroom townhome style units. There will be a community center building to include offices, a computer lab, a community room, laundry and maintenance garage. A playground area for children of Beacon Hill will be designed as a centralized focal point of the community.

“We want it to be a safe place so we will be doing background checks on perspective tenants,” Larson added.

The targeted population will be singles, persons with special needs, families with children, households of color, single-head of households and households experiencing long-term homelessness. All of the units will be income-restricted at 60 percent of Area Median Income (AMI) and because of the multiple sources of rental assistance, the majority of the units will be affordable to households below 30 percent AMI.

The project will be jointly owned through a partnership between ICHRA and Northland Counseling Center. On-site services will be provided by Northland based on individual tenant needs. As an integrated housing model, Beacon Hill will be a place where both those with a disability and those without live side by side.

“We figure it will be completely filled before it’s even finished,” said Meyer.

Applications for Beacon Hill will not be taken until Spring 2016 but the waiting list is expected to be filled very quickly. Construction on the project is expected to start July 2015.

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