A new Bemidji housing development drew more than 20 state and local officials to its site Thursday as an open house unveiled new homes for 20 low- and moderate-income families.
"It's actually quite an accomplishment for a small community like Bemidji to pull this off," said Jim Steenerson with the Northwest Minnesota Foundation, who spearheaded a group that met four years ago to discuss housing needs facing the region.
Housing officials met in Bemidji for an all-day regional housing dialogue, which ended with a tour of the new Conifer Estates, located off 15th Street Northwest behind Bi-CAP. Steenerson, during the dialogue, was honored with a lifetime achievement award for his work on housing.
That initial group he led involved all three tribes from the region. White Earth eventually withdrew, focusing on its own housing initiatives, but both Leech Lake and Red Lake will have master leases for five units each in the new Conifer Estates, which was constructed by Kraus-Anderson.
The development is a set of five townhome complexes, each containing four housing units - two three-bedroom units, a one-bedroom unit and a two-bedroom unit. There also is a community building with two meeting rooms and a kitchen. Soon to be added are a playground, patio and grilling area and two basketball areas.
"They really rang the bell with this one," said Warren Hanson, the president and CEO of the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund, a nonprofit that works with the state to finance supportive low- and moderate-income housing projects.
The Greater Minnesota Housing Fund focuses on low- and moderate-income supportive housing projects. Hanson said Conifer Estates is a great project because it is a mix of both and includes three transitional units that will be available for homeless families.
"Projects like this are our priority," he said, noting the emphasis placed on families.
Hanson, echoing the feelings of many who toured the site, said he did not expect the development to be so well laid out and attractive.
"This is so beautiful," said Colleen Landkamer, state director of USDA Rural Development. "This is really quite attractive."
Mary Tingerthal, the commissioner of the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, recalled being at the site last fall, when stairs were not yet installed. She was climbing ladders to get to the second floors so she could see the entirety of the units.
Now, the units are complete, awaiting their new tenants. They were built with efficiency in mind, Tingerthal said, noting the large windows in the major rooms offset by smaller windows above staircases, allowing for continuous airflow. Ceiling fans maintain air circulation and floor heat to reduce energy costs.
"The need is unquestioned," said Tim Flathers, community development director with the Headwaters Regional Development Commission, who has been working toward the project for about five years.
The location near Bi-CAP was actually the second site proposed for the project, after it was first planned to be located along Rako Street. As the project faltered, Beltrami County Housing and Redevelopment Authority offered land near Bi-CAP.
"I'm excited to be at this stage," Flathers said. "There were times when we felt like giving up."
The manager, DW Jones, is beginning to seek a residential caretaker, who would be in place about May 1. No tenants have yet been identified, Flathers said, but agencies have only just begun to seek applicants and already have 10 families on a waiting list.
"We're hoping for full occupancy by July 1," said Mary Thompson, accounting and administrative director with the HRDC.
Bi-CAP will provide services to the tenants, such as education, transportation and employment assistance, budgeting and financial literacy, goal setting and self-sufficiency counseling.
Families in transition are often cycling through the system, going through detox centers, mental health facilities, sometimes incarceration, Tingerthal said. Supportive housing projects like Conifer Estates gives them an environment in which they can succeed.
"If you can get somebody stabilized, get a family stabilized with an affordable roof over their head, they can work on those issues and break the cycle," she said.
The state several years ago set a goal of ending homelessness by providing 4,000 units of supportive housing in the state. Hanson said the state is more than 80 percent there.
"Progress is being made; great progress is being made," he said. "The unfortunate fact is that the economy has increased the problem."
More housing will be needed, he noted.
The bonding bills at the state Capitol now include moneys that would fund supportive projects. Gov. Tim Dayton's bonding bill includes $32 million, the Senate version $36 million and the House $15 million.
"It's a great investment," Tingerthal said. "I'm hoping we can make that case."