HRDC and partners celebrate next step in providing housing stability

On Wednesday morning, several stakeholders gathered to break ground on the East Conifer Estates housing project. The new complex will be the third and final phase of housing projects launched by the Headwaters Regional Development Commission along Conifer Avenue in Bemidji.

Ground is broken at East Conifer Estates on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, in Bemidji. Pictured from left are Nova Harrison, of the Red Lake Housing Authority; Jennifer Ho, Minnesota Housing Commissioner; Ryan Zemek, executive director of the HRDC; Chelsea Oldham, Kraus-Anderson office manager; Vanessa Burkman, community development planner with the HRDC; Sarah Wilcox, development specialist with the HRDC; and Jordan Anderson, Ultima Bank. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- For the third time along Conifer Avenue, shovels pierced the soil to commemorate work starting on a new housing complex.

Representatives from Kraus-Anderson Construction, the Headwaters Regional Development Commission, Minnesota Housing and the Red Lake Housing Authority were all present Wednesday morning for the groundbreaking of East Conifer Estates. The project is the third and final phase of the HRDC's Conifer housing initiative.

Discussions of the initiative go back to 2007, during a conversation with local Native American tribal leaders about homelessness and homeownership. Since then, two housing complexes have been completed in western Bemidji.

"It's incredible," said Tim Flathers, recently retired HRDC executive director . "At the beginning, we didn't know if we would have a phase two or three. We were just so focused on getting the first one done. When we finished it, our first instinct was 'that was great, but we're never going to do that again,' because it was incredibly difficult. But once you see families moving in and becoming successful, it changes your outlook on what you accomplished."

The Conifer complexes are described as supportive housing. The goal of building them is to ensure quality, affordable housing options to low- and moderate-income households throughout the region.


All of the complexes have staff who can provide a range of services to the residents, from assistance with finding employment to setting up transportation.

"Housing is important, but it's the wraparound services that really make this project unique," HRDC Executive Director Ryan Zemek said. "It's those services that can stabilize peoples' lives. That can help them move from being homeless to productive and independent people."

Conifer Estates opened with 20 units in 2012. Then, in July of this year, the Conifer Villas opened with 32 units .

The first project cost about $4 million while Conifer Villas came to nearly $10 million. East Conifer Estates, expected for completion in August 2022, will include three buildings with a total of 24 units at an estimated $7 million.

According to Flathers, the HRDC had initially looked at an area west of Bemidji's downtown to build the housing. However, there were limitations based on soil studies.

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"We thought maybe we wouldn't be able to proceed with the building," Flathers said. "Then, the Beltrami County Housing and Redevelopment Authority offered to donate this property along Conifer Avenue. Because of that donation, it made us continue."

In her comments, Minnesota Housing Commissioner Jennifer Ho said projects like East Conifer Estates are made possible by legislators on both sides of the political aisle working together.

"We've had a lot of success through the Minnesota Legislature getting housing infrastructure bonds to do projects like this," Ho said. "I think it's really important to appreciate how bipartisan the support has been."


While Wednesday's event was a step forward, Flathers said the Conifer initiative isn't the end-all, be-all of housing needs for the community.

"It's one piece of a really big continuum of housing," Flathers said. "At the most basic level, the supportive housing keeps families from being homeless. If families are going to be successful, stability is one of the biggest prerequisites. They become much more aspirational when they have stability in their lives. We need stable families and this is just one part. It's not the answer, but part of the answer."

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