New digs, no more drugs

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January 18, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott
// A century-old rooming house becomes a safe haven for those committed to positive change //

The century-old, three story brick home appeared to hover over E. 17th St., floating a few feet above curb level. With its entranceway and windows boarded up, it seemed to have its eyes clenched in preparation for the move — a slow, 100 foot glide across an excavated foundation, inching its way eastward down the block on a pair of industrial sized girders. It would take the hard-hatted crew from Weis Builders two days to transport the house, shifting its street address from 722 to 730 E. 17th St.

Once renovated and fully restored, the historic Elliot Park duplex, with its high ceilings, antiquarian charms and some 7,000 square feet of space, will welcome tenants once again. But they won’t be posh Downtown types.

They’ll be recovering drug addicts.

A former rooming house originally built in 1893, the duplex was purchased in 2000 by Aeon, an affordable housing nonprofit specializing in building and renovating apartments for low-income families, homeless youth and adults struggling with chemical dependency. Aeon is having the duplex moved in order to expand its Alliance Apartments complex, a 124-unit sober environment with on-site social services that since 1997 has occupied the block between Park and Chicago avenues.

With the duplex moved down the block, Aeon is creating room for a new annex to Alliance Apartments. Even more significant, the nonprofit plans to house residents in the duplex itself, converting the former rooming house into eight studio apartments and two one-bedrooms. With many of its original period features preserved or recreated — vintage newel posts for the stairways, a mid-century porch configuration — the building promises to be the city’s most unique living environment designed specifically for hard-to-house populations. The entire expansion will add a total of 60 apartments to the Alliance community. According to Aeon, the units should open to tenants in October 2010.

Not a moment too soon

According to Amy Pfarr Walker, communications manager for Aeon, the ongoing housing and unemployment crises have caused more and more local people to fall into hard-to-house categories just as affordable housing development projects have ground to a standstill. Housing advocates all over the city are scrambling to keep up with the increasing demand for their services. There has been such a significant increase in the number of Minnesotans relying on food shelves and homeless shelters in 2009, Twin Cities United Way reports, that Hennepin County has been awarded about $700,000 from FEMA’s Emergency Food and Shelter National Board Program for use in 2010.

“The need [for affordable housing] is growing as fast as any progress we make,” said Rosemary D. Dolata, an architect who is working as a project manager for the Alliance Apartments expansion.

The waiting list for the 60 new apartments, Walker said, is 300 names long.

The current state of the block adds further urgency to the project. The vacant duplex and the Alliance Apartments, which are set far back from the street, are the only buildings on this stretch of 17th. A long, dimly lit parking lot spans most of the block, book ended by Aeon at the Park Ave. intersection and by Catholic Charities at the Chicago Ave. intersection. The emptiness of the block, combined with the two social service agencies, makes “for a lot interesting characters,” said Dolata.

“Basically, if you want to sell drugs, and you don’t want anyone to see you, you come here.”

Not a great situation for the Alliance Apartments residents, who are working to leave their substance abuse behind. Walker and Dolata hope that, in addition to providing housing to a population in need,
the renovated duplex and the new Alliance annex will secure the block for those committed to positive change.

Lean, green and tax credit-free

Since 2006, Aeon has worked with the Center for Energy and Environment and the University of Minnesota’s Center for Sustainable Building Research to ensure that the building’s rejuvenation is as sustainable as possible.

As a result, the restored duplex is the first project in Minnesota to carry a LEED-for-homes mid-rise pilot certification. It also boasts the use of structural insulated panels, an innovative construction material shown to dramatically conserve energy. Elements removed from the house for the renovation have been saved and repurposed, from the workbench in the basement to the day lilies in the garden, either reused at other Aeon properties, donated to reuse centers or gifted to former residents of the duplex.

In terms of housing, Dolata said, sustainability should correspond “not to the life of a mortgage, but to the life of the city.”

The renovation also benefits from a first-of-its-kind state bond created specifically to address issues of long-term homelessness. The state of Minnesota has sold bonds to investors as a way to raise funds specifically for combating homelessness. The bonds keep the renovation from relying on tax credits, which Dolata said insulates the project “from the volatility of this year’s tax credit market.”

‘It lives again’

John Benjamin was thrilled to see the duplex make its slide down the street. He brought a video recorder along for the affair to capture the slow-motion scene. Benjamin grew up in the house with his sister Cleo Gentili. Their parents ran the place as a rooming house in the ’50s and ’60s, renting efficiencies for $7 a week to former transients trying to settle into a more stable life.

“We were doing low-income housing before it was popular,” joked Gentili. The old neighborhood was sort of like “the Bowery in New York City,” Benjamin reminisced. “A lot of old hobos from the ’30s, Woody Guthrie types. People who couldn’t afford a real apartment.”

In Gentili and Benjamin’s eyes, Aeon is rekindling the goodwill that they associate so strongly with their childhood home.

“I’m just delighted to see it preserved as something that will help people succeed,” said Benjamin.

“And you know, it hasn’t changed that much in 40 years.”

Reach Gregory J. Scott at