Affordable then, affordable now

Share this:
October 3, 2005 // UPDATED 1:58 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Jeremy Stratton
Jeremy Stratton

A Downtown apartment building is sold -- and keeps its affordable housing instead of going condo

In March 2005, a group of private investors sold a 25-unit brownstone at 610 E. 15th St. that had contained affordable housing for 22 years. In today's housing market, the building could've gone condo, and the tenants gone away. Instead, Elliot Park Commons was born -- and it remains affordable.

Rent will still be 30 percent of tenants' income, thanks to federal subsidies. Most renters' income is public assistance for mental disabilities; many work part-time or not at all. Furthermore, the new owner, Project for Pride in Living (PPL), is remodeling the apartments for the first time in 22 years, while ramping up services for the residents.

The project is an anomaly -- but is not completely unique -- in these condo-crazed days. And the tenants who live there may shatter the stereotype of who the poor and mentally disabled are, while confronting prejudice about what they mean to their neighborhood.

To profit or not to profit

Dennis Ritchie and the other 610 East 15 Limited Partnership investors didn't have to sell their 90-year-old brownstone to a nonprofit. They had no obligation to keep the unit affordable, or available to people with disabilities. They could have gotten more than the $900,000 PPL paid for the building, which was worth $1.05 million in 2004, according to Hennepin County property tax records.

"We really didn't buy it thinking we'd have this enormous investment," said Ritchie, a principal at Downtown accounting firm LarsenAllen and a minor partner in the 610 partnership.

The group bought the building in 1983 as a tax shelter. Investors got a small return, Ritchie added.

One partner -- whom Ritchie did not name -- had a relative with mental illness and wanted to make sure the residents could stay in the apartments after the building was sold.

New digs

Billani Killoren has lived at 610 E. 15th St. for 22 years, on federal "Section 8" subsidy, which limits rent to 30 percent of a tenant's income. She was resident manager until March, when PPL took over and began renovating apartments. PPL relocated tenants within the building, six at a time. Killoren has already moved back to her transformed one-bedroom.

Killoren said PPL replaced the kitchen cupboards and appliances, stripped the bathroom "to the studs," rearranged the toilet and sink for better access and put in a shower (a building first) and a longer tub, "so you can stretch your legs out," Killoren said.

Senior PPL Project Manager Margaret Dondelinger said PPL will redo corridors, stairwells and a large community room. All 24 one-bedrooms -- which range from 400 to 600 square feet -- and the larger two-bedrooms should be completed by mid-January.

David Fields, economic development coordinator for Elliot Park Neighborhood, Inc. (EPNI), said Elliot Park Commons is compatible with the neighborhood's mission to provide "a full-range of housing for all incomes and all people who wish to live in the neighborhood."

He noted, "In the past couple of years, we have focused on home ownership, to raise the level of resources. But we want to maintain and expand the quality affordable housing stock."

Fields stressed the word "quality." He cited PPL and Central Community Housing Trust projects as "some of the best in terms of quality.

"Elliot Park's poverty level is the highest of any neighborhood in the city," Fields said. "You don't find slum properties. That tells you poor people are living in quality housing."

New services

The new landlord has made more than just structural changes. Services Coordinator Emily Stinnett said PPL and partner Vail Place, a Minneapolis-based mental health provider, have increased services. The groups help tenants get to know each other and their neighborhood through weekly meetings and neighborhood walking tours. A self-sufficiency program assists with government paperwork or finding resources such as food shelves and clothing. (All the services are voluntary, Stinnett said.)

"A lot of the tenants felt isolated," Stinnett said. "We wanted to come in and get a community started within the building and the neighborhood."

Killoren has been anything but isolated from the community. She served on the EPNI board for 10 years until a few years ago, including a term as president, she said. Killoren also chaired the city's advisory committee on drug and alcohol problems (later the Public Health Advisory Committee).

New arrival Gayle Albee didn't have such neighborhood roots, and she didn't equivocate about the importance of the building and services.

"This has saved my life," Albee said. "It allows me the stability of a decent home, to function as positive element in society."

Albee moved to 610 E. 15th St. in November 2004 and was "almost unpacked" when PPL moved her to a temporary unit while hers was remodeled. She'll move back when it's finished. PPL was "careful and considerate of how to shuffle 25 apartments around," Albee said.

PPL hired professional movers to help her pack and move.

"I'm learning a lot of new things," Albee said. "I thought I had reached an age where I could forget what I did know."

She's met some new people she didn't know, too. Albee said residents' backgrounds "vary from artist to professional to accountant." Most are middle-aged, 40 to 60 years old, and Caucasian. However, residents include Native Americans, Somalis, Africans and African Americans, Albee said. "Most are "acceptably socially functional," she added.

"One reason I'm hopeful about the community building is that there's a wealth of talents in the building," Ablee said. "If we can begin to let our little secrets out, the talents would be honored."

Albee said she's paid as much as 60 percent of her income for rent in the past -- double the 30 percent she now pays.

"A lot of policy makers have no idea what a very small percentage of what they think is affordable housing really is affordable," Albee said. "Market forces keep pushing that higher and higher."

Albee serves on a PPL participant advisory committee, in which tenants meet to discuss ways to be active in the community, its issues and politics. They write letters to the Legislature on issues such as children's care, health care and transportation. They have toured PPL properties and attended a PPL board meeting and dinners.

When Killoren tried to join the PPL committee, they turned her down. "They said I had too much experience," she said.

The committee's mission is to get people involved in civic matters -- "I already had audiences with the mayor and the City Council," Killoren said.

Likewise, Killoren doesn't participate much in the new services at Elliot Park Commons. "There's not much there to offer me anything," she said. "I got to know all the people in the neighborhood before because I was so active in the community."

Killoren said she tried to create "a family atmosphere" while she was resident manager. "I think that's what [PPL's Stinnett] and Vail Place are trying to do," she said. "Where everybody knows everybody."