Special housing needs call for special measures

Kathy Cobb | Associate Editor

Published October 1, 1994  | October 1994 issue

Booming housing markets don't necessarily address special housing needs faced by many Ninth District cities: housing for the working poor, transitional housing for the homeless, specially designed housing for the elderly, mentally disabled and physically challenged, and safe housing for battered women and children. Ninth District communities are addressing these issues in some creative ways.

Fargo, North Dakota

The Southeastern North Dakota Community Action Agency, in conjunction with the Southeastern Human Services Center, the city of Fargo and the local housing authority, is rehabilitating a downtown Fargo commercial building for 23 units of SRO (single-room occupancy) housing for mentally disabled people.

Built in 1913, it structure is considered to be of historic value, and the Community Action Agency worked with the state's Historical Society to preserve its special architectural features.

While there was some initial opposition to the project, the benefits of upgrading a large downtown building and providing housing for people who may otherwise live in the streets turned opinion around, says Jim Kappel, executive director of Community Action. "The initial comment is always 'not in my neighborhood.'"

But agency staff held one-on-one talks with employees of nearby businesses to reassure them that the facility would be staffed around the clock.

The project may also become an economic development tool. Kappel says a first-floor kitchen is planned in which meals would be prepared for and by residents as a way of providing some job training—and may eventually turn into a restaurant open to the public.

La Crosse, Wisconsin

The State Bank of La Crosse formed a community development corporation (CDC) through its bank holding company to create opportunities for low- to moderate-income housing in La Crosse. Its first project is unique in the community.

In a partnership with Western Wisconsin Technical College, the bank will build a single-family home using students from the school's wood technics program. "This is better than building a wall in the classroom," says Alan Wehrenberg, CDC president and the bank's senior vice president, "much more gratifying to the students." The students will contribute all the carpentry work, while electrical and plumbing will be contracted.

Wehrenberg says the final house will be sold as a moderately priced home. "I'm convinced there's a need in La Crosse. As a banker I know they're not building [homes] for less than $100,000." Because he had trouble finding a blueprint for a moderately priced house, Wehrenberg modified a more elaborate plan to fit the project budget.

The profits from the sale of the house will be split: one-half to the CDC and the other to the college's foundation to be used toward a scholarship for a low-income student. Future plans for the CDC include rehabilitating some older core homes. "You can end up with houses that won't cost $80,000 or $100,000," Wehrenberg says, even with considerable remodeling costs.

Duluth, Minnesota

The University of Minnesota-Duluth is building student apartments on campus, but the university-owned apartments will see greater use. In the summer many retired Duluthians who winter in warmer climates, return for summers in the city. These "sunbirds" flock to idle university housing each summer, keeping the apartments occupied year round.

Billings, Montana

First Bank Billings and Montana People's Action have joined forces to move houses slated for demolition to sites in a low-income census tract in Billings. The houses are rehabilitated and, through state and federal financing assistance packages, sold for between $50,000 and $55,000 to buyers at no more than 60 percent of median income.

First Bank also supports the project through workshops that help potential home buyers become credit-ready and establish a one-on-one relationship with a lender. "We have a larger pool [of potential home buyers] than we now know," says Peggy Cabe, community lending manager for FBS Mortgage. "They just don't know how to get started."