Suburban homeless housing to become a reality

A proposed building to house young adults experiencing homelessness in the western suburbs received the green light from the Edina City Council.

Proposed 66 West awould house young adults experiencing homelessness in the western suburbs, in a two-story, 39-unit apartment building on West 66th Street in Edina. The Edina City Council is expected to consider the proposal in September. (Submitted graphic)
Proposed 66 West awould house young adults experiencing homelessness in the western suburbs, in a two-story, 39-unit apartment building on West 66th Street in Edina. The Edina City Council is expected to consider the proposal in September. (Submitted graphic)

Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative proposed converting an existing TCF Bank building across from Southdale Center in Edina into a 39-unit apartment building called 66 West. The building is not a temporary homeless shelter and tenants would have a permanent lease for a studio apartment. The project would target 18- to 22-year-olds in the western suburbs.

Edina Community Lutheran Church is the lead congregation on 66 West, modeled after Beacon’s Nicollet Square in South Minneapolis.

To applause from the audience that overflowed the Council Chambers and filled Edina City Hall’s lobby, the Edina City Council unanimously approved a Comprehensive Plan amendment to allow affordable housing in the Regional Medical District and preliminary rezoning of the proposed site during its meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 2.

“We believe in a future for everybody. We believe in a future for young kids and we think we can help on this matter,” Mayor Jim Hovland said before the council’s vote.

Beacon Executive Director Lee Blons called the vote “historic,” saying after the meeting that they’re grateful to the mayor and city council, as well as congregations supporting the project. It’s rare for hundreds of people to turn out in favor of a project and it was a widespread ecumenical effort, she said. Within days of the council’s approval, Beacon received its first request from someone needing to live at 66 West.

The council has received hundreds of letters, emails and postcards in recent months from congregations and their members across the western suburbs supporting the project, stating that homeless people already exist in the suburbs and homeless people won’t disappear from the suburbs if the problem is ignored.

Ann Svennungsen, bishop of the ELCA Minneapolis Area Synod, said the coming together of congregations from different faiths to support 66 West was “remarkable.”

“Who knows when the next time will come for Edina to respond so powerfully to a need you have already committed yourselves to address,” she said of Edina’s goal to provide affordable housing.

Supporters say the project lives out Edina’s values and its dedication to young people. Edina’s goal of creating 212 units of affordable housing and its slow progress toward that goal was also cited as a reason to support the project.

Opponents of the project, many living and working in the area around the proposed 66 West site, said the city would be engaging in “spot zoning” if it were to allow the rezoning needed for the project.

Opponents argued the location wasn’t right and asked that the project be delayed to allow neighbors to find Beacon a new site that better fit the project. This caused supporters to cry “NIMBYism” and some doctors in the medical district to support 66 West because it fit the medical field’s shift to treating people as a whole person rather than only treating an illness.

“It’s the NIMBYs – not in my backyard – so I just want to point out that Edina not only, I think, has the need to provide this opportunity but it’s part of a bigger organization,” said Ed Schuck, a Wayzata resident and former Eden Prairie planning commissioner.

Schuck called on Edina to be a part of the greater western suburbs.

“You’re part of a regional network. You have a need, in my opinion, to communicate and participate with the rest of the metro suburbs. You’re not just an island,” he said.

He questioned whether housing for the homeless should be done elsewhere “because we can’t afford to have ‘those people’ in our backyard.”

Homelessness

Hennepin County has an increasing homeless population in the suburbs, said Mikkel Beckman, director of the county’s Office to End Homelessness.

“We have, in the community surrounding the southwest corner of Minneapolis, a problem with youth homelessness that is growing with Bloomington, Richfield, Edina, St. Louis Park and Hopkins,” he said.

The county’s latest one-night count found 459 young people struggling with homelessness and several hundred of them were suburbanites, he said. Half of them were in shelters or transitional housing programs, 45 percent were moving around or couch hopping, and 5 percent were living outside, he said.

Councilmember Ann Swenson pointed out that teenagers used to live at Highway 169 and Minnetonka Boulevard during the warmer months. Councilmembers Josh Sprague and Mary Brindle noted during the meeting that they have encountered homeless youth in the past and helped find them housing.

“This is not ‘those people’ in my mind. These are people who deserve to be here and we want them here,” Brindle said.

It was personal for Councilmember Joni Bennett, recounting that, as she was putting herself through college, her younger sister in high school lived with her.

“Most of us in this room have benefitted because some adult in some capacity, a teacher, a college professor, a clergy member, a parent, an aunt, somebody looked out for us at some point, and sometimes it was a combination of people, and the good of this tonight is that we as a community are doing that for some of the most vulnerable among us,” Bennett said.

In addition to providing housing, 66 West provides services to help tenants with educational and employment goals, which allows them to move from minimum wage jobs to living wages in a lifelong career, Blons said.

“Edina has prided itself on reaching out to disadvantaged young people in your community and removing barriers to success so that they too have an opportunity to thrive,” she said.

Bill Davis, an Edina resident with a psychiatry practice nearby, pointed out that providing stable housing will allow tenants to focus on their education, which in turn will yield them a higher income and that will lead to a positive contribution to the community.

Thomas Stone, who lives at Nicollet Square, said he grew up in foster care and was homeless for most of his life. People like him grow up without people caring about them and Beacon’s work shows that people care, giving them motivation to seek more for themselves, he said.

Oasis for Youth provides services for 16- to 22-year-olds in Edina, Bloomington and Richfield, and the need is increasing, said Andrea Knoll, Edina resident and Oasis for Youth Board member. The Bloomington resource center served 189 people in 2013 and is expected to reach 200 people this year. Whenever they need to find housing for a youth in crisis, they find all the beds are full and existing housing programs have long waiting lists, she said.

Beckman said Beacon’s proposed housing with support services is a national best practice for ending homelessness.

“When we don’t provide this kind of housing for our young people, their future gets very bleak. They end up being those chronically homeless adults you see in our detoxes and our jails and our emergency rooms and are standing by the roads with signs,” he said. “What you don’t see are the vast majority of homeless are children under the age of 12 with their parents. They’re in school, their parents are working, but they’re in our shelter system.”

Edina resident Betsy Cussler recounted the first housing project, Lydia Apartments, that was created by Beacon before it was Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative. Her Minneapolis church wanted to change a nursing home across the street into housing for people with mental illness.

“It was a risky population and you want to talk about NIMBYism, oh my goodness, we fought about it at the city council. When the city council backed us, they sued us. They picketed us every Sunday when we went to church, for a year and a half we had to cross the picket lines to get into church, but we prevailed,” she said.

Two years after Lydia Apartments opened, the community requested another similar project be constructed because it was an asset to the community, she said. Blons added that they are now developing their fourth project in that Minneapolis neighborhood.

City council actions

The Planning Commission stumbled over the language of “affordable housing” in August, first approving to recommend council denial of the project and then approving to recommend council approval. The Edina Human Rights and Relations Commission also approved in August to recommend council approval.

The council’s approval occurred after 90 minutes of testimony during a public hearing Sept. 2.

The council added a requirement for 24-hour staffing for a year and then to work with Police Chief Dave Nelson if he has continued concerns. Blons said they can also form a neighborhood advisory group to address concerns when the building opens. This type of project is new for the community, Swenson said, noting that they want protection for 66 West tenants and a comfort level for the neighborhood.

Nelson said Nicollet Square averages 19 to 20 calls for service a year, a number that isn’t a lot nor would alarm him.

Blons noted that the neighborhood concern before Nicollet Square opened was that the gang activity in the neighborhood would be drawn to the building, something that didn’t happen.

Edina’s lack of affordable housing

Many pointed out that Edina has barely put a dent into its affordable housing goal.

Edina resident Floyd Grabiel, a former Edina planning commissioner, said that Edina’s Comprehensive Plan focuses on the city’s need of affordable housing.

“We in the city have tended to pay lip service to the concept of affordable housing and proposals that come before the city, it has been a struggle to wrestle from the developers affordable units,” he said.

Between 1996 and 2005, no affordable housing units were built in Edina.

Every city negotiates an affordable housing goal with the Metropolitan Council, and Edina’s goal is 212 units by 2020. Edina approved three units in Burgandy Place in 2006 and seven units in The Waters in 2010. Eighteen units have been approved at the to-be-constructed 6500 France building. A hundred units were approved in 2008, but never constructed, according to Planning Director Cary Teague.

Edina resident Robert Hobbins said, “Whatever may be our intentions, what that track record tells others around us is that those seeking affordable housing are not welcome in Edina and that those who wish to develop and to operate affordable housing need not apply here.”

There’s a gulf between Edina’s words and its deeds, he said.

“I think it’s because we have perfected, virtually to an art form, the process of finding reasons to reject affordable housing proposals, and I say this about us as a community,” he said. “First, we adopt the dubious assumption that those seeking affordable housing must by definition be criminals or at least highly inclined toward criminal activity, and proceeding from that assumption, we cloak the project in an aura of fear and stigma. If there’s any doubt about the efficacy of that approach, we use it with the ‘kill it with kindness’ approach – we’re all for it, but there must be a better place. Tonight I simply ask that we cease to be, at least for tonight, the city where affordable housing goes to die.”

About 800 apartment units are currently being constructed in the Southdale area. The city council has begun asking developers to include affordable housing in every project. However, the developers say it’s either not affordable in their project or other projects didn’t need to include affordable housing so they shouldn’t be required to do so. The city doesn’t have a policy that requires affordable housing and the Edina Housing Foundation has been asked to draft a stronger policy to require it.

The county’s 10-year plan to end homelessness calls for 648 units to be created with supportive services for youth in the county. The recession affected that goal and 296 units have been created, Beckman said.

66 West’s location

Neighboring businesses said 66 West will hurt the Southdale area.

Rose Minor, owner of Step By Step Montessori, said she’s put business improvements on hold due to the 66 West proposal. 66 West puts owners who have made an investment in Edina “in a difficult position,” she said.

Dr. Helen Wood, a former Montessori School parent who practices in the medical district, countered, saying 66 West fits in with the Montessori School’s philosophy of providing a strong foundation for young people, and cultivating independent thought and empathy for others.

Elizabeth Briden, owner of Advanced Dermatology and Cosmetic Institute, said she wants Edina to keep its Regional Medical District intact, as it was  created by “thoughtful city leaders for a reason.” She added that she’s already had two doctors postpone the start of their employment until 66 West was decided and she’s put the remodel of her business on hold because of 66 West.

Brindle responded that not all properties in the Regional Medical District are medical, including the proposed site’s existing TCF Bank and the Step By Step Montessori School. Bennett noted that before the 2008 Comprehensive Plan, the Regional Medical District was guided for office space.

Briden’s attorney, Bob Long of Larkin Hoffman, said the city is doing “spot zoning” if it approves the project. Briden noted that the zoning will erode confidence in the area and completely stop development in the medical district.

City Attorney Roger Knutson said Long was quoting a footnote in a case that didn’t decide a property was spot zoning. Spot zoning means “irrational zoning” that is done as a favor to someone and not for a rational reason, Knutson said.

Briden pointed out that it took her three years to find a site for her business.

Bennett responded that people don’t go without products when a business takes years to find a site, but people go without a home when a housing project takes time to find a site.

Beacon had an 18-month search for the site. It hired a broker after six months to help in the search. Beacon put in an offer on another location in Edina that was rejected before the broker received a call from TCF Bank wanting to sell.

Tom Nelson of Minneapolis, who owns a neighboring property, asked the council to give him 60 days to find a different location for 66 West, claiming he had found a different site for Beacon in the Southdale area. Beacon had trouble finding a location because it was missing a private-public partnership, he said.

In response to the council’s questioning this, Blons said Beacon hasn’t been approached about any other possible properties. Hovland said he attempted to find a multi-family property willing to sell to Beacon and found no one willing in Edina.

Grabiel pointed out that development proposals come to the city as they are and the city must decide on them as they are presented, not maybe if it was a different site or needing more time to search. No other location is being proposed for 66 West and no other developers are proposing a project for 66 West’s site, he said.

“Much has been said that this will damage the neighborhood. Meteors will fall from the sky, and dogs and cats will live together. This is the parade of horrors that always accompanies change-making projects. The parade never occurs because good projects make good results. 66 West is a good project,” he said.

Funding

Approval of 66 West is vital this year with a one-time $100 million available for affordable housing projects, funded in the state Legislature’s bonding bill.

Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, noted that the funding was due to groups coming together to lobby for it for the first time.

“There’s a growing understanding that when we all come together to solve a public crisis like affordable housing, we are stronger,” she said.

She added that the Legislature got the funding done and it’s now up to local governments to carry it the rest of the way with project approvals.

Beacon applied for some of that funding in June. That application is tied to the site and its proximity to jobs and transit. If the council had delayed 60 days to find a new site like it was asked by neighbors, Beacon’s application would have been rejected and it would have entirely lost out on that additional funding this year, Blons said.

Beacon’s application could still lose out to other affordable housing projects in Minnesota applying this year. Beacon would reapply next year if that occurs, and it could also turn to Hennepin County and the Met Council for funding help, Blons said.

Edina Community Lutheran Church has also put money it raised into the project and stands to lose $30,000 if they don’t close on the property by Nov. 7. That money may not be a lot to a commercial business, but it’s a lot of money for a church to raise, said Dan Tisberg, a Minneapolis resident and member of the ECLC Housing Task Force.

Contact Lisa Kaczke at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @EdinaSunCurrent.