Lee Blons is no stranger to a difficult deal.
She is the executive director of Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative, a nonprofit that develops housing for some of the most underserved and poorest people in the Twin Cities. With the support of a sprawling and diverse network of congregations — more than 90 across the metro — the organization has been the driving force behind some of the most innovative — and complicated — housing developments in the metro.
Case in point: Great River Landing, a new apartment building for men who were formerly incarcerated that is expected to open this year in the upscale North Loop neighborhood in Minneapolis.
So it is no surprise that Blons — and Beacon — were on the front lines of the effort last year to find long-term housing for people living in a tent city that developed along Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis.
It quickly became clear that simply building more affordable housing wasn’t going to solve the problem. From just about every perspective, the situation was uncommonly complicated starting with a general distrust for the government. Many of the people in the encampment hadn’t used any county services, so their personal stories — and needs — were unknown to those who were trying to help them. Some had no income, even though they might have been eligible for disability payments. And there were cultural issues to consider, as well, including a preference to be housed with others from the American Indian community.
How it was going to happen was unclear. A breakthrough came when it was clear that the Red Lake Nation could channel state housing-support funds that are dedicated to people with disabilities and those dealing with long-term homelessness into an urban project that serves Indians, but isn’t owned by the tribe.
Blons is unaware that such funds have been used this way before.
Blons called on Avivo, a mental and chemical healthy agency that has provided a broad range of social services to Beacon for 15 years.
Beacon, Emily Bastian from Avivo and Adam Fairbanks, a consultant for Red Lake, agreed in general terms to team up to provide more housing.
“All three of us felt the urgency, and felt like we had to something different from we normally do,” said Blons.
Avivo found housing for more than 100 people, some of them in supportive housing in St. Paul that’s operated by Beacon.
While plans were being made to close the encampment, Blons and her staff had dozens of meetings with local officials, tribal members and others to discuss a more permanent solution.
Within a week of Beacon’s first meeting with Avivo and Red Lake, the. conversation had quickly moved to consideration of a new building and congregation leaders that support Beacon suggested moving ahead with project.
Earlier this year Beacon signed a purchase agreement to buy a historic seven-story building at 16 N. 4th St. in the Warehouse District. The building, which is now known as the Rockler Fur building, was built in 1915 as the Film Exchange building. It replaced the Arts Exchange building, which had burned down. Because the Film Exchange building would house film reels, which are highly flammable, it was built of brick and concrete to slow the spread of fire. The Rockler family bought the building in the 1940s to house its business, the Fur-Mart Inc.
The building, which doesn’t have dedicated parking but is near light-rail and bus routes, has been on the market since early 2016 when a New York-based developer backed out of its plans to convert the building into 55 rental units.
The project is being called Bimosedaa — an Ojibwe word that translates into English as ‘let’s walk together.’ Preference will be given to members of the Red Lake Nation and other tribal members, but if there is enough space other members of the community will be considered.
“Being in the heart of the city and keeping the idea of walking together — no one goes alone — at the heart of this vision is really important to this work,” said Alisha Gehlert, director of economic development and planning for the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians. “Bimosedaa is a reflection of the tribe’s commitment to the idea that we are here to reassure and support one another.”
Beacon is working with LHB to convert the seven-story building into 48 studio apartments with their own bathrooms and kitchens. Because many of those residents will need help transitioning from homelessness and chemical dependency, Avivo will provide support services from community space within the building.
The project still has hurdles to clear. Beacon will use Federal Historic Tax Credits and is still seeking capital funding and city approvals, but hopes to begin renovations by summer of 2020.