Hundreds of families could be forced out of affordable housing in St. Louis Park, as the new owner of one of the Twin Cities’ largest apartment complexes begins an upgrade of sprawling Meadowbrook Manor.
New lease agreements are going out to some 350 households, with rent increases of $100 to $125 a month. Residents must undergo a criminal record check and prove they have income of at least 2½ times the monthly rent. About two-thirds of the residents at the 551-unit complex are on month-to-month leases.
On Wednesday, nearly two dozen government, community and faith leaders met at City Hall to discuss how they can help families who may be forced to move.
“We want to wrap our arms around those folks so they get the support they need, whether they continue to live at Meadowbrook or not,” said St. Louis Park Mayor Jake Spano. “In most communities, that is not what would happen.”
Earlier this year, Helen Bigos sold Meadowbrook to her son Ted. Bigos Management, which operates more than 40 apartment complexes in the Twin Cities, declined to comment.
A similar scenario is playing out in Richfield, where the new owner of the 700-unit Concierge apartments is upgrading the complex, raising rents and evicting residents who can’t pass background checks and meet income standards.
Meadowbrook has a long and checkered history. When it was built in 1953 by Ben and Helen Bigos, the complex was one of the largest in the Midwest. But by the 1980s and ’90s, Meadowbrook had developed a reputation as a trouble spot.
Police calls were frequent, children there regularly missed school and the city was taking the owners to court to get housing and fire code violations fixed.
In response, city and school officials teamed with the Park Nicollet Foundation to form the Meadowbrook Collaborative. An outreach office was set up on site to help residents and children connect with school and community services.
Linda Trummer, who has run the collaborative since its beginning, said most of the residents at Meadowbrook work low-income jobs and many hold down more than one. About 40 percent are immigrants from countries including Kenya, Nigeria, Liberia, Tibet and Mexico.
City officials didn’t have a current estimate of the Meadowbrook population, but in the past the complex has housed about 1,700 people.
State Rep. Peggy Flanagan, a DFLer who represents St. Louis Park in the Legislature, worked during and after college at Meadowbrook as a park leader.
“The kids know Meadowbrook Collaborative,” Flanagan said. “They know there’s a safe place where they can get help with their homework, where they can seek support. I worry about the families that are displaced and won’t have those opportunities.
“I think there may be some misperceptions [about Meadowbrook]. It is an asset to our community, and the people who live there are an asset to our community.”
Spano said the new owner, Ted Bigos, shouldn’t be seen as “the big bad wolf,” pointing out that the property has been in desperate need of renovation for 20 years.
“He’s a property owner coming into a unique experience — a close relationship with the city and the school district,” Spano said. In fact, he added, under the city’s zoning laws Bigos could have bulldozed the property and built high-rises.
City officials also noted that background checks and income verification are common practices in the Twin Cities rental market.
On Wednesday, residents expressed concern about the coming changes.
“I feel like they’re trying to push us farther out,” said Angelia Wilks, who’s lived at Meadowbrook for three years. During that time, the rent on her two-bedroom townhouse rose from $825 to $925; her renovated unit would go up to $1,050.
Wilks said apartment managers told her that her entire building may be torn down to make way for a fitness complex and swimming pool. If that happens, she said, there’s no guarantee that another unit will be available.
Marthe Mafuta has lived at Meadowbrook for two years. She said it’s a good place with plenty of room for her two children to play. She worries about her 7-year-old son, who has special needs and doesn’t adapt well to change.
“Change is a big deal, especially with school,” she said. “If you move in the middle of the year, he starts crying in the night.”