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Continued: Residents of Minneapolis' Marimark Apartments wonder what's next

  • Article by: MAYA RAO , Star Tribune
  • Last update: July 12, 2012 - 10:49 PM

The $495-a-month studio on the second floor of the Marimark Apartments has so little closet space that John Wright hangs his clothes on three racks by the bed.

Wright still loves his "hole in the wall" in downtown Minneapolis because it is cheap and close to his church, friends and the bus that takes him to his job as a hotel busboy in Bloomington.

Yet by November, Wright and about 60 others who live at 1226 Marquette Av. S will have to find a new home. This week, the Westminster Presbyterian Church next door closed on a nearly $5 million deal to buy the property, demolish the Marimark Apartments and use the space to expand its ministry and parking.

Church leaders have pledged to contribute $3 million toward the building of 150 new affordable housing units downtown. But that new housing will not be built soon enough to help those evicted.

The church's move has angered downtown's City Council member, Lisa Goodman, and others, who say Westminster's plan will shrink an already paltry supply of low-cost housing downtown. And it has left some residents pondering their next move after years, even decades, in the same one-room homes.

Goodman knocked on doors several months ago at Marimark, as the discussions with Westminster were underway, and conversations with residents were "enough to make you cry ... It's a really big deal, and that's why I'm so upset," she said.

The church's associate pastor, the Rev. Doug Mitchell, defended Westminster's plan as a way to expand important ministries while offering generous aid to displaced residents.

"We're very serious about affordable housing in the city and so we don't lightly tear down a building, even though it's in terrible condition," he said.

A larger need

City officials, housing advocates and even the church say that the $3 million is a fraction of what is needed to build 150 low-income units.

A project on that scale could cost as much as $24 million in all, when taking into account the likely costs per unit supplied by Minneapolis housing policy director Tom Streitz and several nonprofit affordable housing development experts. Government and private funding sources will have to be cobbled together to meet Westminster's goal.

Mitchell said the church fully understands that $3 million will not cover the cost. But he said, "The early private money at the beginning of a housing deal is absolutely critical to be able to leverage the rest of the money."

Even the $3 million the church is vowing to spend has yet to be raised from the congregation. Westminster has set aside $1 million so far for nonprofit developer Aeon to build the first 50 housing units in the next year and a half.

Westminster gave residents notices about the move Tuesday morning, a day after buying the building from Mark Orfield, and is holding sessions for them to meet with relocation specialists. They aim to move everyone out by Nov. 1.

Aid for long-term residents

The church will pay moving expenses for residents and cover the difference between their current rent and the rent in their new home, if it is higher. Those who have lived in Marimark for at least 10 years will receive 42 months of "rental gap" payments. Residents who have lived there between five and 10 years will receive the payments for 36 months, and those who have stayed in the building for less than five years will receive it for 24.

"We don't want anybody ending up on the streets," Dan Wilson, a relocation consultant hired by the church, told residents at a meeting about the move Tuesday night. "I'm sorry this is happening to you at this time of your life; we're going to try to minimize the impact the best we can."

Marimark resident Linda Ackley blinked back tears after the event ended.

"We've become very close," she said. "We look out for each other. A lot of us are not married, don't have children, so we become family. And so to break up the family is hard. It's hard."

Different side of downtown

Accommodations at the beige-and-gray building are a world apart from the luxury apartments and condos that define modern downtown living. The hallways of the former hotel are covered in worn maroon carpet, and the musty air smells faintly of smoke.

The apartment Wright has lived in for the last 14 years is cramped, so he stacks his belongings and paperwork against the walls and on the kitchen table.

Still, said Wright, 51, for the amount of money he pays, "I've been kind of spoiled."

And he loves that his building has so many characters -- the former literature professor who rails against religion, the retiree who lectures about Bible prophecies, the guy who makes corny jokes that irritate them all.

Leaving them will be sad, but there are other concerns. Wright expects he will not find an apartment for less than $150 or even $250 a month more than what he now pays.

Goodman and Streitz, the Minneapolis housing director, said they do not want to help support the planned replacement housing with money from the city's affordable housing trust fund, because that fund should be set aside for entirely new units.

And they and other advocates note that downtown has so little low-cost housing that Marimark residents will face a challenge in finding a comparable home.

"What the church is doing is covering up the fact that they're removing a substantial number of very low-cost housing in downtown Minneapolis and displacing the residents," said Jack Cann, a senior attorney with nonprofit Housing Preservation Project in St. Paul. "And this other stuff about 150 replacement units is all just nonsense and fluff."

Maya Rao • 612-673-4210

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