Detrick Cheairs gave a tour of his brand-new, two-bedroom apartment in north Minneapolis' Hawthorne EcoVillage. It is a modest corner unit with large windows and an open floor plan.

For Cheairs though, his unassuming new home feels a bit like divine intervention — a glimmer of hope after homelessness knocked his little family off their feet.

"We are so blessed," Cheairs said repeatedly. "There is more than enough from me and my daughter." He and his 7-year-old daughter, De'Liyah, were forced to sleep in shelters last fall after a breakup and then financial turmoil left them homeless.

Two days before Thanksgiving, they moved into their new apartment.

They are one of 75 families now living in the Eco­Village, a new environmentally friendly, four-story apartment and townhouse development built and managed by Project for Pride in Living (PPL). The nonprofit developer and social service provider has been investing in affordable housing in a four-block area of the Hawthorne neighborhood for more than a decade. The idea behind the venture is that safe, affordable homes are essential to improving student performance, which leads to better-paying jobs, happier families and more vibrant neighborhoods.

"That stability of having a dependable, decent place to live — everything springs from that," said Paul Williams, president and CEO of Project for Pride in Living.

The $18 million EcoVillage is PPL's largest single investment in the neighborhood, and relied on nearly a dozen financing partners including the city of Minneapolis, Hennepin County, Minnesota Housing Finance Agency and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Units range in size from studio apartments to three-bedroom townhouses, with rents from $670 to $995 a month. They are available to residents making no more than half the area's median income.

The group's work is taking on a new urgency as razor thin rental vacancy rates, rising rents and home prices are making large swaths of housing out of reach for those with modest incomes.

"We had over 600 inquiries for this property before we even officially opened up application for the 75 units," Williams said. "We have seen the demand for affordable rental housing continue to increase and intensify. That low-to-moderate income housing stock has been bought up, slightly upgraded and the rents are really jacked up."

The average rent for a two-bedroom unit in the Twin Cities is about $1,200, but the median household income for that neighborhood is less than $30,000, said Danyika Leonard, a manager with the education-focused nonprofit Northside Achievement Zone.

"Our families do whatever they can to make sure roofs are over their babies' heads, but it can sometimes feel impossible," Leonard said.

An apartment with a comparatively affordable $655 monthly rent has allowed Cheairs to turn his attention back to work, parenting, sports and even nutrition.

Northside Achievement Zone, which partners with PPL, selected 11 of the Eco­Village families, including the Cheairses. Leonard said they also believe that a stable home is pivotal to improving student performance.

Cheairs, a welder, is nearing the end of his probationary period at a new job. He coaches youth basketball. De'Liyah is on a basketball team and he is trying to expand his cooking skills.

He said he's motivated by his daughter, at one point hugging her photo to his chest.

"This is my heart," he said.

A new vision

PPL spent years working with neighbors to design the EcoVillage at 617 Lowry Av. N., near Lyndale Avenue. The building, erected on an empty lot, has a modern look, but the facade includes brick, a nod to much of the neighborhood's architecture and design. A row of townhouses behind the building act as a transition into the neighborhood of mostly single-family houses.

Andrew Bornhoft, housing administrator with the Hawthorne Neighborhood Council, said he's pleased with PPL's commitment to the neighborhood and its work to help some of the area's families that are vulnerable to rising rents. In addition to the new apartments, PPL has built or rehabbed more than 20 single-family houses in a four-block area of the neighborhood.

'We find it very positive'

Other nonprofits, including Habitat for Humanity, have also built or rehabbed homes in the area. That investment aids families, builds prides in the community and lowers crime, Bornhoft said.

"We find it very positive and exciting," Bornhoft said. "It's an example to other developers about what can get built in this community."

The EcoVillage includes a playground, outdoor picnic area, underground heated parking and a state-of-the art rainwater infiltration system. The roof has been seeded with grass. Water that doesn't get soaked up is funneled into an underground holding tank and will be used to water a series of rain gardens on the property.

"We are trying to do away with the myth that low income housing means low-quality tenants," Bornhoft said.

The building is energy efficient and can be outfitted with solar panels. During construction, crews relied on techniques to reduce waste.

"We had to cut down a tree on site and we made it into furniture," Williams said.

The building is also designed to promote a healthy lifestyle for residents. PPL already manages a community garden on a lot adjacent to the EcoVillage. The new building includes a secure bicycle storage room and a fitness center. The building includes wide sweeping stairways while the elevators are tucked out of sight, to encourage walking.

Founded in 1972, PPL manages 1,300 affordable housing units across the Twin Cities. In addition to the Hawthorne neighborhood, PPL has worked extensively in the Phillips neighborhood in south Minneapolis.

Said Williams, "A tougher inner city neighborhood can be a place of promise and opportunity."