A first-time developer is set to break ground on St. Paul's East Side on a 62-unit apartment building with units affordable to a range of low-income renters.

The St. Paul Housing and Redevelopment Authority on Nov. 10 unanimously approved bond financing for construction of The Hollows at 520 Payne Av. in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood.

More than half of Payne-Phalen households make less than $50,000 a year, according to data from Minnesota Compass.

Developer Johnny Opara, a Nigerian immigrant, spent years in the business sector, working most recently at Medtronic. For him, developing housing was a way to give back to the city and to his father, who died in 2018.

Opara said his father lived in affordable housing in St. Paul and struggled with poor amenities and property management. He said he knew the housing could have been better, and he promised his father that he would do what he could.

"When we moved him from where he had lived to a new development, the phone calls in terms of this complaint or that complaint stopped, and he was just happy. His whole aura changed — there were more phone calls of optimism," Opara said. "I got a chance to really see how critical the right housing can be in terms of improving upon your mental and physical health."

Opara pursued his real estate license while also working a full-time job. Mentorship from a longtime Twin Cities developer and the LISC Twin Cities' Developers of Color Capacity Building Initiative, a St. Paul-based career acceleration program, pushed him further and opened doors, he said.

Council Member Jane Prince, who represents portions of the East Side, introduced Opara to the Payne Avenue development site in late 2017. When Opara drove there, he said, he could visualize The Hollows — even with nothing there.

Four years later, plans for the four-story building include a mix of studio apartments, alcoves — larger studios — and one- and two-bedroom units.

"I wanted to make sure that folks have access to housing that was equitable and affordable, and gave them the chance to live somewhere where they could be proud of," Opara said.

Opara's real estate development company, JO Companies, is projected to close on the site in December, with groundbreaking soon after. After years of work, it's rewarding to have the end in sight, he said.

"To have those early mornings and late nights ... and then four years later, you get a unanimous vote from the City Council saying, 'Hey, we believe in you, too,' that's what it's about, that's what keeps you going," he said.