The largest public housing renovation project in Minnesota has brought modern fire safety systems and upgraded living spaces to two downtown Minneapolis high-rise apartment buildings.

The $26 million project at the Elliot Twins, now about halfway finished, has also calmed residents who believed the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority's use of private financing would lead to gentrification and permanent displacement.

"That fear has gone away at least for now," said Omar Mohamed, Minneapolis Highrise Representative Council's vice president and a resident of the high-rise. "Everyone is getting upgraded units."

Renovation of the first tower, which will get four new units, is expected to be complete by mid-March. So far, residents have been relocated into 87 upgraded apartments.

Some of the features include new central air conditioning, upgraded kitchens, bathrooms and new finished flooring. Expanded laundry facilities, exercise rooms, a central entrance with a single security desk and a computer room will open to residents in March.

And for the first time, the Housing Authority is installing fire sprinklers and upgrading the fire alarm system in all the units in the Elliot Twins, which were built in 1961. The need for bringing the authority's aging buildings up to modern safety codes became tragically clear in November 2019, when a lack of sprinklers at the agency's Cedar High Apartments enabled the spread of a fire that killed five residents.

When all eight phases are completed by midsummer, the Elliot Twins will have increased its units to 184 — 10 of those units will be disability-accessible units.

The Housing Authority said 90% of its tenants decided to stay during the renovations. The agency said it has covered all moving expenses including those within the Elliot Twins and promised the 14 residents who temporarily vacated their units "a right to return" when the project finished.

With dwindling support from the federal government, Minneapolis Housing Authority leaders sought funding from private sources like Bremer Bank, RBC Capital Markets and Hunt Real Estate Capital. The 15-year partnership, through a program called "Rental Assistance Demonstration," transfers ownership of public housing buildings to a private entity. In return, private investors qualify for tax credits.

The city of Minneapolis contributed $2.3 million to improve energy efficiency at the Elliot Twins.

The plan did not proceed without major hurdles. Housing Authority leaders had to convince residents wary of gentrification that they would not be displaced. Breaking ground in the middle of a surging pandemic also meant setting up COVID-19 protocols to protect residents, construction workers, vendors and staff.

The Housing Authority has said repeatedly that it has no intention of pricing out residents — a majority of whom are people of color and immigrants — and that the long-term goal with the Elliot Twins project is to increase and preserve public housing units.

"Everyone is relocating in this process," said Laura Dykema, director of planning and development for the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, adding the desire is to make the buildings a "viable and a safe, comfortable living environment for our residents today and then into the future."

All units will be designated as "project-based vouchers" and MPHA will continue to manage and own the land the buildings sit on, agency leaders said. The property also will remain affordable to low-income families whose incomes are below 30% of area median income.

Mary McGovern, a longtime resident at the Elliot Twins, said fear of getting displaced lingered in her community for months. McGovern, who's also the president of the Minneapolis Highrise Representative Council, which advocates for the 5,000-plus tenants living in the Housing Authority's high-rise apartments, said she had to reassure residents — most of whom are seniors and an easy target for misinformation from outside groups.

"It is a whole new look in our apartments," she said. "Now people are so happy."

Not everyone agrees with McGovern's assessment. Some, like Mohamed Ahmed Farah, feel that the new units are cramped. But his greater worry was calmed.

"There is always something to worry about with public housing," said Farah, 70. "But getting kicked out is not one of them now."

Faiza Mahamud • 612-673-4203