When leaders from the Red Lake Band of Chippewa and the city of Minneapolis broke ground Saturday on an affordable housing complex on Cedar Avenue, they were marking a turning point.
Mayor Jacob Frey, who has made affordable housing a signature issue, described the ceremony as a key moment in a complicated story arc. A sense of urgency for the project sprang from a sprawling homeless encampment across Hiawatha Avenue, which then gave way to the city’s Navigation Center temporary shelter. That shelter was on the very 1.5-acre site where the new six-floor complex will stand.
Leaders touted the $35.8 million project — named Mino-bimaadiziwin, Ojibwe for “the good life” — as a visionary initiative spearheaded and overseen entirely by the Red Lake tribe, with the city pitching in $4.7 million as well as added support through tax credits and help acquiring the land.
They acknowledged that with 110 units, the new complex will make but a minor dent in a Twin Cities affordable housing shortage that has disproportionately affected American Indian residents.
Still, “this is going to be a place where our people can gather — not only gather but carry on our way of life,” said Red Lake Band secretary Sam Strong.
The complex will host a substance-abuse and mental health clinic, addressing issues Frey noted are leading causes of homelessness.
All units will be open to residents and families making below 60% of the area’s median income, with a portion reserved for those whose income is at 30% of the median or below, what the city defines as “deeply affordable.” Thirty percent of the median is about $28,000 for a family of four, according to the city.
Thirty three-bedroom units are designed to accommodate large families, which face especially steep hurdles in finding affordable housing.
Sam Olbekson, a White Earth Band member and principal at Minneapolis architectural firm Cunningham Group, did the building design. Most of the financing comes from a mortgage and institutional investors, with other contributions by Hennepin County, the Metropolitan Council and private donors. Strong said he has counted 18 funding sources.
Frey, who budgeted a record $40 million this year to address the city’s affordable-housing shortage, said the project clearly won’t put an end to homelessness in Minneapolis. But he argued that it exemplifies city leaders’ approach of owning the problem, “not one where you are bulldozing homeless encampments and pushing them under the rug.”
He said the city investment in such projects is wise, pointing to the steep costs of homelessness to taxpayers. The city spent $1.5 million to set up the Navigation Center, which housed former residents of the homeless encampment nicknamed “The Wall of Forgotten Natives.”
Strong said construction will last 12 to 16 months. Developers will target Red Lake and other tribe members in marketing the units, though they will be open to anyone who meets income requirements. He said the tribe will soon announce additional projects.
“This is a very small piece of the solution,” Strong said.
Dava Beaulieu, a housing advocate who worked closely with the homeless encampment residents, said the day held a deep meaning for her. She said she is thrilled by the project’s dual goal of providing housing and health care services.
“This is a first for our tribe,” she said. “It’s huge for us.”