“More than a place to live”: White Oak Estates to give Baxter residents opportunities to succeed

Chief of Police Jim Exsted has served with the Baxter Police Department for over two decades. He’s spent below-zero nights at 24-hour restaurants or gas stations, waiting with community members experiencing homelessness who simply need a warm place to sit until Community Services opens in the morning.

Right: Rendering of White Oak Estates townhomes by Blumentals/Architecture, Inc.

“A lot of times these individuals will be tapped out of their free housing options — whether it’s through Salvation Army or Lutheran Social Service,” Exsted explained. “When you get to the end of those options, there really isn’t anything more to do.”

Because options for an affordable home are slim in Exsted’s region — especially those offering services to support people with a mental illness or chemical dependency — there’s no guarantee that that person will be able to find help when the sun comes up.

“I know there’ve been times when they sit in the lobby at community services all day,” Exsted said. “It’s tough, and at some point, a lot of people get sick of waiting and get up and walk out.”

Fortunately, with the leadership of the Region V+ Adult Mental Health Initiative — which includes county leaders from Todd, Wadena, Cass, Morrison, Aikin, and Crow Wing Counties — Baxter, Minnesota is taking a major step to prevent and address homelessness in the region with a new project financed this fall by Minnesota Housing.

Developed and managed by Central Minnesota Housing Partnership (CMHP), White Oak Estates will include twenty, one-bedroom rental homes in a two-story apartment building with a 24-hour front desk and mental health and chemical dependency services provided by Nystrom & Associates. Adjacent to the building will sit twenty, two-story townhomes that will help meet a pressing local need for homes affordable to working people who earn approximately $31,200 to $43,300 annually.

“We’re going to create an environment where individuals can hopefully live and prosper,” Exsted says. “It’s more than just a place to live. It’s a place to live and get services that you need.”

To Exsted and his colleagues, providing stable housing is a strategy to prevent homelessness and costs to the community down the line. “A short-term housing solution doesn’t necessarily work,” Exsted explained. “We want to think long-term. If we can create stable housing and create a conduit to get people to services quicker, hopefully that will keep law enforcement out of the picture.”

Motivated to achieve a common vision

Deanna Hemmesch, Executive Director of CMHP, said that the leadership and vision of the Region V+ Adult Mental Health Initiative was instrumental in moving White Oak Estates forward — and quickly. It can take several years before a project successfully applies for financing from Minnesota Housing. Hemmesch says the commitment of community leaders meant the Baxter project was ready to submit an application in just three months.

Inspired by the Beacon Hill Project in Itasca County, Region V+ approached Hemmesch to help make their vision for a supportive housing complex with adjacent affordable townhomes a reality. “I think the Key Aspect was having the Region V+ Adult Mental Health Initiative on board right from the start, and having them help identify what was needed and where it should go,” Hemmesch explained. “That was definitely instrumental in making the project successful and identifying potential partners within the community.”

Rendering of White Oak Estates apartments, which will include support services, by Blumentals/Architecture, Inc.

Digging into the need

The Region V+ Initiative enlisted Larissa Rippley of Rippley Richard Real Estate Development Services to examine the region’s need for supportive housing. “As we were going through the process it became evident that there was a huge need in that area — not only for supportive housing but for affordable housing in general,” Rippley said. Even if an individual had access to a program to help with rent — like a Housing Choice Voucher or Housing Support through the Department of Human Services, “they could look for housing in the community, but there was no housing to be had,” Rippley explained.

Rippley, who has worked in the affordable housing field for 25 years, said the private market doesn’t always produce the affordable homes community members need — making public investment critical in some communities. “There are certain areas of the state — and I think Brainerd and Baxter are really good examples — where affordable housing is not going to naturally occur. These are vacation property areas, where people are starting to take things offline and put them on Airbnb and other platforms. When the housing market gets tight, there needs to be help.”

Nathan Bertram, Adult Services Supervisor for Crow Wing County’s Adult Mental Health, Substance Abuse, and Adult Protection Teams, said that Region V+ reached out to Rippley after a local board and lodge for people with mental illness and chemical dependency closed its doors. “We were asking, how are we going to fill the void of the beds we once had for people?” Bertram explained.

Bertram emphasizes that there’s a need for affordable homes in the region period — not just homes with connected services. However, in a tight housing market, people with a mental illness or chemical dependency face even fewer choices. For example, sometimes people exiting treatment must live in a facility with more care than they require, sacrificing their independence. Bertram and his colleagues wanted to create a supported home environment that would facilitate self-determination.

“My counterparts — from Rochester to my community to Duluth to the metro area — everyone’s talking about a housing vacancy issue,” Bertram explained. “If an individual has poor rental history — whether that’s due to substance abuse, a criminal record, or a mental health diagnosis — they’re struggling to find a home. Projects like ours in Baxter are greatly needed. People need to have the opportunity to get on the feet, and sometimes they need a more supportive environment to do that. Once they’re standing, they’re able to transition into something that may be more appealing to them.”

Investments in people pay off

Exsted wants state legislators to keep a close eye on projects like the Baxter development to see how public investment pays off in the long run.

“I think it’s extremely important that legislators watch projects like this as we move forward, so they can be aware of how helpful they are to communities,” Exsted said. “Yes, they are a significant expense up front. But I think if you dove deep into the numbers, you could draw out the successes gained through these projects and show the savings. If individuals aren’t receiving services now, and you track that same individual for the next ten years, they’re going to be unhealthy. But when you create an environment for people to succeed, then they can contribute to your local community.”