West Birch Estates to provide affordable homes to Princeton area families

West Birch Estates shows the power of partnerships in making affordable housing happen. From community advocates like Victoria Hallin and city leaders like Jolene Foss, to affordable housing sector leaders like Central Minnesota Housing Partnership and Blumentals/ Architecture, Inc. — every voice is essential.

Victoria Hallin has been a leader in her community of Princeton, Minnesota for years. She’s served on the City Council for 14 years, been mayor for four, acted as EDA commissioner for 12 years, and she just started serving on the city planning commission.

“My whole heart and soul is vested in this community,” Hallin said.

But 17 years ago, Hallin had more pressing matters to deal with than building a better Princeton. Her first and only priority was to find a home for herself and her four sons. Hallin had decided to leave her husband, and over the next few months, her life changed drastically.

After Hallin moved out for a summer — a block away from her sons — she discovered that her husband had failed to pay lot rent for their mobile home. He and the boys were evicted. Because Hallin’s name was also on the lot lease, she was barred from renting for a year.

Suddenly, Hallin and her boys were homeless. And finding an apartment they could afford — let alone one that would accommodate four boys — was a major challenge due to Princeton’s shortage of affordable rentals and affordable rentals suitable for families.

“It’s very hard to rent anywhere with four boys,” Hallin said. “I was getting the door slammed on me left and right. Like, they’re going to destroy the place. Or the units aren’t big enough for four.”

So, for six and a half months, Hallin searched desperately for a home for herself and her sons. For several months, they stayed with Hallin’s friend — who had a husband and son — in a two-room mobile home. Five boys crammed into one bedroom while Hallin’s friend and her husband slept in the other. Hallin slept on the couch with a blanket.

Homelessness put a major strain on Hallin and her boys.

“There was a lot less time that I could spend with my boys because of having to work or work extra,” Hallin said. “Transportation was an issue for all of us. It was very time consuming, and it took a lot more time out of our schedule as a family unit. We didn’t have family time. We couldn’t have family dinners.”

One day while driving through Princeton, Hallin saw a woman doing yard work outside of an apartment complex. She decided to stop and ask the woman if any units were available for rent.

“She goes, ‘Oh my gosh, I manage these apartments, but I also manage West Birch Townhomes (pictured right), and I think we may have an opening for you,” Hallin recounted.

“I almost had a heart attack,” she continued. “We looked at the unit, and I signed the papers, and we moved in in February. My children had a home. It was a blessing.”

Hallin’s sons, who were 7, 9, 11, and 15 years old at the time, were deeply appreciative of the space, and flourished in a place they could finally call their own — a 3-bedroom unit with outdoor play area and access to onsite laundry.

“Their respect level was tenfold when we moved into that unit,” Hallin said. “If they spilled Kool-Aid on the carpet they were freaking out. They were very appreciative and very respectful of the roof over their heads and their own bedroom and their own toys.”

As the stress of homelessness began to fade, Hallin saw her boys transform.

“Moving into West Birch gave them academic success, it enhanced them emotionally, and it built a stronger bond between the family because we could spend more time together,” Hallin explained. “They excelled, and I could see a big difference.”

Each evening, at the Family Pathways Teen Center where Hallin works, she mentors, feeds, and encourages 30 to 60 teens — some of whom she’s known since her days working in early childhood education. These teens deal with a range of stressors — including homelessness. Her own experience with homelessness, and the impact it had on herself and her sons, motivated her to work for more affordable housing in the Princeton community.

“The Princeton community is like everybody knows your name. You know, like the Cheers atmosphere,” Hallin explained. “And we’re concerned. There are a lot of homeless youth here. I’ve worked with 35 myself. My passion over the years has just gotten stronger and stronger.”

Over a decade ago, fellow community members urged Hallin to run for City Council. She ran and won — four times. Since then, Hallin has been a vocal advocate for affordable housing in Princeton. For the past few years, she has thrown her support behind a project recommended for funding this October by Minnesota Housing.

The project supports the acquisition and redevelopment of all 24 of the existing West Birch Townhomes and the construction of a 16-unit apartment building nearby, affordable to households earning approximately $26,150 to $45,480 per year. Project developer Central Minnesota Housing Partnership (CMHP) commissioned Blumentals/ Architecture, Inc. to design and oversee construction of the complex, which will accommodate a range of family sizes with 1-, 2-, 3-, and 4-bedroom units and provide community spaces including a new playground. Blumentals/ Architecture will provide big-ticket energy conservation upgrades to the existing Townhomes — from new exterior windows to central cooling.

Together, the existing Townhomes and the new 16-unit apartment building will be known as West Birch Estates.

Hallin is overjoyed that more Princeton families will have access to the same opportunities she and her boys could access once they moved into a home they could afford.

“I fought for West Birch because it saved my life to live there,” Hallin explained. “It’s a stepping stone for many people, and it was like a second set of eyes when I was raising my kids because it was just me and the four boys. It’s a nice ambiance there, and the managers are friendly and kind.”

For years, Hallin and project partners including CMHP, Blumentals/ Architecture, and the City of Princeton worked hard to make West Birch Estates happen.

Deanna Hemmesch is Executive Director of CMHP, a nonprofit affordable housing development organization that serves 16 Central Minnesota counties. She’s been envisioning a project like West Birch Estates since 2010, when the City of Princeton sought CMHP’s help in redeveloping a parcel of land adjacent to West Birch Townhomes.

“For the whole time we’d been looking at [the property], we’d always had a waiting list at our West Birch Townhomes,” Deanna explained. “So the idea was, because we have a waiting list, and we can show a documented need, this would be the perfect opportunity to add to what we already have.”

Around 2010, when CMHP and project partners submitted submitted their first (unsuccessful) application to Minnesota Housing for tax credits and other funding, there were 60-70 people on the waiting list for West Birch Townhomes. In 2016, when they applied a second time, there were 40 people on the list. Hemmesch explained that demand for the units hadn’t diminished — families on the list had simply lost hope that they’d secure a home at West Birch Townhomes, and began looking elsewhere.

Since Jolene Foss became Community Development Director at the City of Princeton in 2014, she has pushed to make West Birch Estates a reality. The City of Princeton had committed to demolish existing substandard housing and replace it with affordable housing at numerous separate sites — including the property adjacent to West Birch Townhomes — when they received Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) dollars in 2007 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through Minnesota Housing.

While the City managed to clear this particular site of the old property — Arcadian Homes, a twelve-unit development that had gone into foreclosure — the City and CMHP struggled to secure the tax credits essential to building affordable housing there. Overall, the City and CMHP submitted three applications to Minnesota Housing before the project was finally recommended for funding this October. The City and CMHP will receive over $3.5 million in investment from Minnesota Housing and over $1.2 million in 4 percent tax credit equity to rehabilitate West Birch Townhomes and to construct West Birch Estates.

Right: Architectural rendering by Blumentals/ Architecture, Inc. of the 16-unit apartment complex to be added to the West Birch Estates site

Cherre’ Palenius, Community Development Manager at Minnesota Housing Partnership, provided technical assistance throughout the project, and encouraged Foss and Hemmesch to keep at it — even when the project seemed impossible.

Palenius worked with Foss and her colleagues at the City of Princeton to envision how they could fulfill their NSP commitment and leverage local resources to make the West Birch project successful.

“She gave me an absolutely wonderful background and education on what the NSP program was and what it meant to the City of Princeton and the criteria we had to meet,” Foss said. “She assisted in drafting the Request for Proposals for an affordable developer for the site. She attended meetings with Minnesota Housing, Central Minnesota Housing Partnership, and she met with us when we had our financial advisor here to create an affordable housing Tax Increment Financing district. She was instrumental in providing technical assistance.”

According to Hemmesch, local contributions are key to getting projects like West Birch off the ground.

“Local units of government have to step up and say, ‘We need this, and we know that the impact is such that we are willing to provide tax increment financing, we’re willing to waive fees,’ and things along those lines. They really have to give up something. Then, cities need to work with developers to identify employers who might be willing to assist in any way. It can be challenging to get local contributions and generate commitment to a project that’s only an idea at the time.”

Foss said the City combined several approaches to make the project work and secure the local funding necessary to leverage Minnesota Housing dollars.

“We basically gave everything we could possibly give to offset the total development cost to make it easier for Central Minnesota Housing Partnership to make the numbers work to apply for the tax credit,” Foss explained. “We gave on every inch that we could as far as waiving fees, reducing fees, and setting up a tax increment financing district. It’s close to a million dollars in local investment going toward this project.”

The third time Hemmesch and Foss submitted an application, Palenius encouraged them to advocate for the project with lawmakers at the state level.

“Cherre’ said, ‘You know what, you need to have people advocate on your behalf, and legislators are the best way to do that,” Hemmesch said.

Foss and Hemmesch worked with Palenius to put the project on their lawmakers’ radars by sending letters and forging connections with legislators and their staff.

For Hallin, advocating for the project with elected officials was personal.

“These people know me,” Hallin said. “I lobby at the capitol every year. I’ve been hanging out with elected officials [at the state and local level] for the last 14 years, and I don’t even know if they know that one of their own would not have survived without West Birch Townhomes.”

Though the development process can be a long — and challenging — road, Foss maintains that the reward is worth the work.

“I would hope communities would not get discouraged through the process because it can be lengthy and in some ways cumbersome,” Foss said. “Persistence and perseverance have paid off for us, and the winners will be the individuals who will have safe and affordable housing.”

Foss urges other communities to start addressing affordable housing needs as soon as possible.

“I think that prioritizing the needs of underserved people is very important to communities, and we’re going to see an increased need for affordable housing, especially our aging population,” Foss said. “It should be on every community’s radar as far as how to establish affordable housing. It took the City of Princeton many years to get to this point, so the sooner communities can start focusing on getting it on their radar, the better chance they are going to have at finding partners who can work with them on affordable housing.

When Foss received a voicemail from Hemmesch informing her that the project had finally been recommended for funding, she could hardly contain her joy.

“I may have done a little happy dance,” Foss said.

Like Foss, Hallin was also ecstatic to hear the project was finally moving forward. She knew firsthand the impact West Birch Estates could have on the families that would eventually call it home.

“When I invite people to my home, I’m proud to live there,” Hallin said. “I’m proud to open up my door. It’s not the biggest place, but this is my home. So I was very excited and overjoyed. Seriously, I almost started crying. Because I know what it’s been to me, and how it saved me.”

According to Hemmesch, CMHP hopes residents can move into West Birch Estates in Spring 2019.