Doors open at Firehouse apartment complex in downtown DuluthA $12 million investment in Duluth’s Central Hillside will be unveiled today, when the Firehouse apartment complex opens its doors for a public open house.
By: Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune
A $12 million investment in Duluth’s Central Hillside will be unveiled today, when the Firehouse apartment complex opens its doors for a public open house.
“We really hope this project will spin off and encourage other development in the neighborhood,” said Pam Kramer, executive director of Local Initiatives Support Corp., which helped facilitate the project.
That’s already happening, said Matt Potter, whose family opened the Fourth Street Market just down the block from the upper part of the multi-building development a few years ago.
“We probably wouldn’t have opened if we didn’t know this was coming,” he said.
Kramer said plans for the apartment development have been in the making since 2007, when neighborhood leaders identified the need for affordable housing. The developer keeps rents low in exchange for public help with construction financing.
“We really have a desperate need, particularly in the Hillside, for decent, affordable housing,” said Duluth City Councilor Sharla Gardner, who represents the neighborhood. “This could elevate the whole neighborhood.”
Joy Schaeffer, a single mother with two children — a 5-month-old girl and a 4-year-old boy — said she was thrilled to move into a two-bedroom unit in the complex in early February, after moving out of a nearby rental she called a dump.
She said her prior apartment was smaller and more expensive.
“I’ve been looking at apartments for a while, and of all of them I’ve seen this was by far the nicest and the cheapest,” said Schaeffer, who is employed as a personal care assistant/certified nursing assistant.
The development consists of two parts: The Firehouse, a decommissioned fire hall on Third Street, and Firehouse Flats, a new brick-faced building on Fourth Street that Kramer said was built to fit seamlessly into the older surrounding neighborhood. Many of the units in both buildings boast excellent views of Lake Superior. The arched fire hall on the corner of East Third Street and Lake Avenue has a common space that can be booked for community events.
Mary Marchman moved into an apartment inside what was once Duluth Firehouse No. 1 in January. She lives there with her son, Demetre, who is now a senior at Denfeld High School.
Marchman works as a customer service representative in an office setting but said it has often been a struggle to make ends meet on her modest wages.
“This is a dream come true,” she said, commenting on the cost and quality of her new home.
Marchman previously lived in Gary and moved shortly after her husband died of liver cancer. She said the apartment building provides her with direct access to the bus and other services.
Another single mother, Ebony Brooks-Clark, moved out of a shelter and into a new two-bedroom apartment in Firehouse Flats with her two daughters, ages 5 and 6 months, on Feb. 2. She works two jobs, one in retail and another in a restaurant, but still found it a challenge to locate decent and affordable housing.
“The price range for a building of this quality with all its amenities is incredible,” she said. “It’s so nice to finally have a safe place for me and the kids, and everything is absolutely new.”
Now that the apartments are finally being filled, Potter said the Fourth Street Market is negotiating to buy the building in which it leases space, with the aim of expanding and investing more in the property. He said the completion of the housing development next door has given his family confidence to push those plans ahead.
“A lot of our customers have commented. They’re happy to see people investing in the neighborhood and working to revive it,” Potter said. “Many of us living around here tend to feel like we’ve been forgotten up until now.”
The project brings 40 new apartments to the neighborhood. Monthly rents (exclusive of heating costs) will range from $719 for the four three-bedroom units to $619 for the 28 two-bedroom units and $518 for the eight one-bedroom units available.
The project is geared to provide affordable housing for working families, said Rob McCready, co-president of MetroPlains Development LLC, the St. Paul-based project developer. To be eligible for residency, tenants must have annual household incomes of between $20,000 and $39,000.
The development also will offer five units with subsidized rents to income-qualified families and will dedicate four more transitional units to house families that have struggled with chronic homelessness.
The project has been very well received, said Theresa Nesbitt, a MetroPlains representative. All but four of the apartments in the complex already are spoken for, and 48 applications are in the pipeline for consideration, she said.
Money for the project came in the form of $3.5 million from the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund, $1.4 million in financing from Minnesota Housing and $7.1 million in federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits.
Working with US Bank, UnitedHealthcare purchased those credits at full value, providing much-needed capital for the project up front.
John Miklausich, a senior director of UnitedHealthcare’s operations in Duluth, said the company employs about 1,400 in the Twin Ports area. Upon seeing a local need, he said the Minnesota-based company decided to step up.
“UnitedHealthcare takes an active role in communities where we do business,” he explained.