A downtown Duluth motel is in the process of being sold and converted to housing for people experiencing homelessness.
The Downtown Duluth Inn, 131 W. Second St., has been used as a COVID-19 prevention shelter throughout the pandemic, and will take on added significance when CHUM, operator of Duluth's homeless shelter, acquires the property in May.
As a permanent shelter it will mark the largest increase in housing units in five years for people experiencing homelessness, since the opening of the Steve O'Neil Apartments on West Fourth Street downtown.
"It’s a tremendous opportunity for the community to add (supportive housing) units," CHUM Executive Director Lee Stuart told the St. Louis County Housing and Redevelopment Board on Tuesday. "Normally, it would take years and years to develop."
The HRA Board, made up of St. Louis County commissioners, agreed to direct $1 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding toward the $2.65 million purchase price of the motel. The Duluth HRA and CHUM are also contributing funds toward the purchase, $250,000 and $100,000, respectively. The Greater Minnesota Housing Fund is prepared to address the remaining gap, Stuart told the board.
"The Greater Minnesota Housing Fund will be the main lender, but there are other potential financial partners whose boards are considering their involvement in the next week or so," Stuart told the News Tribune.
The motel purchase costs one-third or one-fourth of what a new development would entail, Stuart explained to the county's HRA Board. The plan for the property initially is to use 40 of the 45 rooms as short- and long-term housing. The other five units would provide crisis mental health services. CHUM will use the hotel office for staff and the breakfast area will be for coffee and conversation.
"Given the fact that we have about 600 people coming through CHUM every year who are potential candidates for this, I don't think we'll have any trouble filling it," Stuart said, nodding at the city's escalating number of people experiencing homelessness.
Throughout the pandemic, CHUM, with its partners, has been leasing the Downtown Duluth Inn as a COVID-19 prevention shelter for people who are elderly, have underlying health conditions, or both.
Stuart explained that it's been valuable to reduce the density of CHUM's emergency shelter, as well as the risk of transmission among the motel's elderly and more vulnerable users. There have been no contracted cases of COVID-19 in the motel, and five people have cycled through it to find permanent housing, Stuart said.
The $1 million allotment of funds received the full support of the county's HRA Board.
Commissioner Patrick Boyle, representing eastern Duluth, called it "a blessing in disguise coming off the pandemic."
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Last year, St. Louis County received $24.8 million in Federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding, and the County Board supported up to $6 million being distributed through a community assistance strategy — from which the $1 million contribution is derived.
"One of best things you can do to combat homelessness is provide more (housing) units," Commissioner Ashley Grimm said, describing what is known as the "housing-first model" to lift up struggling residents and families. "We have fundamentally not provided enough units."
Public Health and Human Services Director Linnea Mirsch called it a critical project.
"The impact of 40 new units of supportive housing is critical to close the gap and in achieving more stability for really vulnerable people," Mirsch said.