Housing the Homeless With a Helping Hand

Columnist Lew Sichelman on a charity that is adding supportive service to its affordable housing mix.

Lew Sichelman

Housing is key to addressing homelessness. But it is not the solution in and of itself, according to a new report from the Urban Institute. Rather, providing a comprehensive set of social services is equally important.

That, of course, is a sentiment long voiced by many who seek to solve the homeless epidemic. But the same can be said for providing affordable housing for low-income families. At least it’s one that has been embraced by an Upper Midwest charity that has built more than 7,000 rental units in 110-odd affordable housing communities over its 50-plus years.

CommonBond, a 501(c)3 non-profit based in St. Paul, Minn., bases its philosophy on the stability and independence of its residents. From there, the charity offers education and advancement services such as helping folks with resumes and job applications, community building services to empower residents to connect and shape their communities and wellness services to promote healthy living.

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The charity’s “Advantage Services” program is “what sets us apart,” Sheila Swift, a CommonBond fundraising officer, told Multihousing News. “It’s a unique model. It’s completely resident focused.”

And now, for the first time, CommonBond also will be offering child care services to residents at its latest project and as well as those in the nearby community. In partnership with Rise Early and in collaboration with Way to Grow, the affordable housing charity will include a 62-person child care center at its new Rise on 7 apartment property in St. Louis Park, a western suburb of Minneapolis.

The Rise Early Learning Center will “holistically and equitably” support the developmental needs of youngsters in an effort “to promote (their) long-term social, emotional and academic success.” Way to Grow will offer early education and family services, from prenatal through grade 3.

Residents will be able to reserve spots at more affordable rates than others.

Ground was broken on the five-story, 120-unit Rise on 7 in early August with a completion date expected next September. It is aimed at households earning 60 percent or less of the area median, but in some cases as low as 40 percent. That works out to families whose incomes are between $30,000 and $60,000 a year, according to CommonBond CEO Diedre Schmidt.

In addition, six units are being set aside as supportive housing for the homeless, who will receive a subsidy and pay 30 percent of their incomes toward rent.

Besides the first-floor child care center, which will be independently operated, the property will feature bicycle storage, a playground, some green space and underground as well as surface parking. Tot lots and computer and community rooms also will be included.

The idea to offer child care “came to us” from the local Westwood Lutheran Church, according to gift officer Swift. The church was once located on the Rise on 7 site and “wanted to leave a legacy” when it sold the property to CommonGround. It “connected” the charity and Rise Early, but it still “took three years” to put the partnership together, she said.

Eviction Prevention and Community Building

Child care seems to fit perfectly into CommonBond’s integrated approach to affordable housing. “We’re helping achieve stability and independence for families,” CEO Schmidt told the local National Public Radio station when the project broke ground August 3. “When we combine the homes for residents to live in with the services that support them when times get tough, we see phenomenal outcomes.”

Services are offered according to need, but at the core are eviction-prevention and community building events. Enhanced health and welfare activities, employment assistance and financial services also are offered, as are homework centers, homework “buddies” and teen programs. According to the charity, 2,500 residents participated in community-building events last year and  125 found employment using its services.

The charity is supported by volunteers and funded through institutional giving, individual and corporation donations, tax credit financing and revenues generated from rents and property management services, according to gift officer Swift. To build Rise on 7, it had to access 16 pools of funding, which is way too many, as far as Schmidt is concerned.

“I think (what) has to happen in order for us to be more effective and efficient when we’re building affordable housing is to be able to work with fewer sources,” she told NPR.

CommonBond works in three states—Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa—where it operates rental apartments and townhouses for 13,000 people. It has 96 properties in Minnesota, 11 in Wisconsin and nine in Iowa.

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