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Baxter City Council: Housing project seeks to help those with mental illness

A cyclist uses the street as construction on a bike path continues Friday, June 8, on Grand Oaks Drive in Baxter. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch1 / 2
Construction continues on apartments along Clearwater Road in Baxter. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch2 / 2

BAXTER—A proposed affordable housing project in Baxter seeks to provide apartments for individuals diagnosed with a mental illness.

The Central Minnesota Housing Partnership was before the Baxter City Council Tuesday, June 5, seeking support for a development called White Oak Estates. Deanna Hemmesch, executive director of the Partnership, described White Oak Estates as an $8.8 million affordable housing project that would have a 20-unit apartment building and 20 townhome units on 6.6 acres on Grand Oaks Drive. The development would be across the street from Sprucewood Townhomes. The housing partnership owns 678 rental units and manages 418 of those. It owns Grand Oaks, Grand Oaks Court and Sprucewood Townhomes in Baxter and Timberland Townhomes in Brainerd.

Hemmesch said the housing project would be dedicated to individuals and families who make less than 60 percent of the area median income. Families at or below the 60 percent area median income earn between $9.62 and $21.87 per hour.

A caretaker/manager would live onsite in one of the townhomes. Hemmesch asked the city council for a letter of support and to commit to work on a tax-increment financing district. Hemmesch said they should know in October if they've received funding for the project and if it comes through, construction would start next spring and the units would be available in May of 2020.

Hemmesch said the focus of this housing project is to help people diagnosed with a mental illness. She said a similar housing project is going up in North Branch and there are ones in Owatonna and Grand Rapids that have been successful.

A former Grand Oaks Drive resident, council member Quinn Nystrom said the area seems to be in the police blotter frequently and she wondered about the impact of adding more residents to the density in the area. Hemmesch said they are keeping an eye on police calls and looking more closely to see if the calls are return visits to certain units. Baxter Police Chief Jim Exsted said the working relationship with the apartment managers has been fantastic and while there may be a higher volume in the area, there is a higher population density there so he wasn't sure of a correlation beyond there being more people.

Council member Steve Barrows said he used to work in mental health and there are many levels of psychosis. With the number of apartments, he asked about the experience with the residents and if there would be a mental health professional, support staff or adult rehabilitation mental health specialists available at all hours. Barrows also noted the Community Behavioral Health Hospital is across the street.

Tami Lueck, programs manager at Crow Wing County Community Services, said what they like about this proposed housing model is that it is supportive housing with mental health professionals, and while they are not present at all hours of the day, White Oaks Estates would have someone at the front desk 24 hours a day and could call professionals as needed. The project would include services for case management and life skills. With the supportive housing environment, Lueck said they can also reach out and catch things early compared to individuals living someplace where no one sees them in time to do so. The Beacon Hills project in Grand Rapids was touted as a good example, and when the North Branch police chief called Owatonna for a reference, they learned the city reported it doesn't get the volume of calls for mental illness it did before the housing project.

Barrows agreed it was a great project and said he knows there are potential issues with a small percentage. The housing development was an opportunity for the residents to have a community as well.

Mayor Darrel Olson noted the project has a long way to go yet but the council members were indicating with their support they thought it was a good idea. The council unanimously supported the project.

Council member Todd Holman said it brought up an opportunity to talk about trails, walkability and connections to link where city residents live to where they shop, to grocery stores and where they work. He said that was a sidebar obligation for the city.

The proposal includes a TIF district lasting a minimum of 15 years. Tax increment financing is a method of financing public or private improvements that are needed to serve new development. While the existing tax on the property continues to be paid, the increase in tax value of the property is returned to the developer for a set period of time to help pay off the cost of the development.

Details with the development include:

• Seven units in the apartment would be designated for high-priority homeless. Utilities in the apartment would be paid by the landlord.

• The apartment includes a community room and lounge areas and a controlled front entrance.

• The townhomes would have back patios, single-car garages, 12 two-bedroom units and eight three-bedroom units, and a playground for children.

• Income limits by household size are: $27,480 for one person, $31,380 for 2 people, $35,280 for three people, $39,180 for four people, $42,360 for five people, and $45,480 for six people.

• Proposed rents are $704 for a one-bedroom apartment with housing support funding for rental assistance in the apartments. A two-bedroom townhome would rent for $625 with a three-bedroom townhome renting for $715.