NB Council delays vote on housing project

By Derrick Knutson

After nearly five hours of discussion and public input over two meetings, the North Branch City Council decided Monday night to delay a vote on a proposed 40-unit housing project.

The council was slated to approve or deny a resolution of support for the housing project, which the developer, MWF Properties, is proposing be located south of 400th Street and West of Cherokee Pass.

But council members ultimately decided they needed more information on the potential tax impact of the project, and decided the April 19 work session should be used to mull over the proposal again.

The council could have also voted whether or not to give MWF one-time, 75-percent fee reductions associated with water, sewer and park dedication, but a vote on those reductions didn’t come to fruition at the meeting, either.

If all goes according to plan, the council could vote to approve or deny a final proposal at its April 23 regular meeting.

A similar project by MWF north of 400th Street fell through last year because it failed to secure enough points from the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency.

Chris Stokka, a development associate with MWF, said MHFA awards tax credits, which are used to help lower the cost of building “affordable” or “workforce” housing, to projects it deems fit.

Last year’s proposed development north of 400th Street fell three points short of qualifying for the tax credits, but this project could stand a better chance because of some rule changes by MHFA.

MHFA recently identified the city of Wyoming as a high growth area, and having the project within a 10-mile radius of a high growth area would equate to more points.

If the council does approve the project, it needs to do so before the June 12 “drop dead” date in order to utilize leftover tax increment financing dollars that could go toward the debt the city owes on the ESSBY land it purchased over the two-year period of 2003-2005.

Additional points through homeless units

MWF modified this project proposal to include four “homeless” units, which is another means to secure more points from MHFA.

Mary Westlund, assistant executive director of new Pathways, a Cambridge-based organization that works with families struggling with homelessness, said she would be working with the city and MHF to place families from her organization into the units if the project is approved.

They don’t need a handout, they need a hand up,” she said. “These are families that have fallen on horrible times. They’re working moms with kids, they’re single-parent households.”

Income requirements 

Stokka said there are income requirements for single tenants and families that could move into the development, which MWF has named “Northside Villas.”

A single person can make a maximum of $35,280 and be approved for the proposed development.

A family of two could make a maximum of $40,320, and the max for a three-person household is $45,360.

The highest rents that could be charged, according to Minnesota Housing Finance rules, are $787 for a one-bedroom unit, and $1,091 for 3-bedroom unit.

Stokka also mentioned there would be a screening process for potential residents.

A person applying to live at the development would have to prove he or she could afford rent before moving into a unit.

MWF would deny anyone who has been evicted from another rental residence in the past three years, and anyone who has been convicted of a drug, sex, or violent crime.

Persons convicted of any sort of felony would also not be accepted.

In addition to having a relatively clean background in terms of crime, a potential resident could also be denied if it’s proven his or her past behavior has interfered with the safety or wellbeing of former neighbors.

Stokka mentioned that those who have served time in jail wouldn’t be excluded from consideration for the homeless units, which require a lower amount of rent to live in than the rest of the development, but the aforementioned crimes or past problems would strike those applicants from the pool of possible future residents.

He also noted a period of incarceration would not count toward the “extended period of homelessness” requirement that people need to meet in order to be eligible to live in the units.

A family must have lacked a permanent place to live for one continuous year or been homeless at least four times in the last three years to qualify.

Public feedback

Dozens of residents showed up to voice their opinions about the proposal at the council’s April 5 work session and its regular meeting Monday.

They made a steady promenade up to the podium at the work session for nearly three hours, and most expressed overt opposition to the project.

Nancy Boyce, an educator in ISD #138 for the past 34 years who currently works at North Branch Area Middle School, said the development wouldn’t be a good choice for the city.

“I am totally opposed to this,” she said. “I do not see, necessarily, the benefit to our school district from this, as proposed by developers.”

She added, “Based on my experience, I have found that when you develop a low-income area, you often have to deal with families who are of low income. Based on my experience with those areas that are of lower income levels, maybe $35,000 or less, what that does is it overloads the school district with those students who are needy.

I’m not speaking on behalf of the school district; I’m speaking on behalf myself and my experience. It overloads the school district with students that are not necessarily high achievers.”

Resident Shawn Campbell expressed sentiment similar to Boyce’s.

“I don’t think it’s a good decision for us for the future of the city of North Branch,” he said. This is a bad business decision for North Branch.

I haven’t heard one positive thing (about this project). The crime rate is going to go up. It’s not a gut feeling; it’s going to happen.”

Out of more than a dozen who spoke during the two meetings, only three expressed some favorable opinions about the proposal.

One of those residents was Christy Kamholz.

She noted numerous people within the city fall within the income requirements to live at the development, including city staff, such as some police officers and public works employees.

“We’re stereotyping all of these people,” she said.

Some residents who spoke at both meetings mentioned the city should be focusing on getting families into North Branch’s foreclosed homes before considering approval of a rental housing development, but Kamholz, who works part-time for a realty company, said that initiative could prove to be fairly difficult.

“I set up showings,” she said. “I see the listings that come in. It would be nice if the houses would sell, but the banks have created more stipulations, making it more difficult to be able to buy a home. That is nobody’s fault, that’s just how it is.”

She added that residents in the city need to be aware of other people’s struggles before making assertions about them.

“We have to look at the whole picture, both sides, and not assume that just because someone is like me, or because they work at County Market that they’re trash, or that their kids are going to be that.”

Council comments

Council members thoroughly debated the merits of the proposal during both meetings, but the more passionate displays were during the workshop.

Council member Theresa Furman wanted to know if it would be possible to bring MWF’s proposal to the residents in the form of a referendum so they could vote on it.

Mayor Amy Oehlers gave a negative reaction to that suggestion.

“Every action that comes before us can’t have a referendum,” she said. That’s why the people elect people to represent them.”

Furman added, “I’ve talked to over 100 people and the vast, vast majority do not want it.”

Council member Kathy Blomquist, in response to the criticism of the homeless units, said there are already numerous homeless people who reside in North Branch and frequently use the city’s churches as a temporary refuge.

“(The homeless units) would be to help get them back on their feet,” she said.”

Council member Ron Lindquist expressed his ardent opposition to building the development.

“I’ve had just one person e-mail me in favor (of the proposal),” he said.

“It’s about time we start listening to the people who live here, work here, pay taxes here and send their kids to school here, rather than an unknown commodity.”

Oehlers criticized those she thought were stereotyping potential residents of Northside Villas.

“I heard comments about the school district and how we don’t want people coming into those areas because they might be too needy …” she said. “Any student in this country has a right to education and I don’t care if their parent makes $5 an hour or $100 an hour, they deserve an education. That is offensive to me and it’s scary to think there’s people like that teaching our children.”

She went on to add, “All this discriminatory attitude toward people based on how much they make is truly sad and it’s against the very essence and the very heart of what humanity and community are.”

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