Pushback grows for Moorhead homeless apartments; Churches United says project will move forward regardless
MOORHEAD – Political opposition to a proposed apartment complex for the homeless here expanded on Tuesday, as two county commissioners weighed in against the project.
In a split vote Tuesday morning, the pair of Clay County Commission members failed in an attempt to halt state funding of a homeless apartment project being proposed for Moorhead’s north side.
Later in the evening, the debate resumed at a joint city-county meeting where a Churches United for the Homeless board member told the combined group of council members and commissioners, many of whom had voted against her project in the previous 24 hours, that the apartment complex will go forward despite the controversy.
The morning vote came just hours after the Moorhead City Council voted unanimously Monday night to oppose the $6.5 million, 41-unit apartment complex planned by Churches United for the Homeless at 315 34th St. N.
Despite significant vocal opposition to the project from the neighboring homes in Pine View and Arbor Park, Churches United intends to move forward with the project at that site, Executive Director Jane Alexander said before Tuesday night’s join meeting.
“We’re disappointed,” she said, “but it doesn’t change our commitment to our mission and trying to build housing.”
Call for more dialogue
Churches United applied for a $6 million grant from the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency last month to help build the apartment complex. They’re partnering with Beyond Shelter, a nonprofit affordable housing developer, and with the Clay County Housing and Redevelopment Authority.
Clay County Commissioner Grant Weyland made a motion Tuesday to withdraw the county’s support for that grant application. If the motion had passed, the county board would have sent a letter to the state asking that funding be withheld until a new location could be chosen, Weyland said.
Commissioner Kevin Campbell seconded the motion, but it failed in a 2-2 vote after Commissioners John Evert and Frank Gross voted against. Commissioner Wayne Ingersoll was absent.
“This vote was basically to take this thing back to the drawing board because we agree with the city that there needs to be more dialogue,” Campbell said.
The resolution of nonsupport passed by the City Council was a purely political move, passed after several neighbors voiced concerns about the safety of their families with an apartment complex for homeless being nearby.
Churches United owns the property and it is zoned for an apartment complex, so city leaders say there is little they can do to stop the project – which is expected to have 17 units for single residents and 24 multi-bedroom apartments for families.
Some council members and concerned neighbors said they hope to work with Churches United to move the apartment complex elsewhere.
Alexander said she appreciates the feedback from the neighbors, and said she wants to make sure the apartment tenants are good neighbors.
She said it’s unlikely Churches United will move the complex to another location. Churches United owns the 10-acre parcel and has a vision to turn it into an entire campus of services for low-income residents and the homeless.
“That is the best piece of land that we’ve found and it suits our needs perfectly, and suits the needs of families that need a new start. It’s not a shelter,” Alexander said. “It’s not about people who are homeless. It’s about people who have left homelessness and who are getting supportive services.”
She stressed that Churches United bought the land and “we certainly can’t give it away. And we have no intention of not following through with our plan.”
Churches United should hear in October if it will be awarded the grant. The apartments could be move-in ready in about two years.
Weyland said he and Campbell will likely send a letter to the state withdrawing their support as individual commissioners for the grant application.
“I’m sure we’ll indicate in our letters that we support having a facility in our area such as this, but we want it to be one that everybody in the community can agree on,” he said.
County Administrator Brian Berg said there has been some misinformation that the county has voted to support the project, which he says it hasn’t.
A June 3 resolution passed unanimously by the county board acknowledged there is a “significant number” of homeless men, women and children in Clay County and there is currently “insufficient” permanent supportive housing resources available, according to official minutes.
That resolution was included in the grant application by Churches United, Berg said.
“The only function that their resolution has was to support the fact that there is a homelessness concern in Clay County,” he said.
The resolution also stated that Clay County agrees to enter into a contract with Churches United for up to 19 units in the new apartment complex if the state funding is received.
Berg said those 19 units are affordable housing units the county is already paying for elsewhere, so no new funds would be allocated for the Churches United project.
From talking to her contact at the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, Alexander said she doesn’t think the public opposition will affect their chances at a grant.
“They have been inundated with calls of opposition to this,” Alexander said. “But they’ve gotten this before from other applications around the state, so they’re used to it so they don’t pay it a lot of mind. At least that’s the impression I got today when we talked with them.”
A concern raised at Monday’s City Council meeting was who would pay for ongoing building maintenance.
“Certainly not the city,” Alexander said. “None of this is funded by the city.”
Ongoing maintenance will be paid for by tenants’ rent, which will be covered by housing vouchers, disability payments or from the tenants working.
Alexander reiterated that the building is an apartment, not a homeless shelter. She said many of the would-be tenants are working families who have been otherwise unable to secure permanent housing.
“I must’ve said it a million times, what we’re doing, and they still think it’s a shelter,” she said. “And they still think it’s going to be people that are drinking and using drugs.”
Weyland said he is concerned Churches United didn’t tell county commissioners where the project would be before the grant application was submitted.
Alexander at the time said they were still negotiating a land price so they didn’t want to compromise the sale by giving an address.
“This whole thing could’ve been avoided if we would’ve been given complete information at the time we made our first vote,” Weyland said. “And I think Churches United should’ve certainly gone and put this information out for this neighborhood to absorb before they purchased this property.”
“This whole thing, as far as I’m concerned, has turned out to be a mess,” Weyland said.
The crowd at Tuesday night’s city-county joint meeting was small and the proposed apartment complex wasn’t on the agenda.
But at the end of the agenda, the controversial project was the elephant in the room.
“There’s been a pretty hot topic around,” Campbell said, later adding, “We just kind of felt like we learned things after the fact here and in all fairness we felt that this should be relooked at.”
Churches United was represented by Dara Lee, vice president of the board, who confirmed that the project was moving forward.
A supporter, James Teigland, spoke bluntly to the joint session. Referring to the group’s earlier discussion about building a new jail, which will take years, Teigland said he is glad Churches United did not wait for their stamp of approval.
“Look how long it’s taking you to get a jail together!” he said.
But opponents of the complex held their ground.
Mitzi Pederson, a Pine View resident, worried about her senior neighbors.
“We are not a big enough community to handle” the complex, Pederson said. “We are already vulnerable.”
Lyn Stoltenow, a seven-year resident of Arbor Park, is disappointed in the whole ordeal.
“It’s just getting off on the wrong foot,” she said after the meeting.
Is she against the process Churches United took or the fundamental idea of having a homeless apartment complex in her neighborhood? She struggled with the answer.
“I haven’t decided yet,” she finally concluded.
Forum reporter Adrian Glass-Moore contributed to this story.