FARGO-A new apartment building was 90 percent pre-leased weeks before prospective tenants could even see the building.

HomeField Apartments, 4245 28th Ave. S., is now completely filled. The fact this happened in an area of town with a 12.5 percent apartment vacancy rate isn't going unnoticed.

"If you talk to someone in the market-rate world, their jaws just drop," said Jamie Hager, regional manager for MetroPlains Management that oversees the new complex.

It's not just the in-unit washers and dryers or the building's fitness center and media room-it's all about the rent. Senior citizen tenants here pay $388 to $696 for the 39 one- or two-bedroom units, depending on household size and income, far below the $850 to $900 they'd pay for a comparable one-bedroom elsewhere.

It's the latest project from Beyond Shelter Inc., a nonprofit started by former Fargo Housing and Redevelopment Authority staff in 1999. Board Member Bev Rohde told a crowd gathered earlier this week to celebrate that the nonprofit has come a long way since launching with a $5,000 loan and "some wide-eyed optimism."

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'Our last place'

Rohde said federal restrictions for affordable housing at the time were "uncomfortable," including a mandate to hire contractors with the lowest bid. That meant complexes were built with the cheapest materials and appliances and lacked basics like garages, air conditioning and carpet.

"We were fairly sure we could do better," she said.

Their work benefits people like Donna Allard. The 75-year-old said she appreciates HomeField's open floor plan that gives her plenty of room for furniture. She also likes having a garage stall.

It's the price that ultimately drew her here. Allard said she previously struggled keeping up with a two-bedroom apartment in south Fargo that cost about $800 per month.

"This is so nice," she said. "I just felt real fortunate when I was able to move in."

Marlys Workin got into her unit in mid-July. She left her Fargo house where she had lived for 48 years to move here, but she said she enjoys her "roomy and bright" new home.

"I don't miss it a bit," she said.

Gary Hasse, too, said he's glad to be here.

"I haven't met all the people that live here yet, but the ones that I have, we've all decided that this is our last place before we go upstairs," he said. "We're tired of moving, and this is an excellent place to call home."

More needed

With the completion of HomeField, as well as a groundbreaking later this month on the LaGrave on First project for homeless people in Grand Forks, CEO Dan Madler said Beyond Shelter has developed more than 1,000 affordable housing units in eight communities across North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota.

Madler said their work is about more than providing shelter. An affordable home can make residents safer, happier and healthier while also improving employment prospects, he said.

But it's not easy, according to Jolene Kline, and the executive director of the North Dakota Housing Financing Agency said the need is far beyond supply.

The only way to make it happen, she said, is a complicated "layering" of funding and support from local, state and federal partners as well as the private sector. For example, the agency allocated about $600,000 of federal low income housing tax credits purchased by Wells Fargo to fund the $6.18 million HomeField project.

"The private sector cannot and will not produce units at $400 a month rent," Kline said.

But she said there's only funding to do a handful of projects each year, and Fargo will need more than 100 additional units of affordable housing each year for the next 15 years. She encouraged North Dakota legislators to provide state funding to help.

Beyond Shelter plans to build two more 39-unit complexes at the HomeField site in the next two years.

MetroPlains now manages 485 affordable apartment units for seniors in the Fargo-Moorhead area. Those units have a vacancy rate of less than 1 percent, far below the metro's overall 8.35 percent vacancy as of June 1, according to a study released by Appraisal Services Inc.

"I've been doing this for 17 years, and I always think we're going to hit this saturated market," Hager said. "We just have not done that yet, not in affordable."