FARGO — Every time Elaine Charlson walks to her apartment in south Fargo, she passes an old photo that brings back memories.

The picture from 1968 shows the Perkins Pancake House on Broadway in downtown, where Charlson’s grandmother would take her once a week to eat as a child.

The pancake house no longer exists, but the photo hanging on the wall and others like it remind Charlson and her husband, Gary, of days gone by. It’s one of many reasons why they love living at HomeField II, affordable apartments for seniors that opened earlier this year.

“Just like it says — home — I feel at home,” Gary Charlson said.

The Charlsons were part of a growing demographic looking for affordable senior housing in the Fargo area. Getting an apartment at HomeField II wasn’t guaranteed, but they made the short list.

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In the metro area, there's a glut of rental properties for the general public, but vacancy rates for affordable senior housing are much lower. MetroPlains Management, which manages HomeField II, said its properties are about 98% full, and the 39 units at HomeField II likely will all be filled by the end of the month.

Beyond Shelter Inc., the nonprofit developer behind the HomeField project, and other entities compete for federal funds to build affordable housing for seniors. Local, state and federal agencies have tried to support affordable housing, but meeting the growing demand that's expected in the coming years is unlikely, Beyond Shelter CEO Dan Madler said.

“There are not enough resources to meet the demand,” Madler said.

Research projects that more housing will be needed for aging baby boomers in the coming years, especially in cities like Fargo. In North Dakota, the population of residents age 65 and older was slated to grow by 54,971, or 52%, from 2014 to 2029, according to a study by North Dakota State University researchers.

Minnesota also will see a rapid growth of seniors, according to the state’s Demographic Center. The state could gain more than a half million people age 65 and older from 2015 to 2035, while the child population is slated to grow only by 32,000, according to the center.

Elaine Charlson points out details in a photograph of Broadway in downtown Fargo taken in the late 1960s that hangs on the wall at HomeField Apartments in south Fargo. David Samson / The Forum
Elaine Charlson points out details in a photograph of Broadway in downtown Fargo taken in the late 1960s that hangs on the wall at HomeField Apartments in south Fargo. David Samson / The Forum

North Dakota will need to add more than 1,800 housing units annually from 2014 through 2029 to keep up with housing for seniors, Jennifer Henderson, director of planning and housing development for the North Dakota Housing Finance Agency, said, citing the NDSU study.

The study doesn’t specify how many of those units should be dedicated for seniors, but the demand will far outpace the supply, Henderson said. Based on federal funding, North Dakota can only build 150 to 200 units per year for all affordable housing, not just for seniors, she said.

Fargo’s vacancy rate for apartments in general was 8.5% in June, the latest figure available from Appraisal Services Inc. In September 2018, that figure hit 10.7%, a 10-year high for the city.

But the market for affordable housing is usually much stronger in metro areas, Henderson said. Cities like Fargo and Bismarck can see vacancy rates between 6% and 7% or lower for affordable housing, she said.

Cities like Fargo tend to attract seniors because metropolitan areas have better access to medical services, Henderson said. More people want to live in houses or apartments — also known as aging in place — instead of long-term care facilities, Henderson said.

“The support for aging in place continues to increase because it is more cost-effective than having someone in a nursing home facility,” she said. “That continues to be a priority of ensuring there is enough affordable housing available.”

HomeField has the feel of an apartment, but services include access to an in-building salon, Meals on Wheels and discounted rides so seniors can run errands, shop for groceries and go to medical appointments.

With two phases of HomeField built, a third is slated to open next year. All three will have 39 units.

The first phase of HomeField was filled in 50 days, said Christopher Miller of Beyond Shelter. The waitlist for the third phase is already filling up, said Cassidy Ulmer of MetroPlains.

Henderson said income for seniors is limited. The median income for ages 65 and older in North Dakota was less than $40,000 in 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That decreased to $35,900 for ages 75 to 84, and $19,700 for ages 85 and older.

The latter two groups could afford a monthly rent of about $900 and $500, respectively, the North Dakota Housing Finance Agency said.

HomeField Apartments is a senior housing community located in south Fargo.  David Samson / The Forum
HomeField Apartments is a senior housing community located in south Fargo. David Samson / The Forum

Nearly 117,000 people ages 65 and older lived in North Dakota as of 2018, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. Minnesota had almost 890,000 seniors, the bureau said.

That made up roughly 15% of each state's total population.

Last year’s numbers for cities haven’t been released yet, but about 13,000 seniors lived in Fargo as of 2017, and 26,500 lived in the Fargo-Moorhead metro area, according to the five-year estimate of the 2017 American Community Survey.

According to the NDSU study, Cass County from 2014 to 2029 likely will see a 92% increase to roughly 34,700 seniors, and in that same time period, Fargo could more than double its elderly population to about 24,500.

There's recently been an "alarming number" of homeless seniors in Cass County, said Jill Elliott, deputy director of the Fargo Housing and Redevelopment Authority, citing conversations with social services and shelter workers.

Fargo doesn't track the number of affordable housing units reserved for seniors. City staff are conducting an overall housing analysis and plan to update the city's housing market study next year, city planning staff said.

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Fargo has allocated more than $1 million in HOME grants, federal funds used for low-income housing, for affordable senior projects since 2010, including $565,000 to HomeField. Beyond Shelter Inc. also received more than $1.2 million in low-income housing tax credits for the project. It also gave nearly $2.1 million in neighborhood stabilization program funds to other senior projects.

Low-income tax credits also have to be split among various groups, from homeless projects to housing for the general workforce, Henderson said.

On top of that, a tall downtown building will soon no longer house residents who qualify for affordable housing. The Fargo Housing and Redevelopment Authority next month will send federal officials an application seeking permission to sell the High Rise building at 101 2nd St. S., Elliott said.

The 22-story building has about 200 residents, 40% of which are at least 65 years old, Elliott said. Structural problems have made the possibility of fixing the building unfeasible for the housing authority, she said, noting that it's up to the next owner to decide if the building is demolished or renovated.

High Rise residents will get moving vouchers and help relocating — a process that should take about a year. "All of our tenants will be relocated," Elliott said. "We'll take care of them."

Repeating a friend’s words, Elaine Charlson said she and her husband have to think about how happy and blessed they are to live at HomeField.

The couple has moved seven times in the last nine years, she said. Gary Charlson said they have been looking for a place to call home, and they believe they have found it.

“I’m here for the duration of my life,” Gary Charlson said.