Central Minnesota community partners gather for White Oak affordable housing groundbreaking
The housing project is intended to offer affordable housing for low-income residents, as well as specialized facilities and caretakers for people with persistent and severe mental illness.
BAXTER — As the sun set on a chilly afternoon Tuesday, Nov. 5, a crew of mental health specialists, bankers, architects, county officials and housing experts gathered in the middle of an empty field for a celebration of new beginnings.
Community partners attended the groundbreaking of the upcoming White Oak Estates development, which entails the construction of a 20-unit apartment building and two 10-unit townhomes located at 14272, 14236, and 14232 Grand Oaks Drive, or an empty plot at the juncture between Firewood Drive and Grand Oaks Drive.
The project has been billed as a means to offer housing for low-income residents, as well as a supportive environment for an underserved group in the local community — those with chronic and severe mental illness. The project, propelled by a coalition headed by the Region V+ consortium of counties, is scheduled to be finished during fall 2020.
“This project definitely would not have been successful without this community coming together and putting a lot of support behind this,” said Deanna Hemmesch, the executive director of Central Minnesota Housing Partnership. She added the project represents a collaborative effort by a number of different government agencies, private and public partnerships, mental health activism and donations from local businesses.
Nathan Bertram, representing Crow Wing County Social Services, said White Oak is a step toward addressing housing shortages and lack of access to care for vulnerable populations. This goes back to joint mental health initiatives by Region V+ members Crow Wing, Cass, Morrison, Wadena, Todd and Aitkin counties roughly three years ago, he noted.
“When you look at the housing vacancy rates in this area, it’s 1% to 2% depending on the community,” Bertram said. “If you factor in low-income and people with mental illness, it can be lower than that. Sometimes landlords don’t want to deal with people with different struggles, so when we’re all able to pull it together to support those people, it’s coming together nicely. There’s a need in all the local counties.”
To provide the round-the-clock and personalized care that some residents may require, the project is contracting Nystrom and Associates LLC in Baxter to provide onsite support services. Attending the groundbreaking, therapist and CEO Brian Nystrom said the project is a tangible effort to address long-standing mental health issues in the community, which — in the absence of the state hospital that once served the area — has increasingly leaned on overtaxed families and loved ones to provide care.
It also represents the positive outcomes of a larger movement to recognize mental health issues and their care, said Nystrom, who looked back roughly 40 years in the field and times when mental health issues had a regressive and crippling stigma.
“When I started 40 years ago, I’d get calls from patients saying ‘Do you have a back door?’” Nystrom said. “I ask them why they’re asking me that. ‘Well, I don’t want my friends to know I’m coming in for therapy.’ It’s come a long way since then when it’s much more normalized in our society.”
Whether or not mental health issues are becoming a more prevalent problem, or whether it’s simply that people are more comfortable and open about mental health problems, it’s hard to say, Nystrom noted. For his part, he said the looming issue of mental health is probably a little of both — a rising problem, as well as one that’s simply been more hidden in decades past.
“I think that society is more complicated than it was 20, 30 or 40 years ago,” Nystrom said. “And, I think there’s more awareness. Both answers are correct. I think society is equilibrating what’s needed and I think this housing project helps balance that out more.”
Supported by the St. Cloud nonprofit Central Minnesota Housing Partnership, White Oak Estates is a $6.8 million affordable housing project on 6.6 acres along Grand Oaks Drive. The development is across the street from Sprucewood Townhomes. The project has been granted tax relief status by the city of Baxter.
To qualify for tax relief status, rentals are made available to low-income residents 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. The Baxter City Council voted to approve its tax incremental financing, or TIF, designation during the May 7 meeting.
Tax increment financing is an economic development tool used to help businesses offset the costs of redeveloping a site. Instead of paying higher taxes immediately upon completion of a new building, a business instead will use those tax savings to cover the costs of demolition and new construction. Often, these agreements come tied with stipulations, such as a requirement to offer affordable housing.