Lydia Apartments advances, with new executive director

Plymouth Church Neighborhood Foundation has named Lee Blons, Central Community Housing Trust’s manager of residential community services, as its first full-time executive director.

Her most immediate job is to open the 40-unit Lydia Apartments, 1920 LaSalle Ave., a building to provide long-term housing and support services for recently homeless people. The building was formerly the 140-bed LaSalle Convalescent Center. At the earliest, the apartments would open by year’s end.

Lydia Apartments cleared a major hurdle Jan. 29 when Hennepin County District Court Judge John McShane dismissed a lawsuit by an ad hoc neighborhood group trying to block it.

The plaintiff’s case hinged on a city ordinance requiring quarter-mile spacing between supportive-housing facilities, a rule the judge found discriminatory.

"We are glad the courts upheld the right of those with disabilities to have choices in housing," Blons said.

Key pieces of Lydia Apartments are now in place, she said. Spectrum, a division of RESOURCE Inc., 1900 Chicago Ave., would provide support services to Lydia Apartment residents. Common Bond, the state’s largest nonprofit housing developer, would manage it.

Blons has a background working with homeless people and long-term supportive housing. She replaces Linda Satorius, who worked as executive director part-time for the past two years. Satorius helped start Lydia Apartments and will continue with the foundation.

"The foundation plans to do additional projects, and it is starting to decide what that next new project will be," Blons said.

Her job is to help the board and the community plan for it, she said.

Those plans will get close neighborhood scrutiny. Lydia Apartments has drawn strong opposition from some neighborhood leaders and business owners who say the area is already over-concentrated with supportive-housing programs. The Stevens Square Community Organization and the Whittier Alliance opposed the development of Lydia Apartments (formerly called Lydia House).

Tom Berthiaume, head of the Nicollet Avenue Business Association and a plaintiff in the Lydia Apartments lawsuit, said the foundation’s next projects should pay attention to neighborhood concerns and to the concentration of poverty. "No one wants another Lydia House debacle," he said.

Blons said she did not have a plan for how to engage the community in the next project, noting she had been at the job less than a month.

"There will be a plan," she said. "There is truly a commitment to be in dialogue with a wide range of people who have neighborhood and affordable-housing interests."

Blons worked for two years for Central Community Housing Trust, the state’s second largest non-profit housing developer, she said. Her duties included overseeing six buildings with 300 units of supportive housing for formerly homeless people.

She worked for two-plus years as executive director of the largest homeless shelter in Richmond, Va., Blons said. She also worked as vice president for Faith Housing in Ohio, a job that included managing permanent housing for people with mental illness.

Spectrum would have two-and-a-half to three full-time staff working with Lydia Apartments residents, helping them with jobs, managing their disabilities and finding community resources, Blons said.

Lydia Apartments has an annual budget of $300,000 for supportive services, she said, or an average of $7,500 per tenant,

Common Bond manages a range of properties, from a seven-unit building to a 504-unit St. Paul high rise, its website said. It also has experience managing properties for people with physical and mental problems.

The foundation has dedicated six units in Lydia Apartments for people with HIV/AIDS who are coping with other issues, such as chemical dependency or mental illness, Satorius said.

The Plymouth Church Neighborhood Foundation began in 1999, "dedicated to developing and sustaining strong and vibrant neighborhoods," a news release said.

Its board includes members of Plymouth Congregational Church and residents of surrounding neighborhoods.

Lawsuit dismissed
Lydia Apartments opponents have 60 days to decide whether to appeal the court ruling, said Mike Freeman, attorney for the group calling itself Citizens for a Balanced City.

The lawsuit sought to force the city to enforce its own ordinance against concentrating supportive housing in one area, the quarter-mile spacing rule.

Lydia Apartments violates that ordinance. The foundation and city argued that enforcing it would discriminate against the disabled people the apartments would serve, however, violating the Federal Fair Housing Act amendments.

The judge said the city’s decision to permit Lydia Apartments was not "arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable."

Plaintiffs said Lydia House would hurt property values and make the area less desirable for development. The ruling said Lydia Apartments was "likely to have a beneficial effect on the area."

Freeman said the decision would result in gross concentration of supportive-housing programs in a few neighborhoods.

His clients had not decided whether to appeal.

One avenue of appeal is the judge’s decision Lydia Apartments did not fit the city’s definition of supportive housing, Freeman said. Supportive housing includes such things as emergency shelters and transitional housing.

Lydia Apartments "differs fundamentally from these kinds of programs," the ruling said. "It does not undermine the basic purpose of the spacing requirement."

Freeman said the foundation sought federal money for Lydia House, saying it would take people right out of shelters.

"If it is the first housing these people have had in years — and they have lived on the street or in shelters — this is transitional housing," Freeman said.

Assistant City Attorney Carol Lansing said the city’s supportive-housing definition, passed in 1997, did not envision a Lydia Apartments proposal. The examples were transitional housing with group living, with shared bathroom and kitchen facilities.

"This means the city needs to look at its definition of supportive housing and determine what if any spacing requirements are appropriate for the kinds of housing applications we have been seeing," she said.

The court’s ruling did not throw out the city’s quarter-mile spacing rule, Lansing said. Future requests to waive the spacing requirement would still have to show the people served are disabled and the waiver is both reasonable and necessary.