Pricey neighborhood, affordable housing

Linden Hills walks the talk by backing two affordable projects. The only controversy: one may not be as affordable as it seems.

When you think of places in Minneapolis where new affordable housing could be built, you might not think of Linden Hills. The neighborhood is a real estate agent’s dream of massive Victorian manors, fashionably rustic duplexes and sweet little bungalows — all fetching fat prices whenever they’re up for sale. However, two new proposals for affordable housing in Linden Hills hold the promise of bringing changes to the neighborhood’s genteel calm.

One proposal has percolated for a year under the watchful eyes of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA), Mark Lindberg and the Linden Hills Neighborhood Council (LHiNC). If all goes well, the MPHA will break ground this fall on a five-townhome project on a small plot behind the France 44 Wine and Spirits store at 4351 France Ave. S.

Lindberg, something of a guardian angel for the 44th Street project, has held meetings with neighbors to get their input and diminish fears associated with affordable housing in affluent areas. The reaction to the project has been mostly positive, he said.

The reaction to the second project has been decidedly mixed. Some neighbors are seething over developer Michael Lander’s proposal to add two housing units to a single-family residential lot. They say the project at 4251 Vincent Ave. S. has been mislabeled as affordable housing and will inappropriately increase density in the area. The LHiNC Housing Committee gave the project a thumbs-down before the full board reversed the decision.

The Lander Project

Lander’s lot is typical for Linden Hills — a 1,200-square-foot home and two-car garage. He proposes adding two structures — an 1,800 square-foot story-and-a-half home and a 432-square-foot carriage house above the garage. He said he and his family would live in the new, larger house while renting out the existing house and new carriage apartment.

Lander has asked the city to upzone the property from R1 — single-family residential housing — to R-3, a multiple-unit classification.

Lander, a commercial and residential developer, concedes that rezonings are typically controversial in neighborhoods. He hopes to persuade the city’s Planning Commission and his immediate neighbors — as he did LHiNC’s board — that his proposal will bring affordable housing to a neighborhood with little of it.

Lander notes that the prices of lots already zoned for three or more units would cost too much to support affordable housing.

One way around that is to let developers pay R-1 prices but upzone to allow multiple units. The public wouldn’t be out a penny, and affordable housing could be built.

"Unless there [are] some unique strategies like this, the standard market-rate development economics will just prohibit or prevent anything like this happening," Lander said.

His current plan is to charge below-market rents for the carriage house and existing home. The carriage house would be affordable to a family of four making $22,800 a year or less (30 percent of the metropolitan median income, or MMI, of $76,000 a year). The house would be affordable to someone making 60 percent of metro median income, he said — currently $45,600 for a family of four.

Lander said he and his family would live in the newly constructed house for three years or more.

"We probably could rent those units for more money if we were trying to maximize the income," Lander said. "That’s today’s rents. We’re not necessarily agreeing to hold those rents for 100 years."

That’s the rub for some neighbors: an upzoning is permanent; Lander’s affordable housing pledge is not.

Niel Ritchie, a neighbor who lives a couple of houses up Vincent from the Lander property, thinks Lander’s housing affordability will change long before a century has passed.

Said Ritchie, "The economics won’t sustain a rental situation, specifically not a low-income rental situation. It’ll end up getting pressured into condos. And I don’t fault him for doing that — that’s how he makes his living."

Lander said he has no plans to turn the property into condominiums but acknowledged that he couldn’t rule out the possibility. "We have no current plan to do that. We are going to live there and rent the two units. There is no prohibition against turning it into condos, and so that is one of the possible scenarios down the road. That’s as honest and straightforward an answer I can give to that," he said.

Linda Koutsky, who lives directly south of the Lander lot, will be most affected by the new construction. The graphic designer — a columnist for Skyway News, which is owned by the Southwest Journal’s publisher — says she opposes the development because her "backyard will be walled in [if the project is built]. Completely shade it and wall it in. I may as well have an apartment building there."

She adds, "My main objection is that it’s wrong for the neighborhood. We don’t have that high-density housing in Linden Hills. We have backyards and our houses are set apart. It’s the character of the neighborhood."

Of Lander, Koutsky said, "He seems like a nice guy and honest in person. He can convince the city that this is affordable housing and that they should rezone his project."

Lander said, "That question has come up a number of times: ‘What’s our intentions?’ Because I am a developer, it’s not unnatural that people would ask that. But you know what? I go home and have a family like everybody else. My family’s going to live there, so this is a personal project for us."

LHiNC board member Jack Newton, who voted in support of Lander’s proposal when it was before the board in February, said, "All I know is what he said. And he said there’s affordable housing in the existing house and would be in the carriage house. And that’s all I know. He has a good reputation and can be believed, by and large."

Lander’s project goes before the city’s Planning Commission on March 22. The Commission will then recommend approval or rejection of the zoning application to the City Council, which has the final say over the project.

The 44th Street Project

In contrast to Lander’s project, the other Linden Hills housing deal is proceeding with remarkable calm.

Every day, many hundreds of people pass the unexceptional plot of land — only about four-tenths of an acre — once used as a bus Park-and-Ride lot. It’s unlikely that many passersby saw the potential that Mark Lindberg, a member of LHiNC’s Affordable Housing Committee, and Dean Carlson, housing development coordinator for the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA), did when they looked at the nondescript paved lot.

Unlike the privately financed Lander development, the 44th Street Project has governmental hoops to jump through before completion.

The Metropolitan Council, a regional planning agency, owns the lot. However, it is currently formulating a policy for transferring unused property — such as the 44th Street site — to other government agencies that could develop it. In this case, the recipient would be MPHA.

Once MPHA pays a whopping one dollar for the property, Carlson said it will use "a cool million" from the city of Minneapolis to build five townhomes.

Newton said the project would include "garages, with additional parking in back, plus a tot lot." The units will be rented to people making 30 percent or less MMI.

Met Council Chair Peter Bell lives in Linden Hills but isn’t pushing the project personally. "The neighborhood has given every indication that that’s something that they want, and I think that my personal feelings about it are not what’s important. I’m not opposed to it," Bell said. "I think I’d rather focus on if that’s something that the neighborhood wants, I think we have to give it serious consideration."

Lindberg, who works for the Otto Bremer Foundation, has quietly lobbied Met Council members, the LHiNC board, state legislators, City Councilmembers and residents of the France/44th area, to convince them that affordable housing is not only possible in Linden Hills, but it is something of a duty.

"Affordable housing is a human right," the soft-spoken Lindberg said. "People cannot live with dignity without affordable housing, and it affects so many other issues. This effort is one small step that our community can play in helping people help themselves."

Carlson is enthusiastic about getting help from LHiNC — which passed a proactive affordable housing policy last year.

"When you talk about doing public housing anywhere — regardless of a neighborhood like Linden Hills or a different neighborhood that may not be as affluent — there [are] always a number of concerns. You’re always starting behind the 8-ball," Carlson said. "When you have a neighborhood that’s already embraced and accepted this, you’re talking about how you can make the site as good as you possibly can, as opposed to why we should even be doing this."

Kevin Kvale, a real estate agent who lives in a duplex immediately to the north of the proposed project site, said he’s attended two meetings on the development. "It’s great for the neighborhood," he said of the project. "I’d rather see affordable housing there than another business."

However, Kvale acknowledged that he’s heard some grumblings among his neighbors. "There are a couple of people who are unhappy and concerned," he said. "I think their [issues are] based on fear. I don’t think they’re valid concerns."

Todd Trautwein, a chef who also lives on Kvale’s street said if affordable housing is brought into the neighborhood, he’s concerned for his infant daughter’s safety. However, he said he might be willing to support the project "as long as it doesn’t bring the dirty people in here — you know, the criminals. It’s kind of a tough call.

"If I needed affordable housing one day, I hope it’s there for me," he added.

The Met Council’s Transportation Committee will hear the 44th Street project on Monday, March 8. If all goes well there, the project will move on to a Met Council Community Development Committee meeting before the full Council decides whether to transfer the land to MPHA.