For one Stevens Square corner, a new start

Once a run-down apartment complex on a crime-ridden corner, the renovated Nokoma now offers affordable ownership in a safer community

Four years ago, the corner of Franklin and 3rd avenues had a reputation — not the kind that appealed to anyone looking for a nice place to live.

“It was the area to come to deal drugs at the time,” said Insp. Kristine Arneson, commander of the Minneapolis Police Department’s 5th Precinct.

Back then, Arneson made sure police were in the area 16 hours a day. If an officer assigned there had to leave, even for a short time, another was sent to keep watch. Police  watched from the roof of a corner apartment building. They watched from an empty unit in the building.

Today, that building is awaiting the second chance recently given to its neighbor — a once run-down, mismanaged apartment complex at 1920 3rd Ave. S., which has taken on a new life, along with the surrounding community. With financial help from the Stevens Square Community Organization (SSCO), nonprofit housing organization Plymouth Church Neighborhood Foundation (PCNF) completely rehabbed the complex and unveiled the finished product in late June.

Named the Nokoma, the 19-unit building is now a housing cooperative marketed toward individuals and families with annual incomes between $18,000 and $35,220.

Following an initial $3,000 down payment, occupants pay $750 a month for a share in the cooperative, which owns the building. That fee goes toward a mortgage, taxes, insurance, utilities, maintenance, administrative expenses and reserves for unforeseen repairs or other cost increases. Occupants can build equity by selling their shares plus up to 4 percent appreciation on the $48,674 price.

The model adds some diversity to the area’s housing stock, which is mostly rental.  

“Home ownership brings a little more stability to the population — some people who can have a particular stake in the community,” said City Council member Robert Lilligren (6th Ward). “The renters are great, but it’s nice to have a little more diversity.”  

Lilligren said the area has evolved into a safer community during the past four years and the Nokoma should only build on that.

Lee Blons, executive director of PCNF, said the Nokoma was in a sorry state when the organization purchased it and the building next door several years ago. Couches were overturned, trash littered the floor and the few tenants who were there didn’t pay rent.

“At the time I sent an e-mail to the board saying ‘congratulations, we’re now the owners of two half-vacant crime-ridden apartment buildings, or two very promising historic apartment buildings in the gateway to the neighborhood,’” Blons said.

PCNF initially started looking for property in Stevens Square in response to community concerns about condo conversions and gentrification of the area. The idea was to create affordable housing that allowed area residents to buy in the community. The median annual income in Stevens Square is $21,000, Blons said.

Being able to help transform a problem corner was an extra incentive to purchase property at Franklin and 3rd, she said.  

Steven Gallagher, executive director of SSCO, said problems at the corner have largely disappeared thanks in part to PCNF’s management of the Nokoma and its neighbor building, which is also slated for a rehab soon.

SSCO developed the Nokoma’s home-ownership model and invested a quarter-million of its Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) dollars in the project. The co-op model is the first of its kind in the neighborhood, Gallagher said.

“We hope it’s very successful and maybe we’ll be able to replicate it somewhere else,” he said.

So far, two of the units in the Nokoma are sold and several potential buyers were waiting to hear from PCNF, which reviews each applicant. The main restriction is an annual income level of $35,000 or less.

Addy Free, 27, is one of the applicants. The Macalester College employee lives near work in St. Paul, but was attracted to the Nokoma’s affordability and an $8,000 first-time homebuyer tax credit. The building’s proximity to a community garden, bus lines, an HOURCAR, grocery co-ops, museums and other attractions was also a draw, as was the ownership model.  

“The co-op model appeals to me because of what it stands for and how it can work,” Free said. “Put simply, the co-op model takes an enterprise like providing housing, food or financial services, looks at who it serves and then asks them to democratically own and control the co-op that’s providing that resource.”

Insp. Arneson said the police department’s intense focus on the corner years ago drove out the drug trafficking it was known for. The Nokoma, she said, could help keep it out and build a new, better reputation for the community.

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or jweyer@mnpubs.com.