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Housing project could bring 45 affordable units to Willmar

Submitted Commonwealth Development Corperation is hoping to build a 45-unit workforce housing project in Willmar, near the new Lakeland Elementary. This is a concept drawing from an earlier project, but regional Vice President of Development Erin Anderson said a similar design could work in Willmar.

WILLMAR — Housing availability, especially workforce housing, has been a topic of concern in Willmar for some time. A potential development could help alleviate some of the strain, by bringing 45 high-quality and affordable units to Willmar.

"The city has an opportunity to participate in a workforce housing project. This is the first one we've been able to sink our teeth into," Willmar Planning and Development Director Bruce Peterson said Monday during a work session of the Willmar City Council.

Commonwealth Development Corporation, which has completed successful workforce housing projects in several states, has been looking for a Willmar site. They have settled on a piece of land on 15th Street Southeast, situated behind the Pizza Ranch and near Lakeland Elementary and the YMCA. A purchase agreement is in the works.

"This particular site is great," said Erin Anderson, Commonwealth Vice President of Development for the Midwest region. The group has already presented information to the Planning Commission to begin the rezoning and conditional use permit process.

The proposed project, called 15th Street Flats, would be a three-story building, with an elevator. There will be no age restrictions on who can live in the building, though those who live there will be making 60 percent or less of the median income in Willmar.

"These are going to be fully accessible," Anderson said.

Each unit would have two parking spots and a one-car garage. Most of the units in the building will be either two or three bedrooms, with a few one-bedroom apartments. Anderson said both the building design and interiors of the apartments will be built of quality materials, fit the neighborhood and the building will include amenities like a fitness center, office, meeting room, playground and community rooms.

Commonwealth Development would like five units to be set aside to provide permanent housing to the formerly homeless and five others, with services, to be used specifically for the physically disabled, Anderson said.

The Kandiyohi County Housing and Redevelopment Authority will be managing the property. Jill Bengtson, HRA executive director, said the HRA usually has waiting lists of hundreds of families looking for affordable housing in Willmar.

"I think this project would be very helpful to addressing those housing needs," Bengtson said.

The city's involvement would be financial in nature, Peterson said. Firstly, Commonwealth needs a letter of support from the city so it can apply for tax credits from the Minnesota Housing Financing Agency. Additional financial support from the city could be tax-exempt financing, tax increment financing, waiving tapping fees to connect to utilities and possible use of the city's bonding authority.

"Without some local financial involvement, the project would be dead in the water," Peterson said.

In her presentation, Anderson said Commonwealth hears the concerns some have regarding workforce housing projects, including property values, scale, quality of product and crime.

"We address issues regarding crime with stringent background checks," Anderson said.

Commonwealth will remain the owner of the building for at least 30 years, one of the requirements for a tax credit development.

"It is the cornerstone of the success of this program," Anderson said.

Aaron Backman, Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission director, said he has been working with Commonwealth for about a year to make this project happen. There has also been support from area employers, including Kandi Mall and Jennie-O Turkey Store.

"Households with modest means need safe, suitable housing they can afford," Backman said.

Overall the council was supportive of the project, believing it will help meet some of Willmar's housing needs.

"It is a very attractive project," Councilor Kathy Schwantes said.

No action was taken on the development. Peterson will be bringing it back to the next council meeting, with specific council action requests.

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