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South Minneapolis will get 430 new ‘affordable’ housing units, but what is affordable?

The next phase of the L&H development promises "affordable" housing, but what does that mean?

The next phase of the L&H development promises "affordable" housing, but what does that mean? Saturday Properties

A couple of years ago, the six-and-a-half acre block on the southwest corner of Lake Street and Hiawatha Avenue didn’t look like much. The patch of land in south Minneapolis was a gigantic sandbox full of rumbling, beeping construction equipment.

The neighborhood mostly preferred it to what had been there 15 years earlier – the former Brown College building, a wasteland of a parking lot, abandoned, neglected, a temptation to trespassers. The neighborhood had been asking the county to do something about it for years.

By and large, it has. Out of that construction work sandbox rose the beginnings of the L&H development at Lake and Hiawatha: a massive South Minneapolis Human Service Center, and Southsider Apartments with 123 units of workforce housing. The first crop of tenants moved into the building last Saturday.

But for L&H Housing Partners (comprising three Minnesota-based firms) and Hennepin County, that was only Phase I. Phase II is now in the works, and up for approval at Thursday’s Minneapolis City Planning Commission meeting.

Saturday Properties Director Mark Laverty (who leads one of those three collaborating firms) isn’t expecting any issues there -- the plans, he told Finance & Commerce, are pretty consistent with the city’s original vision of the area. If all goes well, the whole thing should be done by 2022.

Among the most exciting things on the menu are a bumper crop of “affordable housing” for this next wave, plus a public plaza which will become the new home of the Midtown Farmer’s Market.

The proposal includes about 430 new units in three new buildings – a 142-unit complex of mostly “market-rate” studios, a 177-unit building geared toward mixed-income families, and a 113-unit building of affordable senior apartments. The whole thing is slated to cost a tidy $96 million and fill out the remainder of the block.

It’s an attractive prospect. If the city of Minneapolis were a word cloud, “affordable” and “housing” might as well be the big, bold letters in the center. Right now, the city is facing a housing crisis as more and more low-income families struggle to find places to live. In the past 20 years, according to the city, about 15,000 units of housing considered affordable for people who make half the median income have been lost.

The new development’s emphasis on affordability is encouraging, but little is guaranteed, as the word “affordable” can be kind of squishy. Even Southsider, a building restricted to renters making 80 percent or less of the median area income, has some units that cost upwards of $1,600. For some people, as members of the Corcoran Facebook page have pointed out, that’s not affordable.

Laverty wouldn’t say around how much these new units will go for. They’re hoping to attract a “transit-oriented,” “mixed-income” crowd he says -- people who want a cheaper place to live and easy access to the nearby Blue Line station.

But there are people out there who need a place to live yesterday, who maybe can’t even fit into the 80-percent area median income “workforce housing” requirement. Unless someone starts making houses for them, they’re still searching for home.