Lutheran Social Services Housing and CommunityWorks North Dakota to acquire Bismarck affordable housing project

(NEWS RELEASE FROM LUTHERAN SOCIAL SERVICES; JUNE 13, 2019) FARGO, N.D. – Recognizing the Bismarck area’s need for safe, stable affordable housing, Lutheran Social Services Housing (LSSH), a statewide provider of affordable housing since 2008, and CommunityWorks North Dakota (CWND), a statewide affordable housing lender, announced plans for a partnership that will assume ownership of Porter Place Apartments, the Bismarck affordable housing property previously owned and operated by Ruth Meiers Hospitality House (RMHH) at 1100 East Boulevard Ave. 

Under LSSH’s experienced management, Porter Place will continue to offer 85 studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments. The project will be operated in keeping with LSS Housing’s (LSSH) model of compassionate, supportive property management, which includes offering connection and referral to a range of supportive services for tenants who need extra help finding and maintaining housing stability. 

By taking on the Porter Place property, LSSH and CWND will build on the Ruth Meiers group’s commitment to provide affordable housing to the community, which started when RMHH purchased the former Baptist Home in 2013.

During the next several months, LSSH will continue making plans to finish the rehabilitation that was originally started by RMHH in 2014. LSSH and CWND are working with lead lender, Choice Bank, to make the transition happen as seamlessly as possible for tenants and staff.

According to LSSND CEO Jessica Thomasson, “LSS Housing’s initial engagement was to help manage the building on behalf of the Ruth Meiers organization, but as the process moved forward, RMHH expressed interest in also transitioning the ownership. We have a lot of experience managing affordable housing and we didn’t want to see Bismarck lose this much-needed housing option. So, after much discussion and analysis with our board, CWND as our partner, and the lender, we decided to move forward with the transition and are working with Choice Bank to make that happen.”

Transition Will Not Move Families into Homelessness

Thomasson stressed that the proposed transfer of the Boulevard Avenue property will not move any families into homelessness. Although the Ruth Meiers transitional housing program recently ended, the site will continue to offer permanent supported housing at affordable rents, just as it has done since opening in 2015. “If our goal is to end someone’s homelessness, the only way to do that is with housing,” Thomasson said. “This is the basic principle of the Housing First philosophy, which is what guides our approach.”

This philosophy has been central to the LSS Housing and Property Management mission since it formed in 2008 with the mission to alleviate a statewide shortage of affordable housing in rural areas. Housing First is based on the belief that it is difficult to work one’s way out of poverty if a person doesn’t have the most basic needs met – including safe and reliable housing.

In the past 11 years, LSSH has been able to provide 1,164 homes to people living in 26 communities, spanning from Dunseith to Bowman, and from Mayville to Williston. Over that same period of time, CWND has been involved in creating almost 950 units of affordable housing via its lending and development work in the Bismarck-Mandan area and across North Dakota.

The “Bismarck Mandan Housing Demand Analysis – 2030” report documented the need for affordable housing, as created by population growth, and highlighted the importance of investing in a range of housing solutions to help meet that need.

“The loss of 85 affordable apartments would certainly have an impact on our community. We are glad to be part of the cooperative effort that has taken place to preserve this housing,” said Brent Ekstrom, executive director of CommunityWorks North Dakota.

Housing for People Who Live & Work in Area

“LSS knows that the Bismarck Mandan community needs this project for people who live and work in the community and who struggle to find housing they can afford. We are not recruiting new people from outside the community to live at this property,” said Murray Sagsveen, Bismarck, chairperson of the LSSND Board of Directors. “Affordable housing is a critical part of Lutheran Social Services’ mission. We know that having a safe, decent, affordable place to live is critical for a family’s ultimate ability to build a good life for themselves.”

The apartments are open to anyone living in the Bismarck area who meets the income qualifications at the property. “We are a fair housing provider, which means we don’t discriminate in how we review housing applications,” said Paulette Paulson, director of LSS Housing. “Our goal is to make sure we operate housing projects our tenants are proud to call home and that are assets to the community.”

LSS’s mission melds well with the principles of late Lt. Governor Ruth Meiers, who worked to improve the lives of people who were experiencing hunger and homelessness in her community and believed in providing those people with support, inspiration, and hope. Thus, in 1987, the Ruth Meiers Hospitality House opened its doors to provide shelter to seven homeless men in Bismarck. Over the years, the organization expanded to add transitional and affordable housing to thousands of individuals.

RMHH closed its men’s shelter in November 2017 and more recently made the decision to stop offering transitional housing. They turned over ownership of the Porter Place property to Choice Bank in May 2019 to make way for LSSH to take on permanent responsibility for the property.

LSS and CommunityWorks will turn to community for input

Thomasson said the agency is looking to not only maintain the affordable housing property, but to also enhance the building’s aesthetic presence. “We are excited to not only preserve much-needed housing for people living in Bismarck, but also to infuse some public art and additional green space into this site. We want to make sure that this gateway property is both beautiful and functional.”

LSSH and CWND plan to host neighborhood meetings to explain the renovation plans, the supported housing model, the proposed art and green space plans, and explore ideas for how to continue working together after the transition.

All of the apartments are designed for independent living but will be operated with the recognition that some people may benefit from supportive services – such as mental health help or referrals to recovery resources – as they transition from housing crisis to housing stability.

“Everybody needs a little help sometimes,” said Bishop Mark Narum, Bismarck, chairperson of the LSS Housing Board of Directors. “This really does represent a new approach to providing supported housing for people who are vulnerable. They may be homeless or at risk of homelessness, or they may just need an affordable place to live. And some may need additional supports to help them stay stably housed. LSS is well suited to delivering services in this way, especially because we always work alongside community partners.”

Pastor Craig Schweitzer, a member of the LSS Housing Board of Directors and senior pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Bismarck, noted, “As a representative of the faith community, I think it is important to remember that we are called to do this work. To love our neighbor. To treat people with dignity and respect. To walk with people as they find their way through challenging times. Helping make sure people in our community have a place to live is a very real way we can live out our call to serve.”

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