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Fargo City Commission Hang-Up — Affordable Housing Downtown?

Last Word | January 18th, 2022

By Melissa Van Der Stad

m.forfargo@gmail.com

A proposal for affordable housing in Downtown Fargo is currently being discussed in two separate committees — the Tax Exempt Review Committee and the Renaissance Zone Authority — with the proverbial ax held over it, ready to fall at any moment.

Preventing this from happening is a flurry of citizen activity in the Fargo area in support of this proposal. Not satisfied with the committees’ lack of verbal support, the community has mobilized to make sure that our government knows the wishes of the people. Many concerned citizens demanding affordable housing alternatives are seeking to push the proposal through the committee review process to the Fargo City Commission’s table for approval.

The proposal is for an affordable housing project in downtown Fargo. The 181-unit housing project would be located on 419 3rd St. North, just a block north of City Hall. The firm submitting this proposal, Authentic Housing — a public benefit firm out of St. Paul — has lofty goals of sustainable community living at a price everyone can afford.

The proposed building is filled with amenities designed to save residents time and money. These include child care; regular house cleaning; wash and fold laundry service; near core transit lines, reducing transportation costs; EV vehicle share program; exercise facility; onsite nurse office hours; and low cost food options.

The community support of this proposal has been nothing short of astounding. Authentic Housing has managed to enchant a community before they’ve even presented their bid to Fargo’s committees.

On Friday evening, the Red Raven Espresso Parlor hosted a gathering of concerned citizens in support of this affordable downtown housing. People were naturally drawn together by word of mouth, sharing their excitement around the Authentic Housing proposal. The flier above fueled hope for a new format for housing, which would bring Fargo to the forefront of intuitive modern housing options.

“I’m here to lend a hand; get some teamwork in on the activities in the community,” said Rynn Willgohs.

Many expressed their desire to help bring affordable housing to downtown Fargo, stating that they believed in the ability of people to make change. Concerns about the daily life for workers in downtown Fargo were scattered into conversation, with one downtown resident pointing out that there was barely any parking available for them when they drive to work, not affordable parking anyways. They loved the fact that Authentic Housing is going to provide free bus passes and that they will establish a ride-share program to lower the amount of cars parking in the street.

“Affordable housing and housing in general is a human right like the right to food and medicine. I know people who work downtown deserve to have a nice and affordable place to live, like our friends in the service industry. I’m here because I like to be with the people who don’t have a voice for whatever reason. There’s people out here trying to make a difference,” said Tracey Wilkie.

Many residents who are eager to see Authentic Housing’s bid passed were particularly motivated by their model of communal housing. Authentic Housing will help people stay housed and in a community where they can support each other.

“This would be an additional solution to address the unhoused issue that the Fargo Metro continues to have. Veterans, Native American relatives, they are all overrepresented in the homeless community (population). We need to find comprehensive solutions that will work for everyone and not just a select few,” said Ruth Buffalo.

Others were there because they admired the concept of Authentic Housing’s carbon neutral building plan. Some pointed out that it was a good time for it too, tying in nicely to Governor Doug Burgum’s stated goal to make North Dakota a carbon-neutral state by the end of the decade.

Supporters spent the night discussing their hopes for the future of this project and contacting their city commissioners and members of the committee boards who will make the final decision. They sent personalized emails to each member and called those whose numbers were available to the public.

While supporters of Authentic Housing’s proposal weren’t sure if they would receive an opportunity to speak, they intended to be present to show their support. Held this last Tuesday the 18th from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at Fargo City Hall (225 4th Street North, Fargo), supporters continued to let the committee members know that the community cares deeply about the outcome of Authentic Housing’s proposal.

“The people making the decisions aren’t on the pulse of what the people want,” said an anonymous source who attended the Red Raven’s community event in support of Authentic Housing. They intended to be there this last Tuesday to speak for their community.

On Tuesday the committee heard 15-minute presentations from each firm and then asked questions about their proposals. These presentations may influence how the committees will vote. This vote will determine which proposal gets sent to the Fargo City Commission for approval.

Authentic Housing believes that their proposal clearly reflects the best deal for the community. They listed the benefits that they are bringing to the City of Fargo in their presentation. First off, they are offering full price for the land, which they state is currently estimated at $2.7 million. Their competition in the bidding process, the Kilbourne group, a prominent property management company which owns portions of Downtown Fargo, is offering $162,000.

Authentic Housing’s plan to create 181 apartment units outpaces Kilbourne's 114, and their ride-share plan will limit the impact on downtown parking spots. Their 181 apartments with affordable rent will allow the people who work downtown to be able to afford to live there too.

In Authentic Housing’s own words:

“The biggest problems need systemic, self-sustaining solutions. That’s why at Authentic Housing we are developing housing that working families can afford with built-in amenities that save even more money and time to improve their lives. All of this is able to run on its own revenue producing a profit and massively reducing carbon emissions.

“We reject the notion that companies must choose between doing well and doing good. We honor this belief throughout decisions to incorporate as a Public Benefit Corporation. We believe our decision to move forward on major societal challenges will produce more success, profits, and growth, not less. With or without government action, we will take on the societal challenges of inequality, catastrophic climate change, and the constant emergency of too little money and too many bills facing millions of Americans.”

To bring these benefits to the community and to the City of Fargo, Authentic Housing is asking for a $2 million Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Loan to assist the project. In contrast, Kilbourne is requesting $3 million of TIF assistance as well as a $2.5 million discount on the land’s purchase price.

This seems like a logical and conclusive answer to supportive Fargo citizens based on the cost/benefit ratios in Authentic Housing’s proposal. So what’s the hang-up?

The awkwardness stems from the competition. The Kilbourne group is also bidding for the project and they have huge influence over the downtown area.

While city committee members wonder if the City is prepared for the affordable housing initiatives that Authentic Housing brings, the Kilbourne Group is a known builder of expensive luxury housing units in the area. Kilbourne is a property management firm owned, in part, by North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum. Their purpose is to be a “catalyst of inspiration and action for vibrant downtown communities.”

Their work can be seen throughout Fargo. Many argue that this work is rapidly gentrifying Downtown and while Kilbourne denies that this is their intent, the natural result of building luxury housing is the rapid gentrification that displaces the lower-income residents who currently live and work Downtown.

Fargo is a growing city and we’ve yet to experience the center swell of cities like Minneapolis, where whole communities are pushed out of their historic neighborhoods due to an increased cost of living from the surrounding developments. Authentic Housing’s proposal ensures that improvements downtown do not result in the removal of all the people who helped make Downtown great.

The need for affordable housing is something the City of Fargo is very much aware of. In their Downtown Master Plan, labeled Downtown Infocus Major Action Plan, the City clearly lays out what they need for the future of Fargo’s Downtown.

As Downtown grows, some have expressed a real concern that new development cannot come at the expense of those who have helped to shape Downtown today. The need to provide and protect affordable housing and affordable workspace in the wake of new development consistently ranked as a top priority throughout the InFocus process…Provide a range of housing options within Downtown, at a range of price points.

During the Renaissance Zone Authority and Tax Exempt Review Committee Joint meeting that occurred just a few weeks ago, the major point of discussion throughout the meeting was Authentic Housing’s proposal.

“I believe this is a change in the growth of our city because now we’re getting outside developers coming in and that hasn’t really happened very often in the past. It’s a great time for Fargo,” said City Commissioner, Renaissance Zone Authority member, and Tax-Exempt Review Committee member Dave Piepkorn.

This joint committee meeting was a chance for members to discuss the proposals and ask questions, as well as to prepare for the meeting this last Tuesday the 18th. Each firm had a chance to present their proposals and the committee members had the opportunity to ask questions. Following that, they may have voted on which firm’s proposal to suggest to the City Commission for approval.

A major hang-up the committee members brought up was how the City didn’t yet have a housing strategy to address the housing needs of the younger workforce or the housing needs of different income brackets. Many comments were about how this was an innovative proposal but they weren’t sure if the city was ready for it.

Which begs the question, what has the city been doing if they don’t yet feel prepared to implement affordable housing for our downtown workforce? It’s an identified need in several City of Fargo plans.

“We don’t have a citywide housing strategy yet for different income brackets that is very specific,” said Nicole Crutchfield, Director of Planning & Development for the City of Fargo.

Looking to the future of Fargo, the city committee members had many positive thoughts on Authentic Housing’s proposal.

“If we do look at where cities have gone to, I have a son that didn’t own a car in Minneapolis for years and used that public transit and I think it's okay to think outside the box here… it is much less strain on parking,” said Deb Mathern, chair of the Renaissance Zone Authority.

Jim Gilmour, Director of Strategic Planning & Research for the City of Fargo, expressed that while the City does not have data on rideshare needs, the fact that the 181 units in Authentic Housing’s proposed building have rideshare options included would greatly lower the parking congestion downtown.

Arlette Preston, City Commissioner and Renaissance Zone Authoritymember, as well as a potential Fargo mayoral candidate for 2022, said glowing things in support of Authentic Housing but still called herself neutral in terms of support for the proposal.

“I think what’s happening here is that we have a developer that’s pushing us to perhaps consider an approach that we have not done in the past. I’m neutral on this project, (but it) is well worth looking at when it comes to workforce housing to look at some of these wrap-around services. If we look at a housing strategy where you try and get the workforce as close to the employment as we can  – and we’re talking about service industry employees, probably who are on the lower end of the income level  – and that’s been a priority identified by the chamber as well as…the business community.

“Being able to potentially get to the point where we’re talking about housing within a neighborhood to try and increase the use of public transit or walking to work, and that’s the vision that I saw in (Authentic Housing’s) proposal. Now whether we’re ready for that or not, that’s a good question. But it's well worth considering for the future.”

The city had a chance on Tuesday to select a housing approach to propel our city forwards toward an inclusive Downtown with cutting-edge building practices and a revolutionary living design. If they chose to, they can put the working people first and prioritize bringing Fargo to the forefront of modern city living by voting yes on Authentic Housing’s proposal.

With the upcoming city commission election and the scores of mayoral candidates stepping up, this committee vote brought the intense scrutiny of the public eye to our local politicians. Every word, every vote mattered to scores of Fargo residents.

What these citizens need from you is to join them. Help them reimagine Fargo’s housing model by emailing and calling.

“Citizen involvement is incredibly important to the continued growth and wellbeing of Fargo City government. The City never stops listening to its people.”  -Mayor Mahoney, State of the City of Fargo 2022

Well, for many hopefully residents, time will tell. They’ve done their best. They called, emailed, and planned to speak in person at the committee meeting (if given the chance).

The people are talking, time to see if the City is listening.

YOU SHOULD KNOW

City Commission general line: 701–241–1310

Bruce Grubbs: bgrubb@fargond.gov

Dave Piepkorn: dpiepkorn@fargond.gov

Tim Mahoney: tmahoney@fargond.gov

Kent Costin: kcostin@fargond.gov

Jim Buus: jim.buus@jbccommercial.com 701–306–7093

John Cosgriff: jcosgriff@investam.com

Jessica Ebeling: jessicaebeling@gatecity.bank

Arlette Preston: apreston@fargond.gov

Dr. Dean Bresciani: ndsu.presidents.ofc@ndsu.edu 701–231–7211

Chad Peterson: newlightep@gmail.com

Prakash Mathew: prakash.mathew@ndsu.edu

Deb Mathern: deb.mathern@gmail.com 701–241–4770

Stacy Smith: stacysmith@gatecity.bank 701–293–2410

Reid Middaugh: reid.middaugh@cbre.com 701–532–1835

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