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Welcome home: New affordable housing project opens to homeless woman, others who need homes

Thursday, September 26, 2019
Julian Emerson | Journalist

ALTOONA - For the past eight months, Maria Guzman has called the streets of Eau Claire home, but thanks to a newly renovated former assisted living facility in Altoona, she now has a roof over her head and a brighter future.
 
Guzman, 58, will be the first person to be housed at Solis Circle, the recently remodeled building at 1511 Devney Drive, Altoona that was formerly Country Terrace, an assisted living home. The woman who has called Philadelphia home for most of her life will begin living there on Monday.
 
For Guzman, the opportunity to live at Solis Circle means no more time on the streets, no more wondering where her next meal will come from, no more fear of assault, no more sleeping in a homeless shelter, no more despair about a life suddenly spun out of her control.
 
Instead, Guzman will live in one of the 400-square-foot efficiency apartments at Solis Circle, tidy living units outfitted with furniture, a clean, new place she can call home.
 
"I have my home! I have my home!" an overjoyed Guzman exclaimed during an open house event Thursday afternoon celebrating the official opening of Solis Circle. "I never thought this would happen, and now here I am. I am so grateful."
 
Guzman is the first of many people who struggle to afford housing in the Chippewa Valley who will benefit from being housed at Solis Circle. The revamped structure includes 25 rooms designed to make housing more affordable.
 
Most of the apartments there are 400-square-foot efficiency units, with a couple of one- and two-bedroom units making up the remainder of housing. Rents start at $390 per month, including utilities.
 
"The idea was to make this housing affordable, and we have worked to provide that," Altoona City Administrator Mike Golat said.
 
The project is not tied to publicly subsidized housing and does not include tight eligibility regulations.
 
"We want a real mix of people," Golat said when asked who Solis Circle is intended to attract. "Young, old, retired, working … We want to create a real sense of community here."
 
Speakers at Thursday's ceremony praised the Solis Circle project, saying the cooperative effort helps address a significant affordable housing shortage in the community. Multiple groups, including city officials from Altoona and Eau Claire, builder Cody Filipczak, and multiple local nonprofits such as JONAH (Joining Our Neighbors, Advancing Hope) and EXPO (Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing) partnered to make the project a reality.
 
State Rep. Jesse James, R-Altoona, praised the collaborative approach of those involved with Solis Circle.
 
"This is what makes Altoona such a great place to live," James told an audience gathered at Solis Circle to celebrate its opening. "We know that what helps people get back on their feet is stable housing."
 
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State Rep. Jesse James, R-Altoona, speaks with Maria Guzman Thursday during an open house at the Solis Circle affordable housing complex in Altoona.  Guzman will be the first resident to live there.
 
Joshua Clements, the Altoona city planner who was involved with making Solis Circle a reality, said the housing project is a response to a community need. Multiple factors, such as an overall housing shortage in the Chippewa Valley and home costs that have risen significantly faster than incomes for low-wage earners in recent years, make affordable housing "a major issue here," he said.
 
Currently, the local rental market has only a 2 percent vacancy rate, meaning available rental units often attract multiple potential renters. With multiple tenants to choose from, landlords can rent to those with more money, good credit ratings and no past evictions. That scenario leaves those who struggle financially or have poor credit or eviction records without access to housing.
 
Subsidized housing programs in the city and county help financially challenged people afford housing, but funding for those programs has been relatively flat for years. Eau Claire city and county public housing initiatives have long waiting lists for those seeking subsidized homes.
 
Solis Circle can't provide housing for nearly all of those who need it. But the project offers affordable homes for at least some, Clements said.
 
Making substantial inroads on affordable housing "has been a tough nut to crack," he said. "There is still a really big need, here in Altoona and across the Chippewa Valley and elsewhere. But this gives us a start."
 
Altoona city officials have contracted with John DeRosa, president and owner of Rental Resources of Eau Claire, to manage Solis Circle tenants. DeRosa has experience working with low-income tenants who struggle to find housing.
 
DeRosa got involved in the Solis Circle project last fall when members of JONAH (Joining Our Neighbors, Advancing Hope) contacted him about helping with it. They also worked with city officials and local builder Cody Filipczak to try to make the project a reality.
 
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Altoona City Council member Andrew Schlafer, left, speaks with John DeRosa, owner of Rental Resources of Eau Claire, about the Solis Circle affordable housing project that officially opened on Thursday.
 
Altoona city officials subsequently hired DeRosa to act as a landlord for tenants at Solis Circle. Eight residents, including Guzman, have been approved for housing so far, and more have applied to live there.
 
DeRosa has a history of helping tenants deemed risky because of low income, poor past credit histories or other issues. The initial housing lineup at Solis Circle can't include too many high-risk tenants, he said, but that number could grow in the future, allowing a "step up" for people.
 
"We need to phase in the risk," he said. "We want to get a good foundation here and get this up and running. Then we can expand the risk."
 
Finding a way
 
The issue of affordable housing in the Eau Claire area gained attention in the spring of 2018, when Altoona Mayor Brandon Pratt made the topic the centerpiece of the annual state of the city address.
 
In recent months Pratt had become aware of the many people who struggle to afford housing and how a growing number of them were winding up homeless.
 
"I thought, man, we need to do something as a city about that," Pratt recalled during Thursday's open house event.
 
So Pratt partnered with other local government leaders to put on public forums to discuss the topic. Those talks led to the formation of the Chippewa Valley Affordable Housing Task Force, a group that sponsored numerous public meetings and released a recent report outlining the status of housing in the region and possible attempts to address it.
 
Pratt, a real estate agent, knew the building at 1511 Devney had been vacant for several years after Country Terrace relocated. A previous plan to redevelop the site hadn't materialized, and he thought it could perhaps be a good site to develop affordable housing.
 
He approached Filipczak about redeveloping the building, and the builder was on board. They, other Altoona city officials and JONAH members discussed the idea during a meeting in September 2018 and agreed to proceed with it. Initial plans called for Filipczak buying the property, remodeling it and partnering with a social services agency to operate it. But doing so cost too much to make that proposal feasible, Filipczak said.
 
"There were so many hurdles to doing this, so many meetings to try to figure out how to make this work," he recalled.
 
f
Altoona Mayor Brendan Pratt, center, discusses the Solis Circle housing project as Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce President Terry McHugh, left, and Altoona City Administrator Mike Golat listen.
 
Then the Altoona City Council voted to buy the building for $770,000 and determined that a rezoning that would have added significantly to electrical costs wasn't necessary. The city fronted that money for the project and will use proceeds from tax increment finance district No. 3, a River Prairie TIF, to reimburse the city for those costs.
 
"The city was able to finance this project in a way I couldn't," Filipczak said. "Their being willing to buy this property made this project possible. It wouldn't have happened without them."
 
Pratt acknowledged convincing his fellow City Council members to purchase the former assisted living center "was a hard push," but council members eventually decided the project was worth backing.
 
Councilman Andrew Schlafer said the city's purchase of the building made the project possible. "This helps fill an important need in our community," he said.
 
Susan Wolfgram, co-chairwoman of the JONAH Affordable Housing Task Force, recalled an Altoona City Council meeting a year ago at which many residents told council members about their struggles to afford housing. JONAH members subsequently knocked the doors of more than 800 homes, she said, inviting people to an open house at the Solis Circle site to discuss the project.
 
With time the project garnered increased backing, she said, prompting the City Council to support it too.
 
"We reached out to the (Solis Circle) neighbors before the shovel hit the ground," Wolfgram said, noting neighbors often are informed about the details of such projects after plans are finalized. "We invited them into that process."
 
That process, Wolfgram said, and the "collaborative model" to make Solis Circle happen hopefully can serve as a model for future affordable housing projects.
 
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Altoona City Administrator Mike Golat describes the layout of one of the newly redeveloped housing units at the Solis Circle project in Altoona.
 
Filipczak said he hopes Solis Circle can spur other similar projects in the region. He got involved with the project because "I wanted to do something meaningful about (affordable housing)." He said he has given nearly $100,000 toward the endeavor and has donated many hours toward the remodeling effort.
 
"To see this project get to this point, to see people be able to be housed here, it feels really good," he said.
 
Pratt reacted similarly. As he stood in the bright, attractive lobby of Solis Circle, he pointed to a mother and daughter touring the building to see if they might live there. He looked at Guzman, visiting with a friend on a nearby couch, and the true meaning of the new building and the affordable housing it provides hit home.
 
"Just seeing her, this makes it all worth it," Pratt said. "That is what this project is about."
 
Guzman knows that all too well. A short while after the ceremony ended, she sat on a couch, beaming, in seeming disbelief at her good fortune.
 
"I still can't believe how lucky I am," she said, a smile creasing her face. "This will be my home."

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