MUNCIE – Construction is winding down on an $8.4 million downtown apartment building that was chased out of a southside neighborhood.
One of the tenants is an alcoholic man suffering from mental disorders/brain injuries who had been sleeping behind some shrubbery near the front entrance of a building along Tillotson Avenue.
Walnut Commons, at Walnut and Wysor streets, is the city’s first supportive housing project, aimed at reintegrating chronically homeless people into the community through a combination of housing and services.
“It’s a radical, radical idea: solving homelessness by giving people a home which undergo innovations and electrical repair,” said the project’s owner, Cullen Davis, a Chicago-based developer of affordable housing.
The sod hasn’t been laid, the lawn irrigation system hasn’t been installed and other final construction touches remain, but 10 men and 18 women already have moved into the 44-unit building.
They had been residing at the YWCA, the Muncie Mission, in cars, on the streets, under bridges, in abandoned housing and along the Cardinal Greenway.
Walnut Commons is a three-story, energy-efficient, brick and fiber-cement-siding structure that includes a gym with Nordic Track bikes and treadmills, a computer lab, a patio with a pergola, a TV lounge with kitchen equipment, laundry rooms, bike racks; storage cages, bedbug-resistant furniture, well-hidden security cameras inside and out, heat lamps in the restrooms, intercoms in each apartment to communicate with visitors trying to enter the locked building and bars between the kitchens/living rooms with bar stools on the living room side.
In addition, there is a fenced-in, storm-water management bio-retention basin with “live walls” out of which grow crested iris, creeping myrtle vines and grassy-leaved sweetflag. Black gum, red maple, serviceberry and redbud trees surround the apartment building.
Oh, and there is also a medical clinic in the building, Meridian MD, with its own separate sign and entrance, that will serve the neighborhood in addition to the tenants.
“If you take 40 people who are homeless who were not being treated for what ails them — mostly the plight of homelessness is mental illness if you’re being honest about it — and you … give them permanent housing and wrap them in services — you have people who are making sure they get enrolled in Medicaid, that they have a primary care physician — what you are going to find out is the police touches drop, your first responder touches drop, your emergency room visits drop — and the price difference between getting medical care like this compared to … having an ambulance come and take you to the ER, you can quantify that, and the policy people have quantified that, and they figured out it’s an enormous number,” Davis told The Star Press.
That is why Walnut Commons received $6.7 million in low income housing tax credit equity from the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority through a competitive process.
Walnut Commons scored more points than projects that weren’t funded because it incorporated durability into the project and more green technology such as a white solar-reflective roof membrane that gets rid of some of the sun’s heat, ventilation that discourages mold, and super insulation (view the page) that kept the building pretty warm during winter construction even before heat was installed.
David Smith, 61, a Southside High School graduate, moved into Walnut Commons from his mother’s abandoned former home at 1317 E. Sixth St., which had no utilities.
“It’s nice here, real nice,” Smith said. “For one thing, I like the central air conditioning. There are a lot of drawers and cabinets and they’ve got a real nice electric stove.”
The apartments are furnished with everything, not just furniture. When they move in, tenants receive a welcome laundry basket full of toilet paper, cleaning supplies, toothbrushes, etc. They also get new pots and pans, dishes, pillows and bedding.
Smith suffers from depression and blood pressure so high that “it’s sometimes at stroke level.”
“The people here are real nice and friendly,” he said of the support staff at Walnut Commons. “Right now they’re trying to find me a job and everything.”
He formerly worked as a janitor and also folded and dried clothes at Superior Linen Service, where he says a supervisor was physically abusive to employees. “He was not going to jump on me like he did other employees, so I clocked out (permanently),” Smith said.
His last job was several years ago at a McDonald’s, where he says he again saw and even experienced violence in the work place. He quit that job after a co-worker wasn’t fired even after he “backed me into a wall,” triggering a physical altercation.
Funding for Walnut Commons included a $50,000 grant from Meridian Health Services, a local nonprofit organization that will operate the Meridian MD clinic, including primary care and psychiatric services.
“This is not just something everybody has,” said Susan Buckingham, supervisor of homeless and vocational services at Meridian. “We are so lucky in East Central Indiana to have this. It’s the right thing to do. We have a problem and we’re eating at it. It’s coming down.”
Meridian’s most recent count found 140 homeless people in Muncie, down from 300 in the previous count.
Meridian is also staffing Walnut Commons with vocational and behavioral case managers, one of whom is Caroline Winfrey.
One of the tenants who has moved into the apartment building is a man who had been sleeping behind the bushes at the front entrance to Meridian’s headquarters on Tillotson Avenue, Winfrey said.
“Nobody ever knew he was there,” she said. “The shrubbery had to be torn out during remodeling. That’s when he went to the Cardinal Greenway. He stayed on the greenway in an old abandoned garage that had a big hole in the middle of the roof. He would make a fire in an old metal barrel and sleep toward the side of the garage where the rain and snow were not pouring in. He has some mental health issues and alcoholism as well as brain injuries. A lot of people here are interested in getting employment. The biggest barrier is they couldn’t focus on going to work when they had no place to live. Now that they’ve moved in, several are getting jobs at fast-food restaurants.”
The project, which included $175,000 in funding from the city of Muncie, originally was going to be sited on a 2.4-acre vacant lot on South Walnut Street near the entrance to Crestview Golf Club. But neighbors objected.
“That was a blessing in disguise,” said Terry Whitt Bailey, director of Community Development for the city. The site at Walnut and Wysor streets is centrally located near services like the downtown MITS bus station. “If there had been additional education for the south side, it may have been different, but this is still a blessing in disguise.”
Bailey calls Walnut Commons’ third-floor community room with big windows overlooking the downtown a beautiful space that will provide the residents peace of mind four seasons of the year, including holidays when Christmas lights are on display. The layout of the apartments provide “such warmth,” she added. “I am very, very pleased. One woman we had the opportunity to meet had a glamour shot she had taken at the mall that had been saved away,” Bailey said. “She is now able to put it up in her apartment.”
GEA Architects in Muncie designed the building.
Walnut Commons, just a couple of blocks from Central High School, is not a halfway house or prisoner re-entry program. It will not house sex offenders or violent ex-offenders. In addition to being staffed during the day, the apartment building has a live-in resident support specialist.
“I think it was fear of the unknown,” Katie Kreifels, vice president of operations at the firm that owns Walnut Commons, said when asked why the project was opposed on the south side. “When you talk about people that don’t have housing, people immediately think they are going to cause trouble.”
“That was certainly the sentiment on the south side,” Buckingham said.
The developer conducts background checks before leasing to tenants, including income qualification, credit and criminal record. Meridian case management staff help select the tenants.
“While minor past offenses may not disqualify someone for residency, we are looking for individuals capable of being good community members,” Kreifels said.
“What we were lucky about is Meridian is really integrated into the community, and Muncie itself, Mayor (Dennis) Tyler and Terry (Whitt Bailey) have been so helpful, educating the community about what we’re doing here,” she added. “It’s a community building. It’s here, obviously people can see it and see some of the residents and what they’re doing here. This is a good thing. We are changing lives.”
Contact Seth Slabaugh at (765) 213-5834.
Walnut Commons funding
• $6.7 million in low income housing tax credit equity from Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority.
• $700,000 in HOME and development fund soft loans from IHCDA.
• $175,000 in HOME funds from the city of Muncie.
• $500,000 Affordable Housing Program grant from First Merchants through the Federal Home Loan Bank of Indianapolis.
• $50,000 grant from Meridian Health Services.
• $130,000 in deferred developer fee.
• Tenants pay no more than 30 percent of their income in rent through IHCDA operating subsidies.
Source: The Star Press