One Roof planning two-phase rehabilitation of the Birchwood Apartments
Kirsten Wisniewski

One Roof planning two-phase rehabilitation of the Birchwood Apartments

One Roof Community Housing is a Duluth-based non-profit working on improving access to affordable housing for people in the Arrowhead.

While most of their work is centered in the Duluth area, the group has done several projects in Cook County. Most recently, they have taken on the rehabilitation of the Birchwood Apartments in Grand Marais. Dakota Sol is a housing development manager at One Roof, and he will be overseeing the rehabilitation effort.

Early last year WTIP reported on the condition of the buildings, which had suffered during the Covid-19 lockdown, when regular federal inspections of the apartments had stopped.

In January the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) conducted an inspection of the buildings, since the Birchwood Apartments falls under the USDA Rural Development program. The USDA inspection reports included failing appliances and extensive water damage, which had created problems with mold and rotting sheetrock.

During the subsequent year, One Roof has taken ownership of the buildings, and been awarded $10.5 million from the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency for a complete rehabilitation of the complex. Sol told WTIP that the organization has a plan for addressing the many needs of the Birchwood Apartments.

One Roof is working with Frerichs Construction on the rehabilitation. Sol said that Frerichs has experience with federally funded housing projects, and that the St. Paul company specializes in what he called “occupied rehabs.”

One Roof is planning a two-phase rehabilitation, the first of which Sol described as a “stabilization phase.” He said that the initial phase will address more immediately some of the major needs for the complex, like replacing the chronically leaking water mains, and renovating the units that are currently empty because they have been deemed too damaged for occupation.

Sol said that by Spring of 2025 they hope to be on to the second phase, which is the “occupied rehab” phase.

He said that in this part of the plan each of the occupied units will undergo the renovations and repairs it requires. Sol listed appliance replacement, kitchen and bathroom renovations, and window replacements for individual units. In addition, this phase includes projects for the entire complex, like updating the boiler system, replacing the roofs and siding, and improving insulation. Sol said that One Roof conducted a needs assessment, and they hope to be able to address as many of the identified needs as possible between the two phases.

The planned scope of the rehabilitation is extensive, but Sol said that he is confident that partnering with Frerichs will mean that the Birchwood’s current residents will experience as little disruption as possible. He said that their needs are being factored into the planning, and that he doesn’t believe that any tenants will need to completely relocate while work is being done on their unit.

The choice to do a full-scale rehabilitation on the buildings, instead of tearing them down, was also part of considering the needs of current residents and the larger community. According to Sol, the Birchwood Apartments are the only subsidized affordable housing available to families in Cook County. Through USDA Rural Development, residents pay 30% of their income as rent. Sol said that had One Roof proposed tearing down and replacing the buildings, the complex would likely have not qualified for the rural development support through the USDA, and the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency may not have awarded One Roof the funds for the project.

Sol said that he appreciated the way that the community has prioritized the project and shown so much concern for the state of the buildings. He said that while there is still a lot of work to do, there is a clear path forward.

He added a message to the Cook County community, saying, “You know, there’s definitely going to be some, I’m sure some, you know, stumbling blocks along the way, but trust that it’s moving in the right direction, and that that it’ll become really good housing again.”

While Sol did not give an official timeline, he told WTIP that they are hoping to start phase one of the rehabilitation in the coming months.

WTIP’s Kirsten Wisniewski spoke with Housing Development Manager Dakota Sol from One Roof Community Housing about the planned rehabilitation of the Birchwood Apartments in Grand Marais. Audio from that interview is below.