BY KAY SCHROVEN
On Thursday, Jan. 18, a ribbon-cutting ceremony took place at Calvary Lutheran Church at 39th Street and Chicago Avenue in South Minneapolis, the conclusion of an exciting and challenging $15 million project. This event was followed by a celebration as the newly transformed property was introduced to the public. The historic structure, built in 1930, would now not only service its congregation and the community but also provide much needed, affordable housing.
As early as 2015 the keepers of the church, known for its beautiful belfry, faced financial challenges. They had a growing debt of $1 million in deferred maintenance. Options were considered and they came down to move, merge or close. Or was there another option? Enter Trellis Management, a nonprofit developer committed to affordable, stable, sustainable housing since 1991. Thus began the partnership between Calvary Lutheran and Trellis. What if the church were to expand its community services while still preserving the congregation and its worship services? Not a completely new idea as Calvary has been involved in serving the community with a long-standing food shelf since the 1980s, in addition to having programs for youth, child care, back-to-school family support, the Urban Arts Academy, and more. Calvary Lutheran has always been guided by the question, “What does the neighborhood need?”
The need for affordable housing is not new, but during 2020, riding the wave of the pandemic and the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd (George Floyd Square is just one block north of Calvary) it became very apparent that the need for shelter was huge and growing. What if part of the church property could be reconstructed to provide affordable housing? This question started the wheels turning and with the assistance of the congregation, the Minneapolis Affordable Housing Trust Fund, Public Housing Authority Section 8, Hennepin County, the state of Minnesota, tax breaks, grants and Wells Fargo, a plan was put in place. Trellis would purchase the property, create rental units and manage them, while also leasing part of the property back to the church so its congregation could continue in place. The negotiated lease is for 25 years with the option of extension, as well as an agreement to control rent for 55 years.
Trellis held meetings in the community to learn about what was needed. In addition to converting the education wing of the church into apartments they would also build additional units behind the church in what has been a parking lot.
Completed, the property now comprises a total of 41 rental units. These units, known as the Belfry Apartments, are termed “deeply affordable,” meaning they are available to those who earn 30% or less of the area median income, which is $26,000 for a single person and $37,250 for a family of four. Rent is based on approximately 30% of income. Sarah Shepherd, president of the church council, reports that all 41 units were rented by late December of 2023, within 16 days of completion of construction. Some units were reserved for those who have been chronically unhoused or are disabled, with Simpson Housing Services assisting with placements. At last count there were 88 on the waiting list.
The new Belfry Apartments are beautiful – fresh, modern and cheery. The units are spacious, with up to four bedrooms for families. The space for worship remains but has been expanded to accommodate additional church events, meetings and services. There is a community kitchen, theater and new freight elevator which supports large deliveries of food coming in for the food shelf. Since April 7, 2022, the church has been on the National Register of Historic Places. Because of this status, it was critical to preserve the historic integrity of the building, including the beautiful stained-glass windows and decorative wood and ironwork. Other aspects of the church had to be overhauled, such as the HVAC system and plumbing.
A century ago the founders of the church took a leap of faith, signing the contracts to support building the church on the eve of the Great Depression. Shepherd points out that “nearly a century later it took a similar act of faith to insure the future for the congregation.”
The Belfry Apartments may be seen as a template for future such projects. The properties at 39th and Chicago may now be thought of not only as sacred space, but refuge, and for some – home.