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Old Duluth Hotel Sees New Life as Housing for At-Risk Seniors

Offering healthcare and other supportive services, the residence plans to be more than just a place to stay.

By Hadassah Patterson

In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, many cities and nonprofits turned to motels to help house their homeless population and create space for social distancing as shelters became increasingly crowded. Now, one of those efforts in Duluth, Minnesota, is becoming a permanent supportive residence for unhoused seniors. 

The new senior housing residence is in the Downtown Duluth Inn, formerly a bustling 1950s throwback hotel for travelers seeking convenience to nearby attractions. Reddubed the St. Francis Apartments, the residence will offer over 40 units and supportive services. 

The initiative is the result of collaboration from many organizations. St. Lukes Hospital purchased the building in September, and programming will be run by the nonprofit Churches United in Ministry (CHUM), which began as a collaborative between 10 churches in 1973 and has operated an emergency shelter since 1980. Many of CHUM’s staff were at one point without housing themselves, and are well-versed in the needs of others who are unhoused. 

The hotel is currently being renovated with fresh paint and carpet, new locks on the doors and more. The units have a queen bed, microwave, mini-refrigerator and bathroom. Eventually, there could be a community kitchen area where residents can make their own meals and free laundry services. 

The project is expected to cost $2.6 million total. Funding for the collaborative originated with the CDFI Greater Minnesota Housing Fund (GMHF), as part of its Greater Minnesota Health and Housing Initiative. Both the City of Duluth and St. Louis County Housing and Redevelopment Authorities, as well as Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota and Blue Plus, have also contributed. 

CHUM Director of Communication, Marketing and Special Events Molly Lyons, says the organization has been looking for a better way to house the more vulnerable population of Duluth and the broader region for a couple of years.  

“We have people who come from all over the area,” she says. “We wanted to make sure that not only were they housed, but also taken care of as much as possible.”

While homelessness is often stigmatized or ignored, addressing community housing and stability head-on has long-term benefits. One factor often overlooked in community planning is that stable low-income housing reduces healthcare costs for vulnerable populations, as Next City has reported. This in turn decreases the tax burdens to communities, as hospitalizations and care for advanced critical illnesses result from lack of safe housing and preventive care. In short, inadequate housing has a high cost, both for the individuals as well as for the community.

Lyons saw this as a major impetus for the project. 

“There's less and less low-income housing, especially for seniors,” Lyons says. “During the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, what CHUM originally did was work with the City of Duluth to rent out 22 rooms in the Duluth Inn to house any seniors in our shelter and be able to put them in a quarantine setting, to make sure they were okay, because they were at a higher risk for COVID-19. And our former executive director thought it would be fantastic to purchase the building and turn it into housing for low-income adults.”

John Rocker, director of lending at GMHF, says they provided the first mortgage when CHUM acquired the property, before St. Luke’s stepped in to purchase the building. As the original funder, GMHF has made a 20-year commitment to supporting the residence. 

“We're really excited about it,” he says. “One of our strategic priorities is to help end homelessness and house formerly homeless individuals that would otherwise probably be in shelters. ... The project is providing wellness visits and online screenings, so hopefully, it’s not just housing but improving the health of the residents.”

This thought process aligns with CHUM’s holistic approach to the apartments. During the height of the pandemic, CHUM routinely dropped food off at the St. Francis apartments so residents didn’t have to leave their units to look for sustenance. According to Lyons, they’ve also helped connect residents with medical and dental care, file for low-income housing, and even provide transportation and job placements when they can.

“It's not just putting a roof over their head,” Lyons says. 

This article is part of our series, CDFI Futures, which explores the community development finance industry through the lenses of equity, public policy and inclusive community development. The series is developed in partnership with Next City.