Aging Minneapolis church gets new life as affordable housing near George Floyd Square

Published 5:55 pm Friday, January 19, 2024

By Matt Sepic

Just a few years ago, Calvary Lutheran was on borrowed time. The church, built in 1930, and its adjacent midcentury Sunday school building had racked up a million dollars in deferred maintenance.

But now, the aging church in south Minneapolis is transformed into dozens of affordable homes for people with modest incomes.

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City leaders on Thursday cut the ribbon on the Belfry Apartments near George Floyd Square. Not only does the project provide much-needed housing, but the church’s congregation also gets to stay and has a newly renovated worship space.

Things were looking bleak for the church congregation before it was repurposed.

Funds were dwindling fast, and they were down to few options, said church council president Sarah Shepherd.

“We could move, we could merge with another congregation, or we could close,” she said.

But Calvary did none of those things. Shepherd said the congregation wanted to stay put at 39th Street and Chicago Avenue to continue its social outreach work, including the food shelf that it’s operated for decades.

The church connected with the Minneapolis-based nonprofit developer Trellis, which promised to build apartments for people who earn 30 percent or less of area median income. That’s $37,250 a year in the Twin Cities for a family of four.

Calvary’s founders signed the contracts to build the church on the eve of the Great Depression. Nearly a century later, Shepherd said ensuring a future for the congregation took a similar act of faith.

“We made the decision to sell the entire campus to Trellis when we did not have a plan for ourselves and we didn’t know where to go.”

The nonprofit funded the $15 million project from sources including tax credits, the Minneapolis Affordable Housing Trust Fund, and Public Housing Authority Section 8 vouchers.

Talicha Whitmore grew up a few blocks away from Calvary Lutheran. The 51-year-old has worked for more than 20 years at a school cafeteria in Bloomington. Whitmore moved back with her mother a decade ago when the cost of living outpaced her paycheck.

“My wages weren’t going up, and everything else was,” she said.

Whitmore was out for a walk recently when she spotted the construction underway. She said at first, she thought it was luxury apartments, but called the number on the sign anyway.

Things moved quickly after that. She got a call back the day before Thanksgiving and got the keys to her new apartment a week before Christmas. Whitmore said she and her 10-year-old daughter Brooklyn are still getting settled.

“I’m still moving things from my mom’s house because [Brooklyn] has lots and lots of toys,” Whitmore said.

Whitmore is one of 41 new tenants in the Belfry Apartments. Half the units are in the church and the old school. The rest are in a new building next door. Fifteen are reserved for people facing homelessness or who have disabilities.

Workers made long-overdue renovations to the sanctuary. During the week, it’s a community room for tenants. The Calvary Lutheran congregation leases back the space on Sundays. The church’s food shelf remains too, and now has a freight elevator that can accommodate full pallets of donations.

Council Member Andrea Jenkins, who represents the area, said the project received no pushback from neighbors. She also notes that after George Floyd’s murder in 2020 a block away, activists made key demands of city leaders, including affordable housing in the neighborhood.

“And not just affordable housing, but we want deeply affordable housing, and that’s what we have here today,” Jenkins said.

Mayor Jacob Frey said the city has made great strides in building affordable housing in recent years, but much work remains.

“This is a tremendous step in the right direction, and we need more deeply affordable housing in this city and throughout the region,” Frey said.

Leaders of the nonprofit developer Trellis said they’re hopeful that the Belfry Apartments will serve as a template for future projects and inspire others to follow in their footsteps.