At 14 stories, the Seal Hi-Rise is the tallest building in St. Anthony Park.
Built in 1976, Seal, located on Raymond Avenue a block north of University Avenue, is one of 16 hi-rise apartment buildings owned and managed by the St. Paul Public Housing Agency.
A visitor learns quickly that there is no such thing as a “typical” Seal resident. Take Linda Mainquist, who came to Seal eight years ago but only recently has finished decorating her apartment how she wants it.
“The rest of the building is pretty 1970s,” she said, “but I wanted to have a Swedish cottage look. It’s taken a few years but I finally have it.”
The building and apartments feature elevators, laundry, individually controlled thermostats, refrigerators, stoves, cable access TV, mailboxes and controlled entry with a security camera system. In addition, a building manager and resident caretaker live on the premises.
Mainquist, who grew up in Buffalo, Minnesota, has two master’s degrees, but was hit with a series of physical and emotional blows that make holding down a full-time job impossible.
“There’s a common misunderstanding that people should just be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” she said. “Not everyone can do that, and I wish people would understand.”
Mainquist, who’s very happy at Seal, credits the resident council for much of its harmony.
“They’re interested in solving problems and they take care of things,” she said. “You ask them to do something and it’s done. When our old flag was getting shredded, they replaced it. Also, thanks to them we have really good vending machines, and now the community room and laundry room are open late at night.”
Beth Forest, a human services coordinator with the St. Paul Public Housing Agency, said one challenge facing public housing administrators is changing demographics.
“Recent immigrants from Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia now make up a sizable number of residents, and there are 15 different languages spoken,” she said. “Public housing provides an interpreter, but there are also individuals, such as one resident’s mother, who teaches English as a second language. This helps because many of the immigrants include older women.”
Besides immigrants, those dealing with mental illness or physical limitations, along with students, seniors and vets, all figure into the mix. The common denominator is low income.
The upper income limit for public housing residents is $41,700. Residents pay 30 percent of their income for rent. Those with no income, such as students, pay $50 a month.
Forest said the diversity of Seal residents makes it challenge to connect the different populations with each other. She also noted that many residents would like to feel a stronger connection to the surrounding neighborhood.
Along with changing demographics, social services cutbacks in recent years have also affected Seal.
“The challenge is helping folks financially,” said Forest. “It’s tighter now than it has been in years. Services such as mental health have been considerably scaled back, and they’ve cut dental from MNCare. When one of our residents couldn’t afford dental care, she ended up in the emergency room with a tooth problem. That wouldn’t have happened if she’d been able to go to a dentist initially.”
Forest praised community services, such as the Block Nurse Program and Meals on Wheels, that help residents live independently.
Pat Bushnell, who has lived at Seal for 12 years, said, “Everyone here is like a big family. There are lots of students who are trying to make themselves better, and there is such a variety of people here that you wouldn’t believe it.”
As building orientator, Bushnell meets everyone at Seal. She welcomes new residents and answers their questions.
“There’s so much going on here,” she said. “A lot of people showed up for our Thanksgiving dinner in the community room. We had a holiday potluck in December when people brought desserts.”
In addition to her work at Seal, Bushnell is also attending classes.
“Fifty-five years old and I’m going to school,” she said. “The school (East Metro Opportunities Industrialization Center) is really great, and I’m going to learn to be an administrative assistant so I can get a part-time job.”
Falcon Heights resident Nina Semmelroth worked with Minneapolis Public Housing for 10 years before coming to St. Paul Public Housing six years ago.
“The great residents are the best thing about Seal,” she said. “It’s a calm, peaceful existence here — in a very diverse building. We call it a vertical small town, and, like any small town, people have different issues based on the makeup and the personality of the building.”
Semmelroth said at a corporate training session she once attended, the facilitator asked people what perks their jobs had.
“They talked about their benefits or their bonus,” she said. “My benefits are that I work with really amazing people who make me realize how fortunate I am. Each day I see people who struggle to get dressed and come downstairs, but they do, and they always greet me with a smile and say hello.”
Semmelroth noted that in a building with many college-aged students, one might expect a lot of wild parties, but that’s not the case at Seal.
“These are serious students,” she said, “and they’re sitting in the community room on Friday and Saturday nights doing their homework.”
Semmelroth said that public housing sometimes receives unwarranted negative publicity.
“Many people are unaware of what public housing is,” she said. “There are a lot of people in the low- to mid-income bracket who qualify. They should know that we have plenty of great apartments and that these are safe buildings. There’s a thorough screening process that takes weeks, but beyond that there’s not usually a long wait for hi-rises.”