Unity Apartments start-up creates ‘very awkward position’


Its new building name is “Unity,” but so far the owners of 2611 Central Ave. NE have found discord, instead.

Supportive Living Solutions, LLC, a non-profit social service agency, said they bought the building to help disabled people. But city officials say they’re operating illegally, and didn’t do their homework on zoning and city permits.

When the group, headed by Executive Director Vicki Frahm, tried to introduce themselves at the Nov. 5 Audubon Neighborhood Association (ANA) meeting, First Ward City Council Member Paul Ostrow cut them off.

“I’m sure this group is well-intentioned, but they should not have started operating without having proper city approval,” he said. “The city has definitions for supportive housing and assisted living, and this fits that definition.”

He added that supportive housing is only allowed in a C-2 zoning area, not C-1, where they are now. To stay at the site, Ostrow said they would need to have the building rezoned. They would also need a conditional use permit. “This puts us in a very awkward position,” he said. “They’re already open.”

Ostrow pointed out that Stephen Poor, a planning supervisor for the City, had written Frahm Oct. 10 to inform her that she was not allowed to run a supportive housing facility at the apartment building. She had 10 days to appeal the decision to the Board of Adjustment, he added, but she did not do so.

Frahm protested that it is “only an apartment building,” and said they have a rental license from the city. Supportive Living Solutions is licensed by the state health department to provide home care, she added; and most of the residents would be seniors with disabilities.

John Hastings, a former state employee doing consulting work for Supportive Living Solutions, said “many of these people will have mental illness. It is affordable housing, not public housing, although they would likely accept people with Section 8 [vouchers]. This is not a facility, not an institution. It is permanent housing. It’s an apartment building, subject to normal leasing.” He said the tenants have their own units and their own leases.

Frahm said tenants are screened before they move in. “There are no sexual offenses, no high assaultive history. We have customized services for each individual; these services are there to help people.”

When Ostrow asked Frahm if she would work with his office and the zoning department to get the issue straightened out, she said she would.

Who are they?

(Frahm was on vacation last week, and will not return until the end of the month. She referred questions to co-owner Bill Arrigoni, who is her uncle.)

Arrigoni, who did not attend the Audubon meeting, said he co-owns the V.K. Arrigoni company and Supportive Living Solutions, LLC. His mother, (V.K. Arrigoni), who died in 1988, founded the first company 35 years ago. She was a recovering alcoholic who, after completing treatment at Hazelden Treatment Center in St. Paul, decided to found a group home for alcoholics in her own home.

“I literally grew up in the business; I was 13 years old when she started taking people in,” Arrigoni said. When his mother died, they owned V. K. Arrigoni House East, 255 Summit Ave. in St. Paul, and V.K. Arrigoni House West, 508 University Ave. SE in Minneapolis. Both provide supportive housing for men who have been through drug or alcohol treatment.

Arrigoni said that when he and Frahm took over the company in 2001, they were approached by the owner of the Whittier Care Corporation, who wanted to sell. “That’s where we got our exposure to working with people with mental illness. We’ve been able to help a lot of people over the years. It’s a calling in our family.

“I’m really sorry that this [zoning trouble] happened,” Arrigoni said. “It’s something new for us. We’ve been around for quite a long time. The company we acquired had programs already up and running. It’s not like we’re really good at going out and starting up new operations in dealing with the city.

“When we were approaching the time of closing on the building, there were a bunch of mix-ups with the county. The idea was that we were going to work together with the county on that piece, and I think Vicki was expecting that the county people were going to initiate it. When all was said and done it didn’t get initiated. Things got rolling, someone told her a letter was sent out to the community. There was some misunderstanding and the letter didn’t happen.

“We weren’t trying to be sneaky, we thought it was being handled. Sometimes when you’re dealing with this stuff it’s very intimidating. We expected the county to hold our hand and it backfired. I’m really disappointed that we’re looking bad in this.”

Arrigoni said the company has 65 full and part time employees. The Northeast building has 32 one-bedroom units, and they plan to have only one person per unit. The main office will be staffed around the clock, it has video surveillance, and it is a security building. There are 10 people living there now, a mix of men and women. They get their tenants through county referrals, he said; they are people “deemed able to live independently, safe for the community and to themselves, but they may need additional services. You could meet any of them and not know they have mental illness, they are of very normal appearance. When well cared for, they can stay ‘normal.’

“Well, some are a little odd,” he added. “But we don’t want them in the wrong place. There is so little housing out there that’s well cared for, clean and safe. They are vulnerable people who don’t know how to get themselves a better place. It’s a great thing, it’s about the people, and the whole thing has blown up in our face. We want to get it fixed. We hope these people [the tenants] won’t suffer. They need good housing and the ball is rolling. I’m available to anybody who wants to have a meeting. We’re not trying to inflict any harm here.”

The county

Ostrow’s aide, Lorrie Stromme, said that they first heard about the buildings’ change of ownership when ANA president Cindy Schulte contacted their office. Then, they got a letter from the county.

(Schulte said that months earlier, ANA had begun talking to another non-profit developer, Project for Pride in Living, [PPL] about developing the building. PPL found a group that served handicapped people; although they liked the building because it had an elevator, they backed out when they discovered it had the wrong zoning.

Meanwhile, the apartment building’s owner sold it to Supportive Living Solutions. When Schulte found out they had started moving people in without informing the neighborhood, she contacted Ostrow’s office. ANA members also called Frahm, saying they wanted more information about Supportive Living Solutions. Frahm agreed to attend an ANA meeting.)

On Oct. 1, Hennepin County employee Sharon Goldschmidt, sent Ostrow a letter, one paragraph of which read, “a new residential site is in the process of being developed or has been developed in your district. These are homes in which our Aging and Disability Services clients choose to live, where they receive support and supervision from a service provider under contract with Hennepin County or the Minnesota Department of Human Services.”

Goldschmidt’s letter also said that “service providers may have already contacted neighbors to introduce themselves and to minimize any concerns that the neighborhood will experience any sense of change from the inclusion of its new neighbors.” The letter referred Ostrow to Frahm for further questions.

Stromme said she made several unsuccessful attempts to contact Goldschmidt. She finally spoke to Cate DeVaan, Hennepin County principal planning analyst, who told her that Supportive Living Solutions has a home care license with the state and provides customized living arrangements, including meals on site.

DeVaan attended the November ANA meeting. Introduced as a Hennepin County representative, she was one of five people representing the Supportive Living Solutions group. She did not speak, however, and was not asked any questions, possibly because Ostrow’s objections cut the presentation short.

When the Northeaster later contacted DeVaan, she said, “I’m sort of in the middle. I’m not the contract manager. I’ve been working in a consultant role, helping to get several programs up and running related to housing. We assist the initial service area in housing development.” Supportive Living Solutions, she said, has “a Hennepin County contract in aging and disability services.”

“I don’t know a whole lot about the individuals that are there, ages or that sort of thing,” DeVaan said.

She said she was “surprised” about the zoning flap when she first found out about it, “but she [Frahm] has been in contact with the state and has had different city people over there. They received a license for an apartment building. Generally, the county leaves those things up to the developer or provider because they purchased the building.”

She said she hadn’t seen Poor’s letter, and didn’t know about the 10-day appeal process. Supportive Living Solutions, DeVaan said, has “two board and lodges, which is a whole different ball game. They knew they did not need a board and lodge license for this.”

DeVaan added, “There are tons of apartments out there receiving long-term homeless [people] that no one even knows about. They are receiving services, and they don’t all do criminal background checks.

“Hennepin County doesn’t always go out to all the new developments. We’ve pretty much left that up to the provider,” she said. “But we do think this is a great project. There is a high demand for services for people with disabilities. It is a good thing if done right. It’s the least restrictive setting. Staff is not in your home unless you need them. We’ve had good luck with other programs like this.”

She added, however, “We take city zoning seriously. We’re not authorizing any services until they can prove they are in compliance with city regulations.”

Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein said he was not aware that a county representative had attended the ANA meeting. His office should have been notified in advance, he added, and he intends to look into it.

According to a letter Frahm prepared for the ANA meeting, Supportive Living Services LLC has a contract with Hennepin County to provide “customized living services” to tenants who need and request them. “We provide many of these services to persons residing in their own home or apartment…The apartment building and the services a tenant may need are two different situations and are based on the individual,” she wrote.

She listed services offered as: laundry, housekeeping, meals, independent living skills, medication management, health care aid, personal hygiene reminders.

The city

Frahm replied to Poor’s Oct. 10 letter on Oct. 27 (seven days past the appeal deadline), saying “I apologize for not replying to your letter sooner, but I seem to have misplaced it in the confusion of work in the building.”

She added, “We are concerned and a little confused by the [Poor’s] letter. I can understand how you might think that [we are a supportive housing facility] by our corporate name of ‘Supportive Living Solutions,’ but that is just a coincidence.”

Frahm wrote, “We are the owners and managers of an apartment building in every sense of the word…The building was an apartment building when we bought it and we are doing the same use of the building.” She added that each tenant would have a lease and keys for his or her own apartment, and concluded with the sentence, “Please let us know if this is a problem because we have several applications pending and several people have a lease and plan on moving in on the 1st of November.”

Ostrow said a date for a meeting between him, Poor, and Supportive Living Solutions has not yet been set. “We are going to require a complete written summary of programs. Once we have the information, staff will determine if it is supportive housing or assisted living. They can’t continue to operate unless they have proper city approvals.”