St. Paul development changes how affordable housing is built

Jim Buchta, Star Tribune on

Published in Business News

David Salmela, an award-winning architect from Duluth, Minn., has a list of people waiting to move into homes he's designed, which can sometimes fetch more than seven-figure prices. So does Seanne Thomas, a Twin Cities real estate broker who caters to entry-level buyers.

While many of Salmela's clients can afford the best design that money can buy, one of his latest is a St. Paul nonprofit that has hired him to design more than a dozen modular, solar-powered houses that are being craned into place on a redevelopment site in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.

With a star architect and high-end materials and construction techniques, the project shatters many of the stereotypes about the quality and character of affordable housing.

"Just because it's affordable doesn't mean it can't be quality," said Thomas, who says buyers have been waiting more than a year for a chance to buy a house in Village on Rivoli, which is among the biggest single-family housing developments in St. Paul in decades.

Thomas, who will market the homes for the Dayton's Bluff Neighborhood Housing Services, has high hopes that the project will help boost housing values in the area and set a new standard for the way affordable housing is built in the Twin Cities.

The houses will be priced at less than $250,000 — a fraction of what most new homes sell for today and a hot commodity at a time when house prices are increasing swiftly as buyers scramble to outbid one another.


During just the past eight years the median sale price of a house in the Twin Cities has doubled to more than $300,000 and options for first-time buyers are dwindling. At the end of February, just 556 houses priced from $190,000 to $250,000 were for sale in the Twin Cities metro — about half as many as the year before, according to the Minneapolis Area Realtors.

The Village on Rivoli project has another mission: train a new generation of workers in a modular housing factory that will replace a vacant warehouse near downtown St. Paul. That effort is being led by Gary Findell, a Twin Cities general contractor who wants to reduce the cost of modular houses by building them closer to their construction site.

"We felt strongly that building these where they're going to be located, and using local labor is a really good thing," he said.

The Village on Rivoli is part of a larger redevelopment project in Railroad Island, a working-class neighborhood that's in the heart of one of the poorest census tracts in St. Paul.


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