Local Habitat for Humanity proposes affordable veterans housing

Jan. 22—EAU CLAIRE — A two-story wing of seldom-used classrooms attached to Grace Lutheran Church, 202 W. Grand Ave., may become housing for local veterans.

Chippewa Valley Habitat for Humanity lined up to receive a $1.14 million grant through the city that would allow the charitable organization to buy the church wing and start its conversion into affordable housing.

"It is going to be exciting. It is going to be exciting for Eau Claire, it's going to be exciting for the veterans," said John Dawson, executive director of the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity.

The grant money is coming to the city through part of the American Rescue Plan Act, a federal COVID-19 pandemic recovery package that was created by Congress in early 2021. The $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package included $5 billion specifically to help communities provide housing, services and shelter to homeless people and other vulnerable populations. (Eau Claire did also already get $13.5 million from another ARPA program and has allocated that money toward other uses.)

With the $1.14 million, the city specifically sought to help out veterans that are homeless or are at risk of becoming so. And instead of using the money for rental assistance or other temporary aid, the city sought a way of permanently boosting the local affordable housing stock.

"Rather than take $1 million and allocate it toward something nontangible, we wanted to create something specifically for that population for housing development," said Keith Johnathan, manager of the city's Housing Division.

A public hearing on the funding proposal will be part of tonight's(Monday) Eau Claire City Council meeting, but a vote on the grant isn't scheduled until Feb. 14. That decision is being made before a March deadline to inform the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development of how it will use the funds.

The local Habitat for Humanity's proposal to revamp the church classroom wing was the lone proposal the city received.

In addition to buying the building wing, the grant money would also be used for asbestos abatement, installing an elevator and upgrading utility lines so new bathrooms and kitchens could be created.

Following that, the local Habitat for Humanity would do what it's best known for — rallying volunteer labor and getting materials that are donated or discounted — to complete the conversion of old classrooms into new housing units.

When each unit is completed will depend on the availability of labor as well as securing candidates to live their and financing to fit them.

In the charity's initial application, it anticipated completing a few units each year with the whole conversion finishing in about three years.

Plans are still in the works, but Dawson said it appears the building wing could be turned into 10 to 14 units. There is a basement in the building, which would be used as a community room for residents living there.

How the individual units would be owned or rented is among details to be worked out. As the future residents are veterans, they would be eligible to a variety of government assistance programs available to former military.

The idea of turning the church wing into veteran housing began about a year ago when a member of the charity's board of directors mentioned how Grace Lutheran was mulling what to do with excess building space, Dawson said.

Pastor Phillip Ruge-Jones of Grace Lutheran Church said the congregation there is smaller than what it once was, leaving a good portion of its building complex seldom used.

Like other churches in a similar situation, Ruge-Jones said Grace Lutheran has been considering ways to turn excess building space into something that would serve the community.

"We've been looking for ways to repurpose that space," he said.

Added onto the church in 1961, the classroom wing had been used for Sunday school and other gatherings in the past. Now the rooms are occasionally used by local religious groups and local boy scouts use the basement for meetings.

However, Ruge-Jones said that there are still other rooms in Grace Lutheran's building he hopes can accommodate those users when the church would part with the classroom wing.

"We're still keeping two-thirds of the building," the pastor said.

No Mow May

Allowing lawns in Eau Claire to grow shaggier during spring as a way to help out pollinating insects will be addressed at this week's council meetings.

Part of a campaign called "No Mow May," the city will consider delaying enforcement of an ordinance that requires residents to keep lawns no taller than seven inches.

Currently that ordinance is enforced between April 1 and Oct. 31, but a proposal would delay the start date to June 1.

A public hearing will be held during tonight's(Monday) meeting prior to the council taking a vote on Tuesday afternoon to change the ordinance.

Other business

Also during this week's meetings:

—Several street projects planned this year will be subject to public hearings tonight(Monday) before the council votes on them during Tuesday's meeting. Portions of Fairfax Street, North Hastings Place, the South Hastings Way Frontage Road and several alleyways will be addressed at these meetings.

—Seeking a state grant to help improve electrical infrastructure in Phoenix Park will be discussed by the council on Tuesday. The city is mulling an application for up to $50,000 from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.'s Vibrant Spaces program to pay for installing new conduit, wires and electrical access at the park. Business groups active in the downtown area have expressed their support to provide matching funds for the state grant.