MILWAUKEEPRAIRIE APARTMENTS signals a new way of providing housing in the city.

The 24-unit development is one of the first permanent supportive-housing projects in Milwaukee.

Developed by Heartland Housing, Inc., of Chicago and The Guest House of Milwaukee, the project was completed in 2009, with 10 apartments reserved for individuals receiving support from the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division and five units for individuals coming out of homelessness. The remaining nine units are conventional affordable apartments for residents earning no more than 40 percent of the area median income.

While Milwaukee has had some housing linked with services, the programs were usually off-site. There were few, if any, projects that would be considered permanent supportive housing. That is permanent, independent housing with a full range of on-site programs for formerly homeless or other special-needs residents.

Prairie Apartments is helping change all that. It, along with United House Apartments by Cardinal Capital Management, Inc., and United Christian Church, which opened in 2008, is leading the way for supportive housing in Milwaukee.

The development of Prairie Apartments comes at a time when political support for this type of housing is rising. A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigative report exposed the troubling conditions for the mentally ill in the area and led to calls for change about two years ago.

Local city and county officials established the Special Needs Housing Action Team. One of the group's recommendations was to establish a Supportive Housing Commission to encourage supportive- housing projects.

“Prairie Apartments has illustrated to the whole community how supportive housing can work and be successful,” says Leo Ries, executive director of the Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC)- Milwaukee, who served on the Special Needs Housing Action Team.

A fresh start for residents

The development's mixed population is consistent with Heartland's philosophy, says Andy Geer, vice president and executive director of the nonprofit organization. Heartland Housing is part of Heartland Alliance, a longtime human needs and rights organization. Over the years, the group has built 14 projects and about 1,600 units.

“A healthy community has a mix of people,” says Geer.

The recent development is the group's first outside of Chicago. Heartland is the co-owner and property manager. The Guest House, which is known for operating an emergency shelter, is the other owner and service provider.

“It's a brand-new building, very clean, very quiet,” says resident Wesley Muerhoff, 49, who moved into Prairie Apartments last June, relocating from a Salvation Army shelter. He notes that residents have a fitness room and computer access, and the building is only a few blocks from a hospital. More important, staff members are there to provide counseling and other services.

A carpenter who has done home improvements and other work, Muerhoff recently lost his job. His affordable apartment is helping him to get back on his feet.

He admits that he doesn't know where he would be living otherwise.

Fay Joiner, 50, is another resident. Homeless for about two years, she had been staying at a shelter. “I pray to God every day for a roof over my head,” says Joiner.

She says she became homeless after her mother died and her family lost the house.

Prairie Apartments is giving her a fresh start. Since moving in, Joiner has undergone a hip replacement, something she couldn't have had done while homeless.

“I'm in a stable place,” she says. “I can relax and get myself together.”

A green touch

The new $4.7 million development emphasizes green building products and design, according to Michael Goldberg, Heartland's senior director of real estate development.

An urban infill project, Prairie Apartments starts with the reuse of the previous structure's foundation. The site had once housed an old apartment building that had been turned into a detox center. However, the building had become vacant.

Developers made sure the new structure was built with enhanced insulation and a tight building envelope to minimize heat loss and air infiltration. They also equipped the building with high-efficiency water boilers, windows, and heating.

The project received a $50,000 green grant from LISC and the Home Depot Foundation.

Officials are seeking Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Financing details

Other financing includes lowincome housing tax credits awarded by the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority. The credits generated $3.6 million in equity from the National Equity Fund, Inc. (NEF).

“The partnership that developed Prairie Apartments is unique because it includes an experienced regional developer that has extensive expertise in complex mixed-finance transactions and a local provider with deep roots in supportive services,” says Debbie Burkart, NEF vice president for supportive housing and assisted living. “The deal moved much faster to closing than it otherwise would have had the organizations been working independently.”

Heartland Housing's expertise helped to structure the financing and conceptualize the development while Guest House's strong reputation and established local and state contacts helped to expedite the development approval process so the project could move forward quickly, says Burkart.

Other financing includes $400,000 in Supportive Housing Program funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. HOME funds from the city contributed $305,000. In another sign of local support, the recently established Milwaukee County and city of Milwaukee housing trust funds also provided money.

The Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee provided project-based Sec. 8 vouchers for 16 units.

The financing structure was designed to carry no hard debt, says Geer. Prairie Apartments is a small development serving a low-income population, so it didn't have the ability to take on debt.

One of the other big challenges for a supportive-housing project is how to pay for the services.

At Prairie Apartments, The Guest House provides a case manager and a recovery support specialist, says Executive Director Cindy Krahenbuhl. Milwaukee County is funding the services through a contract with the organization.

The development has made a difference in the lives of Muerhoff, Joiner, and its other residents. Now, developers hope its reach will extend further and help build the case for more supportive housing in the area.

Heartland Housing is working on building its second supportive-housing project in Milwaukee. The 38-unit development is expected to close on financing and begin construction in the spring.