Home at last, in Hawthorne

Keyondre (9), Kamryn (8), and Zaniah (5) pose for a photo in their new kitchen inside the Hawthorne EcoVillage Apartment building.  Photo by Megan Nickel.

Keyondre (9), Kamryn (8), and Zaniah (5) pose for a photo in their new kitchen inside the Hawthorne EcoVillage Apartment building. Photo by Megan Nickel.

The new Hawthorne EcoVillage Apartments are providing a safe place for hundreds in North Minneapolis.

By Mathias Durie | ContributorAdditional reporting by Shayla Norgaard, Megan Nickel, Antonio Simmons and Talina Hill

Thumping feet and screeching voices echo off the hardwood floors and bare drywall of the three-bedroom apartment located on the corner of Lyndale and Lowry avenues. The aroma of Sarpino’s pepperoni pizza lingers as Donia Caldwell pleads with her three kids – Keyondre (9), Kamryn (8), Zaniah (5) – to begin their homework. Instead, she watches the kids take turns attempting to wear out the floors of their new home. With each lap down the hallway and back to the living room, they display a new outfit for the rest of the family to see. 

Five years ago, Caldwell lived in a homeless shelter with no space for a family fashion show. She spent four months there, caring for her two sons and 2-month-old daughter, who suffered from asthma attacks. Then she lived in an apartment that got burglarized. Her TVs and computers were stolen. From there she moved in with her boyfriend at the time, but the relationship grew toxic, forcing her to move in with her mom. She was one of 27 people living in the house; her kids were three of the 11 children there.

After years of bouncing around, Caldwell has hope for stability. On Nov. 20, she signed a lease and moved into a three-bedroom apartment in the new Hawthorne EcoVillage Apartments with her three kids.

Donia Caldwell signs her lease.  Photo by Mathias Durie.

Donia Caldwell signs her lease. Photo by Mathias Durie.

The Hawthorne EcoVillage Apartments is a 75-unit, workforce, affordable-housing apartment building created and maintained by Project for Pride in Living (PPL). Workforce housing requires residents to be making at or below 50% of the area median income. According to the Metropolitan Council website, the median income for Minneapolis is $90,000. The project began in 2010 as one solution to Minneapolis’ affordable housing shortage. After years of planning and 13 months of construction, it has the potential to house 224 people. All 75 units are leased, and all residents will be moved in by the end of January.

The EcoVillage Apartments is part of a larger neighborhood redevelopment project PPL continues to work on in the Hawthorne neighborhood of North Minneapolis. PPL has been working to fill up a four-block radius with high-quality affordable housing and this project is just the latest installment. The project cost roughly $18 million and received funding from 16 partners, including the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization, Hawthorne Neighborhood Council, City of Minneapolis and Hennepin County.

Caldwell grew up in the neighborhood. She walks the streets of her childhood with her kids and points out where she once got bit by a dog, a spot that reminded her of a boy that she used to pick on because she had a crush on him and the corner where her brother got jumped. Caldwell is not worried about raising her kids in this area as she says she has seen significant improvement since she roamed these same streets as a kid. 

"Hawthorne residents said ‘we don’t want to just fix the problems, we want to attract people to our neighborhood,’” PPL Project Manager Abbie Loosen said. “We found that with our for-sale housing, half of the people that buy are already North Side residents and half are from somewhere else that are attracted to the North Side by the housing opportunities here."

When she first applied to live in the EcoVillage Apartments, Caldwell said her application fee got returned because her income was lower than the requirement set by PPL, which requires residents to meet a minimum income to ensure they can afford their home.  However, in June she started working as a personal care assistant to qualify. 

“I got to shouting and praising,” Caldwell said about her reaction to getting accepted into the building.

PPL reports it has safeguards in place to ensure families have the financial support they need to be successful in their new residences. According to Jake LeFaive, the EcoVillage site manager, PPL works closely with residents to ensure they are on track to pay their rent every month. They will also work with anyone struggling with finances and point them to resources that can provide help.

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Another focus of the building is to promote healthy living and eco-friendliness. Building amenities include a fitness room, bike storage room and green roof. A water tank under the playground collects rainwater that can be reused. Unlike many apartment buildings, the stairs are located in the lobby and the elevator is around the corner to encourage people to take the stairs. Despite all these features, the thing Caldwell is most excited about in her new apartment is the dishwasher. She has never had a dishwasher.

Now that she has stable housing and employment, Caldwell says she plans to get more involved in her kids' education. Caldwell also wants to help her kids work on respect, something she says they have struggled with in school. 

“I respect everybody as long as they respect me,” Caldwell said. “That’s what I try to instill in my kids.”

Since the family moved into its three-bedroom apartment, Caldwell has already noticed improvements in her kids’ behavior. She has received far fewer calls from their school about her two sons misbehaving and hasn’t received any calls regarding Zaniah.

Caldwell’s kids, one of whom has ADHD, have fallen behind in school during the time the family had been on the move. The kids’ grades dropped. They threw temper tantrums, disrespected teachers and started fights with other kids. Caldwell believes the lack of stability in the family’s housing helped cause these problems. One of her goals now that she has stable housing is to focus on getting her kids back on track in their education. 

Caldwell is a member of the Northside Achievement Zone and through that program she has learned how to advocate for her kids within the school system. She also has them working with the Washburn Center for Children to help with the behavioral problems.

“I used to be the type of person where I wouldn’t ever ask, I figured you had to make everything happen for yourself,” Caldwell said. “I went to go live in the shelter, that’s when I learned how to start asking for help and that’s how I started finding out about all these resources.” 

After the final slice of pizza was gone, Donia played “How Far I’ll Go” from the Moana soundtrack through her speaker as the kids practiced the lyrics for their school’s performance.  They used the living room to choreograph their dance routine, consisting of twirling from Zaniah and head spins and moonwalks from Keyondre and Kamryn.

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Kenzie O'Keefe