Duluth plans to give away land to spur innovative affordable housing projects

The saltie Federal Margaree passes under the Aerial Lift Bridge
The saltie Federal Margaree passes under the Aerial Lift Bridge in Duluth just after sunrise on Nov. 28, 2018. It was in the Twin Ports to pick up a load of grain.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News 2018

The city of Duluth plans to give away vacant lots to encourage the development of more affordable housing, to help put a dent in what Mayor Emily Larson calls a housing “crisis.”

City officials announced the effort on Friday, saying they’re looking for developers, builders, or interested residents to put forward plans to build housing on those 19 lots spread across 13 sites within the city's urban core.

“The idea is we are seeking developers and creative thinkers who want to put forward ideas of what could go on that land for infill housing that is already on water lines, transportation lines, and within neighborhoods and communities for which these lots are ready to be activated,” said Duluth Mayor Emily Larson.

The 19 lots are valued between $5,000 and $15,000 each; they’re currently owned by the city of Duluth, the Duluth Economic Development Authority and the Duluth Housing Redevelopment Authority.

Many are narrow and have other building challenges. Larson said some are recent tax forfeitures, or had run-down homes that were demolished.

"It can be a challenge to take all the existing variables and make the math work on a site,” she said. “And so part of what we’re trying to do is change the math equation, and to remove some of that initial sticker price that would maybe prevent somebody from looking at that."

City Planning and Economic Development Director Adam Fulton said the city wants to foster innovation in affordable housing design.

"We’re a city built on a hill, and we’ve got difficult soil conditions, lots of bedrock, and those things sometimes make the cost of housing more expensive,” Fulton said. “But we recognize we have lots of spaces available within the city."

Fulton said so-called "tiny houses" would be a good fit for some of the lots.

Initial applications are due by Jan. 2. Officials stress that final designs are not needed at that point, only concept level drawings.

Duluth officials say they have a need for new housing options for people at all income levels. Several market-rate apartment buildings have been built in recent years, with more planned, including a high-rise on Superior Street that will be geared toward doctors and other health care professionals at nearby hospitals.

But less progress has been made in building more affordable housing.

“This is one way that we can take a very creative and unique approach to being part of solving our affordable housing crisis,” Larson said.

The main goals are affordability and innovation.

“We’ll see,” Larson said Friday. “We’re just as curious as you are about what projects we’ll be seeing.”

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