Developers looking to create affordable apartments at 520 Payne Ave.

Developers from JO Companies and Newport Midwest are proposing to build a 45- to 60-unit affordable apartment building on the vacant lot at 520 Payne Ave. During a recent community meeting to collect design feedback, neighbors turned the gathering into a discussion about affordable housing needs on the East Side and whether this specific lot would be an appropriate location for such housing. (file image)

Design discussion turns to larger issue of affordable housing


What was originally meant to be a community discussion about the design of a potential affordable housing apartment at 520 Payne Ave. turned into a discussion about affordable housing on the East Side and whether the site was an appropriate location for housing. 

During an Aug. 12 meeting at the Indigenous Roots Cultural Arts Center, affordable housing developers Johnny Opara from JO Companies and Becky Landon from Newport Midwest shared their ideas for an affordable housing apartment building at 520 Payne.

Their intention was to get design feedback from the community, but most visitors at the meeting were more concerned about how the housing would ease the region-wide affordable housing shortage, especially for families with children.

There were also concerns about whether having housing near the busy intersection of Payne Avenue and East Seventh Street was a good idea. 

The idea

Late in the fall of 2018, Landon and Opara were awarded development rights for the lot at 520 Payne Ave., which is owned by the City of St. Paul. Dayton’s Bluff Neighborhood Housing Services had also applied for developer rights. The developers do not yet own the land.

Landon and Opara said they intend to construct a building three to five floors high, with anywhere from 45 to 60 units, depending on the anticipated tenant population and the number of larger units needed for families. The building would also feature underground parking.

The units would be established as affordable housing, meaning that rent rates would be kept at levels affordable for those earning 50% of the area median income — $35,000 for a single person or $50,000 for a household of four. 

Based off current rates, a one-bedroom unit would be about $937 a month, a two-bedroom about $1,125, and a three-bedroom unit about $1,300.

Landon said 520 Payne caught their interest because of its proximity to downtown St. Paul and the jobs that could be accessed, as well as the various types of transportation accessible at the site, like biking, walking and public transit, and the need for affordable housing on the East Side. 


Housing for families

About half the people at the meeting live in the brownstones along Payne Avenue next to 520 Payne, while other visitors came from around the Railroad Island neighborhood and other parts of the East Side.

While the developers went through architectural considerations and had potential design ideas posted throughout the room, many at the meeting were more concerned about how the project will help with the affordable housing crisis.

Kartumu King, an East Side resident, community organizer and a Ward 7 city council candidate, said her main concern was creating more housing for families, especially with nearly 2,100 kids in the St. Paul Public School district experiencing homelessness.  

Other neighbors were worried about young people living and playing near the busy intersection of Payne Avenue and East Seventh, and the bluff into Swede Hollow Park.

Landon said all the buildings she works on include small playgrounds built in a courtyard in the middle of the building, without access to roads to keep kids safe. She said the developers would plan for a similar design at 520 Payne.

Nieeta Presley, who lives in the brownstones next to the site and works as a developer of affordable housing for Aurora/St. Anthony Development Corporation, said she was involved in building multifamily housing near the Green Line and had specific conversations about keeping kids safe near busy University Avenue. 

She said there haven’t been any incidents with children getting hurt near the busy light rail line.

“We have to think about prosperity,” Presley said, adding that there is a great need to build decent affordable housing. “Let’s give it a chance and talk it out.”

Ward 7 council member Jane Prince said the building won’t resolve all affordable housing issues, but it is a unique opportunity to work directly with developers to create the type of housing the community wants.

Other neighbors at the meeting voiced concerns about pedestrian safety and difficulties crossing the road near the intersection, as well as the site’s lack of proximity to amenities like affordable grocery stores. There were also concerns about the proximity to Fire Station 4, which is directly across the street from 520 Payne.

Alexander Bourne, a Ward 6 city council candidate and former Railroad Island neighbor, said he sees Payne Avenue as more of a business corridor and sees the creation of some type of business hub as more appropriate use for the lot, rather than housing. 

Landon said more community meetings about the project will be held this fall. They’ve yet to be scheduled. 


–Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at

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