By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Earlier this year, the time had come to face the facts: The Cream City Hostel located at 500 E. Center St., was not going to survive the coronavirus pandemic. Countries around the globe were on lockdown forcing travelers to put their plans on hold; in short, it would be a long time before visitors would come to stay in the hostel.
Although the hostel model would no longer be a viable option, hope was not lost for the once vacant building situated between Milwaukee’s Riverwest and Harambee neighborhoods.
RiverBee LLC, a local ownership group consisting of over 40 investors and owners of the Cream City Hostel building, recently announced that the building would be transformed into a cooperative housing complex for Milwaukee residents.
The goal is to provide affordable and safe housing to at least 12 people who may be dealing with eviction once the eviction moratorium ends on Thursday, Dec. 31.
Juli Kaufmann, a managing member of RiverBee LLC and president of Fix Development, said the group wasn’t initially looking to pivot but knew it had to prevent the space from becoming vacant once again and to protect its tenant.
“We’re neighbors and we care about the community,” she said.
The group kept the current COVID-19 environment, the needs of the community and the original spirit and mission in mind, when it considered co-op housing, she said.
Co-op housing is affordable and welcoming and makes room for home ownership down the line, Kaufmann said.
Jerad Tonn, an investor with RiverBee LLC, explained that cooperative housing is housing with a community focus. While each individual or family will have their own bedroom space, the rest of the amenities such as the bathroom, kitchen and living space are shared.
When Tonn heard the idea to pivot from a hostel to a housing complex, he was very accepting of it. It’s good to pivot, especially considering the hostel wasn’t doing well, and affordable housing is good, it gives people access and options, he said.
“We’re not going to have another vacant building,” he said. “It keeps a key intersection more vibrant.”
The hostel, which originally opened in June 2019, will begin its transformation in January 2021 and the plan is to have it ready for residents come spring or summer of that year.
Right now, it is being used as short-term housing.
To make the changes possible, Bader Philanthropies has given RiverBee a $450,000 loan. The loan is a part of Bader Philanthropies program-related investment loans, which recently awarded $9.5 million in grants to various organizations.
Franklin Cumberbatch, the vice president for engagement at Bader Philanthropies, said the group wanted to support the project for two primary reasons.
“The uniqueness of the it first all, and secondly, the need for affordable housing,” Cumberbatch said.
The organization likes to support projects that improve the quality of the neighborhood and the co-op housing model provides folks with a decent place to live, Cumberbatch said.
It is a stable environment for individuals that are struggling.
“It’s a wonderful and really beautiful building,” he said. “It will be wonderful to see activity there.”
Kaufmann said she is particularly grateful to Bader Philanthropies for its support, as its financial support will make easier when it comes to dealing with the bank.
Come January, the plan is to find people who are interested in co-op housing, Kaufmann said. These prospective members will help determine the configuration and rules of the space.
“I hope it’s a whole diverse group in all the ways,” she said.
The project is less about a physical redevelopment and more about the co-op structure, she said. The group is working with Milwaukee Area Cohousing and Cooperative Housing to determine a model that works best.
While she expects there will be some struggles, she hopes to document the process and share it with others.
There’s enthusiasm around this pivot, Kaufmann said. For RiverBee its not just about making a return on its investment but continuing to contribute to its community through innovation and collaboration.