Last year, 71-year-old Maria Munteanu received the Christmas miracle she had been praying for. When Munteanu learned she and her 74-year-old husband had been accepted as tenants at Hilltop View Apartments, a new affordable housing community in Dexter, she says she felt that "God decided to help one more time."
After having lived decades in Michigan, where they raised kids and helped raise grandkids, the elderly couple's life circumstances at the time meant that they were poised for a possible return to their homeland of Romania.
"It was a very, very tricky situation because we had to find an apartment," Munteanu says. "We had just months on a contract. Nowhere could we afford a payment, so we thought maybe we had to go away. I had been praying and dreaming of a better situation, but we have no income. The letter was just in time."
Maria Munteanu in her apartment at Hilltop View Apartments.
Munteanu's rent at Hilltop View is only $600 a month with utilities included. It's been affordable on a pension, and the peace she's had has been priceless. She has been thinking a lot about Christmas because she now has the option to have her kids and grandkids gather around her dining table at Hilltop View.
"Sometimes I think this is a dream," she says. "How is this possible?"
Munteanu is far from the only one to be impressed by Hilltop View. This October, the community received a Charles L. Edson Tax Credit Excellence Award from the national Affordable Housing Tax Credit Coalition
(AHTCC). The community, which opened in June 2022, took home honors in the Housing for Veterans in the Armed Services category. The national recognition is a significant win for those behind the initiative: the social services nonprofit Faith in Action
(FIA), the city of Dexter, and affordable housing nonprofit Avalon Housing
Maria Munteanu and her husband Vasile Munteanu in their apartment at Hilltop View Apartments.
"It's also a win for Hilltop's residents and all Dexter residents," says Avalon's executive director, Aubrey Patiño. "... This is an honor that recognizes developments that strengthen communities."
The Edson Award applauds affordable housing initiatives and organizations that have used the federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program to make an impact in their communities. Hilltop View provides 24 apartments to veterans, formerly homeless individuals, and low-income residents of Dexter. Six units serve veterans, nine apartments shelter housing-insecure families, and nine apartments offer income-based affordable housing. A community center, playground, and on-site supportive services – such as a food pantry and counseling services provided by FIA – make the housing initiative nationally noteworthy.
"It's a good example of creating a long-term solution to homelessness," Patiño says. "We're proud that we could work with our partners across the county to bring more neighbors home, particularly when it's out of homelessness."
"A place to land"
Craig Rafail, an FIA case worker who works at Hilltop View, says "there is magic happening" on site. He shares part of an impact story he wrote about "Ben" (name changed for the tenant's privacy), a formerly homeless veteran whose body had been "ravaged" by numerous war injuries and consequent surgeries.
"He manages to bring his strained body the 100 yards to the food pantry … where he comes for nourishment for his body and heart," Rafail says. "He visits over an hour each time, and volunteers look forward to being with him. … He often touches our hearts and brings us to tears."
Rafail confides that, aside from visits to the food pantry, Ben generally preferred to keep to himself. Recently, there has been a transformation. For many months the former combat vet has been hospitalized and fighting for his life. But he calls Rafail regularly to update him on his healing — and his anticipated release date, which has been delayed several times already.
Wendy Carty-Saxon, Craig Rafail, and Sarah Shugart at the Hilltop View Apartments' food pantry.
"We noticed how much Ben misses home. He can't wait to just be home," Rafail says. "He's no longer a homeless veteran."
Sarah Shugart, FIA's executive director, shares that there are several veterans with "some fairly high medical needs" who now benefit from the safety net that Hilltop View provides.
"It's been a place to land where they are able to pay more attention to taking next steps without the heavy concern about being out on the street or in a shelter," Shugart says. "It's a consistent safe home base for our recovering veterans."
Rafail says all of Hilltop View's residents are healing in some way.
The Hilltop View Apartments' community building.
"They're all coming from extreme challenges in their lives – whatever that may be," he explains. "It could be a psychological disorder, a tough upbringing, or maybe they're coming in from homelessness."
He adds that Hilltop View's food pantry has been a perfect entry point to healing. Open to Hilltop View tenants and Dexter residents alike, it also serves as a safe space where trust and community is being built one interaction at a time.
"The pantry itself is what gets them here so that we can establish a relationship with them," Rafail says. "They see the caseworkers pretty much living there every day. They know they're safe and valued when they see us, and some come to the pantry for more than just food."
"Stepping stone" to Hilltop View
Avalon and FIA have previously teamed up to make affordable housing a reality for some county residents via a rehab of the longstanding Sharon Ann Apartments in Chelsea. Completed in 2018, the 17-unit property near downtown Chelsea initially required a complete renovation that was achieved through a mix of public and private funds – the biggest source being the LIHTC program. Similar to the arrangement at Hilltop View, Avalon developed and manages the property, while FIA acts as a service provider.
"The smaller project was kind of a stepping stone to doing something bigger and more dramatic and impactful," Shugart says. "Homelessness and affordable housing are real issues in our county and we need to keep working to address this crisis."
Wendy Carty-Saxon, Avalon's director of real estate development, recounts that FIA reached out to her organization again when FIA was searching for a permanent location for its food pantry. The organizations approached the city of Dexter to purchase the land and, in time, the trifecta navigated Hilltop View's creation together.
Avalon Housing Director of Real Estate Development Wendy Carty-Saxon.
"We're grateful for the city's support. There was a lot of input from the planning commission to really make sure we were recognizing the aesthetic and needs of the community that we're in," Carty-Saxon says. "We designed to that and I think we really did a very nice job in presenting a design that fits really well within the community."
Avalon's Patiño says Hilltop View's award is a nod to the power of built environments. Hilltop View units are designed with high-quality finishes and the details are cheerful and modern.
When developing the Hilltop View apartments, for example, the partners already understood that something as simple as high-quality flooring that doesn't easily wear and tear can make a big difference for families. Avalon also knew that stacked flats and townhouse designs work better for families, giving each tenant their own independent entrance.
Hilltop View Apartments.
"We were both trauma-informed in our design and thoughtful about the practical needs of our tenants moving in there," Patiño says. "With every development we get feedback from tenants, property management, and caseworkers about what people can really benefit from. We take those lessons with us and build on them."
While the brick-and-mortar foundation of Hilltop View may be completed, both Patiño and Shugart share that some heavy lifting is still needed as they build community. The housing project has also been the center of local controversy, with safety issues
being cited by some Dexter residents.
"We're broadly committed to continuing to give the best care and support to our tenants. In doing so, we hope that we can reduce the concerns of our neighbors," Patiño says. "We want to serve as a model for communities across the country to address the affordable housing crisis, and we appreciate the award bringing awareness to this impactful development.”
Jaishree Drepaul is a freelance writer and editor based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at email@example.com.
All photos by Doug Coombe.