County Manager Column from July 14, 2020

This column was originally published as a "From the County Manager" column on our employee intranet.

New housing office will bolster our approach to homelessness

From the County Manager

Over the past two years as County Manager, I have written about homelessness and our Strategic Priority – Stability Starts with a Place to Call Home – in this space several times. Prior to that, I worked closely with the community and staff on a day-to-day basis to address service delivery for those without homes as Deputy County Manager of Health and Wellness. Whether it’s been standing up the Winter Safe Space or extending it to a year-round facility; our ongoing partnership with Catholic Charities around their Higher Ground facility; the success of the RUSH program in helping those who are most dependent on shelter; enhancing our hoteling programs; up through all of the work we’ve done to house people safely during COVID-19, my focus and message has generally been 95% about service delivery – helping people in the here and now that turn to Ramsey County in a moment of great need.

The remaining 5% of the message has generally been about how we continue trying to work with partners and lawmakers to address the undeniable affordable housing crisis "at the other end" of the homelessness issue. This is all a continuum, and if there are no homes available for those facing housing instability, our community response efforts will remain reactive, repetitive and unresolved. If you watched the video of last week’s board meeting or read this column, it may have stood out for you that we have a deficit of 15,000 rental units for what would be considered affordable for the 34,000 Ramsey County families earning less than 30% of the average median income.

As an organization, we’ve learned a lot of things during COVID-19 and many of the lessons have come in this area of housing and homelessness. Under our Incident Command System, the Homelessness branch has been one of the busiest. The team has done so many exceptional things under a great deal of pressure – sometimes with the full support of - but sometimes in spite of – our partners’ efforts. Waiting for the state, for example, to take an appropriate level of responsibility for this pervasive issue, which by definition is without city or county borders, just hasn’t worked in a timely manner. We find ourselves at a period in our organization’s evolution when it is both necessary, sensible and right to stand up a Housing Stability Office.

We discussed such a proposal today at the meeting of our board of commissioners and now have a way forward that aligns with our 2021 budget and advances our strategic priority.

Watch the video

Based on the board’s feedback today, planning is underway to establish a new Office of Housing Stability within the Economic Growth and Community Investment Service Team beginning in January 2021. This work builds on the plan to establish this office as a part of the 2020-2021 budget, and takes the great planning and community engagement efforts of our organization and seeks to transform it into reality. The Office will consolidate all county housing services and programs in one organization and be laser-focused on the cross-connections throughout the entire organization and into the community that will ultimately be important to successful outcomes. Further, the financing and development of housing infrastructure will be consolidated within the Community & Economic Development department which is also within the Economic Growth and Community Investment Service Team. The goals of the transition include:

  • Aligning all resources, funding, staffing and programs along the housing continuum - Emergency Housing > Supportive Housing > Subsidized Housing > Long-Term Stability within one Service Team.
  • Aligning housing efforts with our Economic Competitiveness & Inclusion Vision Plan.
  • Reducing and eliminating racial disparities in housing and homelessness.
  • Serving as a collaborative partner with community members, planners and other housing service providers.

The Housing Stability Office will consolidate budgets and resources related to existing contracting, grants, staff, property management and related functions. For many years, we’ve provided services through various areas across Health and Wellness and developed our staff expertise there. We will need to continue to leverage that expertise and build new partnerships as we enhance our focus on providing the necessary housing options to move those experiencing homelessness into stable and sustainable living situations. In fact, we wouldn’t even be able to discuss taking this next step were it not for the dedication and commitment and groundwork laid by those in Health and Wellness (Financial Assistance Services and Veterans Services especially) over a period of many years. Having worked closely with community and staff on this issue has given me a great deal of confidence that we will be able to bring the best ideas and lessons forward to support a complete solution to housing and make improvements in an area that we all agree needs continued improvement and investment.

Thanks so much to our leaders at all levels who have worked on this difficult issue to bring us to this juncture. We’ll need to continue drawing on and building on the success, trust and credibility they have earned for Ramsey County in this area as we take the next necessary step to provide a complete and realistic plan to the crisis to house our community adequately.

You can expect to see several more discussions of this critical issue in the months ahead.