County Manager Column from July 7, 2020

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

Charting a course for economic competitiveness and inclusion

This morning our commissioners — acting as Ramsey County’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority — held a very eye-opening workshop about the role of housing in economic competitiveness and inclusion. Following our Strategic Priority — Comprehensive Economic Development to Build Prosperity — today’s conversation serves as an important step in moving forward alongside our community to implement a vision plan with actions that address current and future needs for affordable housing and reducing racially-based economic disparities in Ramsey County.   

A presentation by our Community & Economic Development department and a number of partners is the result of months of research, data collection and conversation with community. Drawing on the respective expertise of the partners, the presentation provides a comprehensive look at housing in Ramsey County as well as a fiscal health analysis based on property taxes and values. The presentation also begins to identify policy options to leverage efforts underway (such as our post-COVID-19 recovery efforts) and the strength of partnerships that emphasize affordable housing development centered around equity and economic inclusion. Future presentations to the board will focus on other aspects of the plan: job growth; wealth building; and placemaking.

This may all sound pretty wonky, but trust me, the presenters do an excellent job of bringing this together in a way that involves storytelling and images that make it easy to follow. In a nutshell, we have some urgent work to do as a community to address racial disparities with respect to housing access.

I strongly encourage you to watch the presentation for yourself – it’s about 60 minutes long. If you can’t finish it in one sitting, it’s worth revisiting to understand just how this work ties to efforts in every part of our organization – across all Service Teams and departments in one way or another.

Watch the presentation and discussion

If you’re not convinced – here are some details from the presentation that you may be unfamiliar with:

  • Nearly 34,000 of Ramsey County's households live at less than 30% of the average median income – that’s less than $30,000 for a family of four. More than 60% of all Indigenous households in Ramsey County meet this definition, as well as 38% of our African American households. 84% of all households at this income tier pay more than 30% of their income for housing – often making it difficult to afford housing and food, clothing, transportation and medical care (this is referred to as "cost burden").  
  • Among Ramsey County’s cities, average home values are lowest in Mounds View, North St. Paul and Lauderdale, and dramatically highest in North Oaks – with a difference of more than $400,000 according to census figures through 2018. The same figures show that median rent is dramatically higher in Arden Hills than the rest of our cities – at an average monthly rent of about $1,600, that’s more than 1.6 times higher than St. Anthony, Vadnais Heights or Roseville and about 1.8 times higher than Saint Paul. The median rent in Ramsey County was at about $970. Additionally, through 2019, rents across Ramsey County were increasing by 8-10% or more.
  • In Ramsey County, we currently have a gap of 15,000 rental units at the price point affordable by our families earning less than 30% of average median income. Creation of affordable housing is significantly lagging both current and future demand based on regional population forecasts.
  • The legacy of redlining practices and racial covenants of the early 20th century continue to have clear negative economic impacts today on many neighborhoods – particularly in Saint Paul. This Pioneer Press article from about a year ago explains this practice.
  • Every county in the Twin Cities metro (except Ramsey County) has utilized some type of separate levy authority through development authorities to support some or all of its economic development programs including for affordable housing support. 

These are just a few of the facts and hard truths that we face as we build a community-centered and informed economic development plan that uses our organizational resources, strategies, programs and commitment to our vision of a community where all are valued and thrive.      

The good news is that the presentation and subsequent conversation lay out well-reasoned, data-driven and realistic options for the way forward. Please watch the video for yourself for the details, but — spoiler alert! — they focus on:

  • Improving and preserving affordable rents and home prices.
  • Addressing racial disparities among those who are most cost-burdened.
  • Increasing the amount and type of housing options for lowest-income families.

Thanks to Community & Economic Development for their leadership in this area — both within our organization and in the broader region building valuable partnerships and our credibility. It’s been less than two years since our organization has invested in the addition of the director-level position to this department and we thank Kari Collins and her team — as well as our partners — for all their hard work that has brought us a long way in a short time.