Combatting the housing crisis from all angles

Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega

County Perspectives
Combatting the housing crisis from all angles

In the Ramsey County government, we have been addressing the housing crisis for decades. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the number of people experiencing homelessness – and many of them are still navigating these challenges today. 
Over the past year, the county invested millions in providing food, counseling, and finding long-term and short-term emergency housing for people who are experiencing homelessness in our communities. In the process, we added more than 500 beds to the shelter system.
When the pandemic hit last March and social distancing became critical at shelters, we knew that we would need to move quickly to create additional capacity within our system. We worked with the City of Saint Paul and other partners to identify vacant and underutilized buildings that could be converted into shelter space, including two in my district.
Ramsey County is currently leasing Bethesda Hospital from M Health Fairview as an emergency shelter for those experiencing homelessness through spring 2022. The facility – which opened in December 2021 – offers more than 100 beds and 24/7 services provided by the Salvation Army. I worked closely with neighbors and other organizations to improve the security provided by M Health Fairview and develop a neighbor-led working group that interfaces directly with law enforcement.
In March 2021, the Project Home family shelter at the Provincial House opened and began serving approximately 20 families with children experiencing homelessness. Located in Highland Park, the building was previously used as offices and a residence for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet for nearly 100 years. (Since the residence closed in 2010, the site has been underutilized.)
Project Home at the Provincial House, paired with the shelters at synagogues and churches (which will all re-open post-COVID), could significantly reduce or even eliminate the waiting list of families seeking shelter. And I deeply appreciate how Highland Park and Mac-Groveland residents have welcomed these families and this facility with open arms.
This additional shelter space was critical to ensuring that everyone in Ramsey County had access to a warm bed during the winter. While summer is in full swing, we are already thinking ahead to our next winter and anticipate a continued and urgent demand for shelter space. Our priority remains having enough beds available for everyone who chooses to come inside.
Emergency shelter is a short-term solution. We are always working to pursue longer-term solutions that connect shelter users with stable housing, and we remain focused on expanding access to more permanent and affordable housing. In addition, we are also actively pursuing a variety of solutions at the state and federal levels, including supporting legislation that allows organizations to build and support “tiny houses.”
Perhaps most crucial for our ability to expand future housing supply is a new 2020 Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) levy to preserve and create more affordable housing for Ramsey County residents. This would provide another long-term resource to address the existing housing crisis. An HRA levy in Ramsey County could raise up to $11.5 million each year, while only adding an average of $45 to a median property’s annual property tax. This would seed many future affordable housing developments.
Much still needs to be done. With an emergency as immediate and challenging as the housing crisis, no single initiative can solve the problem on its own. I am proud of the work Ramsey County continues to do to combat this challenge from every angle.
Please contact me with questions or ideas. I always appreciate it.

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