The Rochester Post Bulletin asked us to answer the following question in a 90 second video. Obviously you can only scratch the surface on an issue like this so I am providing some more information for those who are interested. Some of this will be repetitive as this is a frequent topic I discuss.
What is the city’s role in addressing homelessness in the community, and how would you change what is being done?Rochester Post Bulletin
I feel that there is a lack of substance in many of the 20 or so answers. Here is a more detailed and substantive answer.
- People who are homeless are human beings who deserve respect, compassion, and should have there basic needs met. I have always fought against policies that would exclude the homeless from public places or criminalize their actions. In the city of Rochester, these policies have been introduced and sometimes passed, but always with my opposition. We defeated a proposal that would have made sitting or lying in the skyway a crime. If you want to see a compassionate response to homelessness you can see the actions of our Public Library Team. The homeless are both welcome and safe at our library. The homeless are homeless because they have no home, there may be many causes but generalization is not helpful.
- This is an issue that requires collaboration between different local governments, the private sector and philanthropy. We should also acknowledge that very few American cities have “fixed” this. Locally, there are 4 governments that that must work together. The Housing & Redevelopment Authority (HRA) is the level of government that must lead on these matters. They have a dedicated tax levy which is intended for these issues. The HRA is largely made up of the county board. Additionally the School District and County are partners in addressing homelessness. When people think about contributing issues such as poverty, mental or physical illness, and addiction it is important that these issues be addressed, however those areas are not directly addressed by cities, in Minnesota the responsibility for these issues largely lie with the County & State. That is not to say that we don’t care, but rather there are other areas for which we are more directly responsible.
- The city must increase the availability of housing. Housing is expensive and new housing is more expensive than existing. One of the issues that Rochester has had is that we didn’t build enough housing. Housing that would otherwise be more affordable went up in price because there was far more demand than supply. To that end we have built many thousands of new units in Rochester. Some of these units are financially structured to be affordable to people earning 50 or 60% of County AMI. While that is lower than market rate, it is still beyond the reach of many. The best local strategy is to ensure that there are enough units of housing to ensure that a general shortage is not driving up prices. We must set a standard that all housing must be safe, healthy, and efficient, but also realize that older housing will generally be more affordable than new. If you think about it like cars, new cars are far more expensive than used, but used vehicles make driving more affordable than if everyone had to buy new. While local governments in Minnesota are not allowed to mandate changes to building codes newer buildings are far more accessible that older. In general developers are going beyond what is legally required for accessibility. Some improvements to the state code would be helpful though.
- We updated our Comprehensive Plan and put density along transit lines. The city of Rochester has taken some big steps to allow more affordable housing. Probably nothing is more important the approving the P2S Comprehensive Plan. Though this update took more than 40 years it made a few significant changes. First, the city will no longer experience uncontrolled growth in areas that are not financially, environmentally, or socially sustainable. While that may make some angry, it also allows us to more cost effectively grow in the appropriate areas. Second, the plan acknowledges there are types of housing that are missing and must be allowed in the community. The creation of transit oriented districts and R2x zoning are a first step to allowing more housing options by right. Lastly, we didn’t just wave a magic wand and create a new community plan, rather we gathered thousands of hours of community input and did outreach to underrepresented voices on what community priorities should be and then created a plan. Everyone from the Superintended of Schools, to Church Groups, to Neighborhood Associations were engaged. After a long battle to protect the equity portions of the plan, it is now the law of the land. A follow on sewer infrastructure study further identified where responsible growth can occur.
- We are updating our zoning to give greater flexibility and housing options. We have already rolled out and mapped new Transit Oriented Development (TOD) and Enhanced Low/Medium Density (R2x) zoning districts, but they are so new that we don’t yet see much of an impact. We are further updating and simplifying our development codes into what is call a Unified Development Code (UDC). This project will be completed in 2021. This will be a monumental change and simplification to building in Rochester. We expect that there will be far fewer residential zones, more easily understood explanations, and greater flexibility. As it pertains to affordable and homeless housing there will be more opportunities to build things like small apartments, accessory dwelling units, and single room occupancy units which are crucial to address homelessness. It is important the these meet basic standards so as to respect neighbors and protect the occupants. The failure to do so has made some of these unpopular in the past. We all have a duty to fight NIMBYism for projects that offer new housing options at transit supportive densities. If you are unwilling to compromise on a dense apartment building located on a busy street or by a major employer, you are adding to the problem.
- We must maximize the usage of available resources and target incentives. This isn’t politics but just good effective government. There are a limited amount of dollars out there to get projects done and our community have been masterful at winning competitive funds. We have been able to get some bonding dollars for hard to house populations largely through the work of the HRA & Olmsted County. This has lead to our under-construction crisis center, and Silver Creek Corner. We also leverage tools like tax increment financing, and incentive approvals to help bring in funds for 4% & 9% Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC). The City has been incredibly successful in landing projects backed by these credits. Through these programs we have created more than a 1000 units and hundreds of millions in investment in my time in office. Lastly we are reevaluating fees and making sure the incentives go to low income housing and not luxury. In general, we have been subsidizing single family largely luxury / market rate development for decades. Recently we made a change in Sewer Access Charges to make sure that new development pays the full costs of infrastructure and does so on a per acre basis. This rewards both density and building in good locations. We used to subsidize everything including McMansions. Now we can instead focus our limited resources on sustainable affordable housing.
- More money in the hands of low income residents. Reduce reliance on the private automobile. This is a big one and there is no easy solution. I supported the raising of the minimum wage despite Chamber opposition from $7.50 /hr. They said is would destroy businesses, I said BS… Since then our economy including low paying hospitality jobs have grown greatly. (At least up to COVID-19, who knows at the moment). Policies that ensure the all people have the financial means to survive (and prepare for emergencies) is critical to ending homelessness in the long run. I also personally believe that based on the current funding and economics we should strive to make fixed route public transit free to use in Rochester. Believe it or not, if Mayo is willing to partner at their current levels, both the city & Mayo may actually see savings out of a free to use transit system. Good public transit along with safe biking & walking routes are empowering to those at risk of homelessness.