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What's the right path for HRA?

Jim Bier

The sooner, the better when it comes to creating new housing opportunities in Olmsted County.

That was one of the messages coming out of a Olmsted County Housing and Redevelopment Authority Board's retreat on Tuesday.

"I don't think we can continue to collect HRA property taxes and not have anything to show for another year," board member Gregg Wright said.

The county started collecting a $1.35 million HRA levy in 2016. Since then, funds have been used to cover federal shortfalls and establish some programs, such as the county's new home rehabilitation loan program, but some of the funds continue to sit in reserve.

"We've been in a mode of learning about housing, and we haven't articulated our goals," board member Sheila Kiscaden said as the retreat started.


Following a nearly three-hour discussion, goals began to take shape.

"I think we have direction to take the next steps," HRA Director Dave Dunn said. "That doesn't mean we're firing up bulldozers, but we're taking next steps."

Key among the next steps will be providing the HRA board with potential proposals to develop new housing in Olmsted County while seeking partners in the effort.

Currently, the HRA provides housing support for 2,756 people in the county, with the average household income of $22,400, which is close to 25 percent of the local average median income.

Dunn pointed out the HRA board must clarify who it wants to serve. While board members indicated a desire to focus on the lowest incomes, some noted a benefit to moving up to provide a mix after staff pointed out some higher-priced housing can generate revenue to support low-income housing.

With that in mind, the board tentatively agreed to focus on serving households earning 60 percent of the average median income or less. For a family of four, that would be approximately $52,800 a year.

However, members still voiced a desire to maintain the primary focus on the lowest incomes.

"At the county level, we generally are actively serving the most underserved people in the community because nobody else wants to serve them. That's just the facts of life," board member Jim Bier said, noting that focus needs to remain in place.


Board member Mark Thein agreed, noting the county shouldn't spread itself too thin when addressing housing by trying to tackle low-income and workforce housing, which typically caters to a slightly higher income bracket.

"There's a shortage of both, and I don't think it's the same solution for both of those," he said.

Bier said other entities exist in the community that can drive the development of workforce housing.

"We have limited resources," he said. "We have to partner with people."

Dunn said he expects finding help will be easy once the HRA board clarifies its direction.

"If we tell people we want to find partnerships, I think partners will find us fairly quickly," he said.

Those partnerships could take many forms.

Bier indicated a desire to find developers who could build needed housing with county assistance. "Our future is not in building and operating these things," he said.


Wright, however, said he prefers a partnership that will keep the housing, and future revenue, in county control.

"For anything to be sustainable, you have to generate revenue," he said, noting financial projections predict the HRA levy will start to be consumed by administration and capital costs if the program grows without new revenue.

In the end, the board members indicated a desire to develop new housing, but also showed a desire to be updated on potential opportunities ses to preserve existing housing or help fund other projects.

While staff said they feel they have a clearer picture of the board's goals, board members indicated a desire for information as they clarify goals.

"I think there is still some conversation to be had from what I am hearing," said Community Services quality assurance specialist Michael Garner, who served as moderator for the retreat.

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